‘Checking Out Me History’, My Muddled Thoughts on History in the Classroom.

Today I had the joy of stumbling upon a brilliant poem by John Agard whilst working my day job as an English TA. The poem not only stroked my history grad ego (it’s always nice to look at a piece of literature and know a little about the figures mentioned) but also captures in its essence why I believe that everyone should know their history. Before I prattle on too much here is the poem read out by the man himself:

Why have I suddenly fallen for this piece? There’s a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s because this poem relates directly into a debate that’s been rumbling on for a while now. What subjects do we pick for the history curriculum in the post-colonial world? Mary Seacole was recently threatened with deletion from the primary school curriculum. Soon after Benjamin Zephaniah talked openly of black student’s being turned off by history. In a tit-for-tat atack Chris McGovern (head of the H.A.) claimed students and parents are bored of ‘slavery’ and ‘deprivation.’ The black parents he had talked to in Lewisham he said would prefer a more ‘Old Etonian’ view of the past. I, white girl that I am, live a couple of postcodes over from Lewisham and you may have guessed side with Zephaniah. The first suggestion for my Black History Month Film Club this October? Roots. The first topics the kids in my after school history club suggested studying? Racism, civil rights and colonisation. There were no calls for ‘Hitler and the Henrys’ in Camberwell.

'Rewriting History' Ross Asquith, guardian.co.uk 14th January 2013

‘Rewriting History’ Ross Asquith, guardian.co.uk 14th January 2013

This brings me onto why I love the poem. In fact one single anecdote will explain it. One student, who usually sits at the back of the class, on hearing the name ‘Nanny de Maroon’ was overtaken by visible pride. Her hand shook violently above her head before she burst out ‘…SHE WAS HALF GHANAIAN HALF JAMAICAN LIKE ME!’ This outburst was followed by another student incitefully proclaiming that we learn about Nelson and not Shaka the Zulu because the Zulu’s were once the enemy. This poem triggered not only some great language analysis but historical insights. It took me until 18 to realise I’d never learnt Irish history, even though we live in Britain, because there are aspects of it that make the English look really bad (Croke Park, 1916 anyone?) These girls are two years ahead of me!

In 2009, I attended a debate upon the subject of the curriculum and colonialism filled with experts and it got heated. One panellist’s cries of differentiating the curriculum to each child’s individual experience was met with a collective round of sighs. Don’t teachers have enough to do without catering to 30 kids respective backgrounds? Another panellist retorted. I don’t profess to have any answers. What I do know is that the idea of reducing the National Curriculum to Kings and Queens and key white, English figures is a disservice not only to BME students, but to us all. In John’s case in researching black history he found figures symbolic of pride, bravery in the face of adversity, intelligence and defiance. Such figures prove you can make something of yourself, rise from nothing and fight through adversity. Learning solely about Nelson and Waterloo? Dick Whittington? Henry VIII? To me that says kids, if you want to get anywhere, you best be born above middle class and white. In an increasingly multicultural society, is this the curriculum we want?   That year eleven class’ reaction today was a testament to how powerful learning about your history, learning about your people’s story can be. If it is impossible to diversify the historical curriculum, I hope at least we take time to encourage pupils to research their heritage in their own time. I currently do that after school.

Sources:

John Agard, ‘Checking Out Me History’, AQA Moon on the Tides AnthologyYoutube

Teachers TV Televised Debate, ‘Multicultural Britain and the National Curriculum’ (Winter, 2009)

Hannah Richards, ‘Zephaniah Warns “Black Children Turned Off By History” ‘, BBC News (October, 2012)

Related Links:

Miranda Kaufman, specialist on the African inhabitants of the Early Modern Western World.

Black History Month UK

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At least I’m not…

‘At least I’m not translating the King James Bible into Algonquian’ my Academic Advisor once stated to our Colonial American seminar during the process of re-drafting his latest book. So in my anxiety relating my future, my family and life who am I happy I’m not? What historical undertakings am I happy I’m not groaning under the pressure of right now as I sit here in my pyjamas in a post-final exam state of catatonic laziness?

1. ‘At least I’m not…’ in East Anglia in the mid-1640s

Matthew Hopkins stands surrounded by witches naming their familiars in a seventeenth-century wood cutting.

Matthew Hopkins stands surrounded by witches naming their familiars in a seventeenth-century wood cutting.

Hammed up by the horror hero Vincent Price in the cult classic Witchfinder Generalthe real horror lies in the true story of the East Anglian witch-hunts. Beginning with the torture and interrogation of one-legged older lady Elizabeth Clarke in Essex, her shocking sleep-deprived confessions of meetings with the Devil and suckling imps sparked a witch-hunt that claimed the lives of hundreds of men, women and children across Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Essex and Norfolk.

Have you ever had a fight with your neighbours? With a friend or loved one? Have a pet or ever been seen near an animal? Have a predisposition towards speaking your mind, cursing or being a little odd or eccentric? A little worse off than your peers? Then East Anglia in the seventeenth century was not for you. From ‘schollers fit for Cambridge’, to older marginal ladies, to the litigous eighty-year-old Suffolk Parson John Lowes, nobody seemed safe from the sinister perambulations of the self-titled ‘Witch Finder General’ Matthew Hopkins and his assistant John Stearne.

You can stand trial and see whether you would be found guilty of witchcraft over at the BBC History Magazine website, or see if you could survive trial in the hysteria of the emergency court of Oyer and Terminer at Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 over at the National Geographic.

2. ‘At least I’m not…’ Anne Boleyn

A tired looking Anne Boleyn collapses on entry to the Tower, comforted by weeping lady-in-waiting in a nineteenth-century romantic re-imagining.

A tired looking Anne Boleyn collapses on entry to the Tower, comforted by weeping lady-in-waiting in a nineteenth-century romantic re-imagining of the events of May 1536.

The year is 1536 and the month is May, after three years of marriage and ten years (depending upon historian) of a cat-and-mouse game waiting for Henry to discard his Spanish wife, Anne Boleyn sits in the Tower awaiting execution. In a cruel quirk of fate she spent the last days of her fall imprisoned in the rooms that had once been sumptuously adorned for her Coronation; her greatest moment of triumph framing her utter destruction.

I cannot imagine the horror, pain and fear Anne would have gone through in her final moments.  During her imprisonment the Queen’s emotional state oscillated between dry humour, and hysteria to dark dejection and weeping. She famously joked with her jailer Sir William Kingston that she had but ‘a little neck’ as she clutched it within her small hands and giggled. She would tell her ladies too she would go down in history as ‘La Royne Anne sans tête’, Headless Queen Anne. A remarkable incite considering the future prevalence of ghost stories regarding the tragic Queen.

Why most of all am I not glad to be Anne Boleyn, other than brutal death? The delays in her execution allowed for her to begin to believe that Henry would forgive her, sending her into exile as he had done Catherine. Whilst the fact Bluff King Hal spent the day of her execution playing tennis and became betrothed to his next ‘sweteharte’ and Anne Boleyn’s former Lady-in-Waiting Jane Seymour within a day of her being laid to rest in that too small arrow chest has to sting!

Dipping your toes into the life of Anne Boleyn? I recommend a perusal of the Anne Boleyn Files or On the Tudor Trail.

1. ‘At least I’m not…’ in James Town in 1609 – 1610

The less attractive, non-disneyfied, real face of seventeenth-century adventurer Captain John Smith.

Rumours of cannibalism have lingered around the early English settlements in Virginia since the dry humour of seasoned soldier Captain John Smith (yes he was real, yes he knew Pocahontas, no they weren’t in love – she was a child) described in his works a particular delicacy amongst the New World colonists – ‘Powdered Wife.’

The first men who arrived under the banner of the Virginia Company in 1607 were piteously unprepared for the New World. Doting on ‘mines of gold’ to their ‘utter undoinge’ as the good Captain wrote in 1631, the men spent their time scrabbling for glittering rocks and not crops, realising their fatal mistake come winter. The worsening period from 1609 – 1610 has become known to history as ‘the Starving Times.’

Chaos prevailed with violence, disease, summary executions and political instability rife. Men ate roots and dogs before finally boiling their boots and belts desperately eating the softened leather. Historians have poo-pooed the idea that the colonists were desperate enough to eat their own, classing Smith’s tale as the wry sedition.

You can imagine then the shock, when archaeologists recently found this, the skull of a young woman they have named ‘Jane’ found with marks symptomatic of butchery hidden in a rubbish heap. It appears post-humously (I hope) Jane had the flesh scrapped from her face and her brain removed, probably to be eaten. Perhaps John Smith’s ‘powdered wife’ was no joke after all? Whilst the results of the investigation are inconclusive, I would much rather be in my bed in Norfolk with some M&S brownies then supping on boots and early modern brain in a colony that had become hell on earth.

Of course there are a million other historical figures and contexts I would rather not be in, but these three popped from my recent Undergrad. Are there any historical places, peoples or times you are glad you are not? I’d love to hear from you.

Sources:

Armstrong, Catherine, Writing North America in the Seventeenth Century (London, 2007)

Ewen, L’Estrange, Cecil, Witchcraft and Demonism (London, 1933)

Gaskill, Malcolm, Witchfinders: A Seventeenth Century English Tragedy (London, 2005)

Ives, Eric, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (London, 2004)

Middleton, Richard, Colonial America: A History (Oxford, 2003) 

Starkey, David, The Reign of Henry VIII: Personalities and Politics (London, 1985)  etc., etc.