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.
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.
John Agard, ‘Checking Out Me History’, AQA Moon on the Tides Anthology/ Youtube
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)
Miranda Kaufman, specialist on the African inhabitants of the Early Modern Western World.