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Our Black British history is being sanitised. Guess who that benefits

Black History Month is too American and puts too much focus on a narrow group of people. Here’s what’s missing

Noah Anthony Enahoro
30 September 2022, 4.25pm
Asquith Xavier, who fought the 'colour bar' to become a guard at Euston Station in 1966
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Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

October 2022 marks 35 years since Black History Month was first celebrated in the UK. The brainchild of Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, it has been used as a way to celebrate, commemorate, and acknowledge Britain’s Black population and history.

“Something had to be done to make the Black child believe in themselves,” Addai-Sebo wrote in a CNN piece in 2020. “What stirred in me was the urgency of creating a permanent celebration in the UK of Africa’s contribution to world civilization from antiquity to the present, and especially its contribution to the development of London, and the United Kingdom.”

Thirty-five years later, it is the main method by which children and adults across the country learn about Black British history.

Despite the many positives, there are noticeable weaknesses that undermine Addai-Sebo’s original intentions. The Americanisation of Black History Month, especially in schools, and the overuse of entertainers and sportspeople are two of the most glaring.

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I witnessed first-hand the Americanisation of content when attending an exhibition at an east London school. The centrepiece of the display featured Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, citizens and inhabitants of the USA.

Teachers also notice this problem. Priscilla Boonin, a Year 6 teacher in Hackney and the humanities and diversity, equity, and inclusion lead at her workplace, told me: “The curriculum’s ambiguity towards Black history means teachers have to go out of their way to bring it up in class, and a lot of colleagues and primary teachers I’ve spoken to have all told me that a lot of the material provided is mainly Black American history.

“The curriculum and material provided should have Black British historical material. We absolutely must teach our children about the likes of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Nelson Mandela, but there needs to be a balance.”

Concentrating on American figures rather than British means people are not being taught about the significance of Britons like John Kent, Britain’s first Black policeman, Asquith Xavier, who fought against the colour bar to become the first non-white guard at Euston station, Mary Prince, who became the first Black woman to publish an autobiography in England, and others who have shaped the fabric of our nation.

At the same exhibition, the only Black Britons on display were sports stars and entertainers. Black British history is often portrayed through the prism of sportspeople and entertainers, pushing the idea that Black people are good for sports and entertainment, but little else.

The question arises as to who benefits from Black British history being taught the way it is? One answer could be found in the institutions and individuals whose wealth and power are derived from slavery and colonisation, as well as the institutions and individuals who benefit from Britons deriving only pride in their past.

No institution in Britain profited more from slavery and colonialism than the British monarchy, and no individuals more than the senior members of the monarchy. The slave trade was instituted under Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. She commissioned John Hawkins to kidnap Africans and sell them in the Caribbean. Under Charles II the crown directly financed the African slave trade. The royal family were the owners of the Royal Gambia Company, the Royal African Company, and the Royal Adventurers Company, all of which ran and profited greatly from slave trading operations. Under the Stuarts, slavery was seen as a way to overtake the Dutch as the undisputed masters in the Atlantic Triangle.

At the time of the Industrial Revolution Britain had an empire, and the empire’s slave labour generated much of the wealth of Britain.

The Treaty of Utrecht gave Britain the monopoly over the Atlantic Slave Trade, further lining the pockets of the British monarch for decades to come. That wealth was passed down from monarch to heir, recently passing from Elizabeth II to Charles III.

Of the 54 modern African nations, 21 were part of the British Empire, and only three had full or partial independence when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953. Eighteen African nations were part of an empire that Elizabeth ruled over, directly profiting from being what was in effect an empress.

An accurate teaching of Black British history would paint the British monarchy in a dark light, as it would reveal all the horror, genocide and pillage that occurred in its name and for its profit. It would also reveal the numerous establishment figures whose family wealth can be traced back to slavery, such as former prime minister David Cameron, former minister Douglas Hogg, and the non-executive chair of ITV Peter Bazalgette. Many of the most powerful figures in British politics and public life have wealth derived from the buying, selling and breeding of their fellow human beings, and thus have a vested interest in the “whitewashing” of British history.

Britain derives great pride from her role and economic success during the industrial revolution. Teaching, art and popular culture tends to focus solely on the development of infrastructure with little mention of where the funding for it came from.

At the time of the Industrial Revolution Britain had an empire, and the empire’s slave labour generated much of the wealth of Britain.

The United Kingdom abolished slavery throughout its empire in 1834. In compensation for their lost ‘property,’ Britain’s 46,000 slave owners received a settlement worth £17bn in today’s money. Of these 46,000, just over 3,000 lived in the UK and owned 50% of all slaves. A disproportionate amount of the compensated money stayed in Britain and was invested in Britain’s infrastructure, especially in the railways.

The UCL Legacies of British Slave-Ownership Database includes 487 railway investments made by 175 slave-owning individuals, accounting for over £4.4bn in today’s money. Despite this, the role of slave money in establishing the British railway system goes unmentioned in Industrial Revolution histories. Similarly the establishment of the City of London depended on ‘slave money’, as did the building up of the docklands. Britain’s leadership of the industrial revolution and resultant prosperity was built on slave money.

There are powerful individuals, institutions, companies and interests with a personal stake in having a sanitised version of Black British history being taught and publicised. We must use the month of October as a way to push back against narratives and propaganda that has been entrenched in Britain’s retelling of history.

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