This article is part of a series from Backbench’s editorial team which examines this year’s Black History Month from the angle of ‘making history’. The opinions expressed in these pieces are those of the editors themselves, and do not necessarily reflect Backbench’s stance as a whole.
When Lilian, Backbench’s deputy editor in chief, came up with the idea of looking at history in the making this Black History Month, I thought she’d really hit on something very relevant.
Black History Month as a concept has always raised issues – why should there just be one month for Black history? Surely Black people’s stories and heritage ought to be embedded in our broader understandings of history, rather than confined to a single occasion? And isn’t it problematic anyway to try to shoehorn a people’s history which has often been marginalised and excluded into the very system that so often excludes?
I think these issues are all connected to the broader question of what history is – what it has been and what it should be. This Black History Month, I like to think that we are looking forward, and trying to go some way towards wrestling with that question. I like to think that we are challenging the idea of history as some staid, static force that is (quite literally) confined in the past. Because I think that if this year has shown us anything, it is that history can be made and unmade, revised and unrevised. And I think that this Black History Month is the time to reflect precisely on how we can make history work better in the future – how we can make it more honest and more inclusive.
Recent analyses of the UK’s history curriculum have shown that it is sadly lacking. Fewer than 11% of GCSE history students are studying modules which refer to Black people’s contributions to Britain. Fewer than 10% are studying modules which refer to the British empire. That the UK’s history curriculum needs urgent reform should be no surprise to us anymore, but we do also need to recognise that reforming the curriculum will only go some way to allowing us to change the way history is used by society.
The contributions of modern Black Britons to society are significant. Many are remembered for their important roles in fighting injustice. Those like Paul Stephenson who led the Bristol bus boycott and Claudia Jones who founded the Notting Hill Carnival are rightly remembered and celebrated for their work to tackle unfair systems and challenge discrimination. Such figures are often lauded for having been ‘on the right side of history’.
But this year, maybe we should challenge ourselves to try a different way of thinking about history. Looking at history in terms of the binaries of good and bad, right and wrong has often led to the creation of narratives which ignore the complexity of specific historical events and the people who were part of them.
Take Winston Churchill, a figure whose controversial nature has recently come to the fore. Though lauded in British history books and often presented as a hero to those studying history in the UK, Churchill’s part in defeating the Germans in the Second World War does not erase the atrocities that he sanctioned elsewhere throughout his political career. Though Churchill undoubtedly helped bring down a genocidal dictator, his policies exacerbated the Bengal famine of 1943, during which three million people died. And consider also his creation of the Black and Tans, a paramilitary force which supported the British Army during the Irish War of Independence. This force was prone to gratuitous violence and its behaviour actually turned English public opinion at the time against the British Army’s role in Ireland.
Yet none of these complexities feature in a typical British education on Churchill. Instead, he is typically presented as an unequivocal hero.
The reasons for this, like all historical knowledge and interpretation, are complex. British history books are certainly guilty of glorifying this country’s history, ignoring the negatives and hyperbolising triumphs. But we also operate within a system where history itself is too often a product of false narratives which turn the past into a story of villains and victors at the expense of veracity.
So, this Black History Month, I urge you to think a bit differently about what history is. Consider the contributions of Black Britons, not simply as examples of people striving for justice against a backdrop of injustice, but as historical and present happenings that do not sit within a binary narrative.
Of course, so many Black Britons are pioneers in the fight against injustice, but we cannot continue to make the mistake of structuring history in a way that has previously created thousands of false idols, and many millions whose contributions and lives have never been properly examined.
To rectify this, we don’t have to change what we do or the struggles we fight, but we must change the way we talk about events, and the way we document occurrences. Making history lies as much in the hands of the historian as in those of their subject.
Historians aren’t just people who write books or appear on TV. With our increasing connectedness through social media and online platforms, it is up to all of us to document and discuss what we see with honesty, candidness and circumspection.
To make history work better for us going forward, we must change the way we make it.