Sarah Pett

Early Career Researcher and Teacher (SOAS)

History Matters: A Long Overdue Report

This post began life back in April as a report on/response to History Matters, a day-long event hosted by the Institute for Historical Research, aimed at discussing the relative lack of black history students and teachers in the UK. My tweets and those of others (including Nathaniel Coleman) are storified here, from which you can see that I was only able to attend the second half of what was, by all accounts, an important and thought-provoking day. It was a busy time of year, both personally and professionally, and I wasn’t really planning to write about it, if only because I was neither centrally involved in its organization nor particularly well acquainted with the many issues raised. This short report on the day, which appeared in the Times Higher Education (THE), changed my mind.

To the vast majority of those who attended, the obstacles discussed over the course of History Matters were not just familiar, but a central thread in the fabric of everyday life, for generations. This post is not for those people. Instead, it’s for people like me, with little to no first hand experience of these obstacles. It’s for people who don’t realise that the doors they walk through at each stage in their education are narrower than they seem, and particularly for people who, having walked through those doors, find themselves in the position of trying to shepherd others through. More specifically, it’s for white people who work in the humanities, at both university and school levels.

Though cursory, the THE coverage makes some attempt to summarize the key points raised in presentations and discussions. What it doesn’t do is communicate effectively and with passion the reservoir of knowledge and experience that drove History Matters, nor the many coping strategies and pathways for change that participants sketched out. With any other event this would be disappointing. With an event like History Matters, however, it’s hard not to read such dispassion as a symptom of a much wider problem. In its failure to adequately capture what happened at the IHR, the THE report epitomizes the tendency of mainstream academia (a field that is both ideology and literally white, and which represents the publication’s primary readership) to simplify and contain issues of curricular transformation and inclusivity, and to devalue narratives of exclusion and misrepresentation.

According to the THE, “one possible explanation” for the “dearth of black history students” at university level “was a school history curriculum that poorly reflects the population of Britain” – a statement attributed to Professor Hakim Adi, one of the event organisers. This soundbite not only does a disservice to Adi’s intellectual and activist leadership, both at History Matters and elsewhere, but also misrepresents the conversations that took place on the day, by suggesting that understanding of the reasons for the lack of black students and scholars of history in the UK is a lot more fuzzy than it really is. It fails to convey the wealth of knowledge and experience brought to the event, and to articulate for a wider audience the ways in which various curricular and cultural factors come together to dissuade black students from pursuing qualifications and careers in history.

So why are there so few black students and teachers of history in the UK? What History Matters made clear is how the British education system, as it currently stands, actively excludes large chunks of the country’s present day population, and how crucial moments of identification and resonance are in inspiring students to invest in the humanities, both personally and professionally. It foregrounded the problems inherent in attempts to introduce more inclusive histories into the curriculum: problems such as framing black history as a narrative that begins and ends with slavery, rather than a history that is part and parcel of more ‘mainstream’ narratives. It also emphasized the extent of the work that parents and communities do to supplement the standard curriculum, a curriculum that is organized primarily around whiteness (and secondarily, around the work and experiences of middle to upper class, able-bodied, performatively straight men).*

How important is it that we see ourselves in the histories and stories we study? This question was central to the conversations that took place at History Matters. I’m not sure if it’s a question that can adequately and exhaustively be answered: as individuals, we often find ourselves interested in, and engaged by, experiences that may not have much at all in common with our own, for reasons that are rarely clear to us, and which can be exceptionally complicated, and even problematic (from an academic perspective, this might include the vast numbers of people from former colonial powers who work on postcolonial texts and contexts, including myself). And yet, to find the experiences of people like oneself routinely absent from discussion takes its toll. Imagine sitting in a classroom for almost a decade, and not once catching even the slightest glimpse of yourself or your ancestors in the history textbooks and novels you’re given to read. It’s not hard, I think, to see how these conditions might allow a profound disengagement to slowly take root in even the most avid future historian, literary critic, novelist, or film-maker.

This is important, because one of the major misunderstandings about the drive to open up the curriculum is that black people, or women, or the working class, or the disabled, are only interested in their own histories and that incorporating these histories into the mainstream curriculum is, therefore, simply about indulging these ‘small-minded, self-interested’ groups. Such a misunderstanding makes it possible for those in charge to dictate the terms on which these histories are encountered, distorting inclusion into an act that manages to belittle, rather than celebrate, these histories. Underpinning this is a more pervasive misunderstanding: that ‘black history’ and ‘white history’ (a.k.a. ‘History’ with a capital H) are two different entities. The most obvious manifestation of this is the idea that black history = slavery, for as we know, slavery is as much ‘white history’ as it is ‘black history’ (if this isn’t clear to you, please at least take the time to watch the BBC series Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners). In the UK, and on a global scale, black history matters to everyone: it is a part of all our histories, and to leave it out is to misrepresent, to simplify, to whitewash those histories. As such, the lack of black history students and scholars disadvantages us all, for this lack not only reflects how holey and warped our understanding of ‘History’ is, but also shows how this understanding perpetuates itself by keeping those best placed to expand upon it out. The resonances with other marginalized historical actors and agents, including women, people with disabilities, working class people, and the LGBTQI community, are profound, and it’s crucial, I think, for those involved in events like History Matters to share concerns, strategies, and practice with projects such as the Moving Beyond Boundaries project and Project Vox, and vice versa.

Together, so-called ‘under-represented’ groups are a majority, not a minority, meaning that History, if it belongs to anyone, belongs to us/them. The inclusion of new modules at GCSE level, such as the optional “Migration to Britain” offered as part of OCR’s new “Modern World” History GCSE, suggests that change is slowly but surely on its way, but I honestly don’t know whether the knock-on effects of decades of exclusion at every stage of the British educational pathway can ever be overcome. I’m by no means an expert on any of the issues covered here, so if you can recommend a relevant resource or project, please link to them in the comments below. For those involved in higher education, a great starting point is the Runnymede Trust’s Aiming Higher: Continuing Inequalities for Black and Minority Ethnic People in Higher Education (2015), which should be compulsory reading – please forward to your colleagues, especially if you’re a Head of Department!

* For more on this, see Kehinde Andrews’s Resisting Racism: Race, Inequality, and the Black Supplementary School Movement (2013).

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This entry was posted on July 22, 2015 by in Diversity in HE and tagged , .

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