Learning history in school was pretty boring. I remember being in Year 6 and having to learn all of the Kings and Queens of England, from William the Conqueror all the way up to Queen Lizzie verbatim. We constructed model Tudor houses and begrudingly wrote our own Magna Cartas (burnt paper edges and tea stains for those who remember). In secondary school we learnt about World War I, World War II, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights movement and the abolition of Slavery amongst other things. To be honest, most of the information wasn‘t so interesting and even up until GCSEs, didn‘t make me really think about how history had an impact on my own life. Maybe I was just too much into football and girls to think really clearly about the subject, and so for a long time, history was ‘history’ and wasn‘t going to let it affect my life.
One day, our teacher wheeled in the cumbersome Sony TV and VCR player (remember that feeling when you walked into class and saw that?!) and announced that we were going to watch a movie called Schindlers List. We started watching it and quickly grew bored. Maybe because it was in black and white or maybe because some friends and I were sitting at the back, but at any rate, we were talking and laughing about goodness knows what. At the end of class something happened that forever changed how I saw history. One of the Jewish guys in the class was crying and even though I didn‘t ask why, somehow I understood why. That movie had a special significance for him because maybe some of his ancestors were amongst those who weren‘t so lucky to survive The Final Solution. He had a personal connection to what some of us had just watched. That’s when history became real to me. All prior experiences in history involved the class turning to look at me when our teacher asked us a question about the Civil Rights Movement or the Atlantic Slave Trade, and me cringing when I didn‘t know the answer.
Fast forward to 2014 and I read that Caricom are now seeking reparations from England, France, the Netherlands and other countries. At first I was confused. Why after all this time? Wouldn‘t the best time to have asked been soon after many countries won Independence in the 60’s? There must be a reason why this is happening now as opposed to 10, 25 or 40 years ago. But it is happening. There will be a formal complaint by the end of April, with plans to take the cases to the International Court of Justice if rejected. Whether or not reparations are granted, I think that this is a great oppurtunity to change the way we learn and teach world history.
I would guess that my year group was made up of about 45% from Asia (Subcontinent and East) 40% White (including Jews) and 5% Black. Roughly. This was my school on the outskirts of East London 10 years ago, but all over London, schools are fast becoming more and more mixed and maybe what is taught in history lessons should reflect this change.
First of all, there was no real sense of shame or embarrassment about what the British Empire actually represente when we were taught. The Empire raped, pillaged and destroyed its way through every continent on earth (save Antarctica) and left not only death and poverty in its wake, but religious ideologies, and divide and conquer techniques which leave us today debating good vs bad hair and people all around the world wanting to become lighter to fit in with a European aesthetic of beauty. Currently the way children are learning directly and indirectly about the Empire in schools, implicitly teaches students merely to accept it for what it was, and not bring into question what the legacy of the Empire still is.
Secondly, the history which we learnt was not mine or many of the other kids in my class. It was almost as though there was no modern day Bangladesh, Jamaica or Togo before the British invaded. We didn’t learn that calculus from the Kerala School of Mathematics in India predates European calculus by over a century. The city of IIe-Ife in Nigeria was paved with decorations that originated in America in 1000 AD (and they say Colombus discovered America?!). Mali was one of the most advanced and thriving cities in the world, with a population 5 times the size of London by the 14 century. Toilet paper was invented in China in the 1300‘s. All of the history of pre-colonial earth seems as though it was and still is reserved for those who choose to go and read history at university or educate themselves outside of formal education. That means that unlike my Jewish friends, in school (thankfully many of us were taught these things outside of school), we were never connected to our history; to learn that whether we were from St Lucia, Pakistan or Ghana, we come from rich cultures and wonderful histories which were either destroyed or simply archived until we decided to search for ourselves. We grew up knowing certain things but viewing our history as inferior and not important to be discussed in class, let alone write an exam on.
‘…accept it for what it was, and not bring into question what the legacy of the Empire still is.’
By Caricom asking for reparations, maybe we can all use this stand as catalyst for us not to simply accept the cards that were dealt us, but to ask to see what the dealer is holding behind his/her back. To demand that children are taught the whole grizzly truth about the Empire and teach them just how ignorant and unacceptable it is for people to demand for immigrants to go back to where they came from. After all, these attitudes start with what is taught in schools and is perpetuated through silence – by not showing dark side of the Empire and the civilisations it destroyed. Maybe if children are taught a wider range of facts, groups like the EDL and NF will slowly die out as children learn that Englands wealth and status was built on the back of slaves and should be held accountable by displaying its history for all to see. Winston Churchill once said that ‘History is written by the victors’. Perhaps it is time for the losers to start blogging, facebooking, tweeting and teaching theirs in mainstream society and not rely on the odd BBC documentary to provide us with knowledge.
I hope Caricom is successful but even if they are not, we shouldn‘t wait 10, 25 or 40 years before we demand that our Middle Eastern, Eastern European, African and Asian histories are taught, and the Empire finally held accountable.
Step up Mr.Gove.
Peace and Blessings