Too Many People Can't Name A Single Black British Figure From History. How Can We Actually Improve Things?

Mary Seacole and Dr Harold Moody
Mary Seacole and Dr Harold Moody

Mary Seacole and Dr Harold Moody

Black History Month might be over, but that doesn’t mean important conversations about the people and events that shaped history should be.

In October, Bloomsbury Publishing looked into the knowledge and perceptions of Black History among the British public – and the results weren’t just shocking, they were worrying. 

survey of more than 2,200 Brits found 75% of respondents admitted to not knowing “very much” or “anything at all” about Black British history – despite 67% of them saying they have decent knowledge of general British knowledge.

Even worse, more than half of them couldn’t name a singleBlack British historical figure – like Mary Seacole or Dr Harold Moody. Fewer than 10% could name more than four.

The report highlighted that there’s also a severe lack of knowledge about how long Black people have been living in Britain. More than a third of those surveyed believe that the very first Black people migrated to Britain within the past 200 years, while one quarter believe this happened within the last 100 years.

Discussing the results, Atinuke, the award-winning author of the children’s book Brilliant Black British History, told The Guardian they show “how shockingly little the UK knows about Black British history; which is an integral part of British history”.

“There have always been people with Black and brown skin in Britain – from the Stone Age, through every single era, to the present day,” she added.

“As our world becomes more polarised and divided, increased inclusivity is needed now more than ever.”

‘Black British history, for the main part, isn’t taught in schools’

According to the government, pupils should be taught about different societies, and how different groups have contributed to the development of Britain, including the voices and experience of Black people. But how much of Black history is actually covered will vary from school to school.

“From Roman times onwards, Black people have been an integral part of Britain, and the National Curriculum supports teaching about their contribution,” the government said in a 2022 blog to mark Black History Month.

It added that some of the things children may be taught about in schools pertaining to Black history, include:

  • the lives of key Black historical figures such as Mary Seacole and Rosa Parks (Key Stage 1)

  • a study of a non-European society that provides contrasts with British history, for example Benin (West Africa) from 900-1300 AD (Key Stage 2)

  • exploring ideas, political power, industry and empire in Britain between 1745-1901. As part of this, it’s suggested teachers could look at Britain’s transatlantic slave trade including its effects and eventual abolition (Key Stage 3)

  • extending their knowledge and understanding of specified key events, periods and societies in local, British, and wider world history which takes in the wide diversity of human experience. “Such events can include the world wars and the impact of migration on Britain,” says a government blog on the topic.

Campaigners have been fighting for Black British history to be introduced to the primary curriculum for a number of years – and while there’ve been some changes at grassroots level, it’s acknowledged there’s still “a long way to go”.

Keisha Ehigie, founder of Imagine Me Stories, launched a monthly book discovery box service in 2019 to help Black children see their realities reflected in books and to help children build diverse libraries. She wants to see a formal review of the school curriculum in the UK to help improve awareness and education about Black British history.

“There is a need for Black history to be told in its full form and not just from the perspective of oppression and slavery,” she explains.

“Black history should just be history. This involves a complete rethink of how subjects are taught and which perspectives are told and featured. The curriculum needs to be enriched with the contributions of scientists, artists, inventors and authors from a broad spectrum of cultures and ethnicities.”

She adds that the recent results from Bloomsbury Publishing aren’t surprising, noting: “Black British history, for the main part, isn’t taught in schools, and when it is, it’s usually in a limited sense as there are not as many resources on the subject as there should be.”

Some educators and organisations have taken matters into their own hands, like The Black Curriculum – a social enterprise which creates learning resources and hosts educational programmes and workshops about Black history in schools and workplaces across the UK.

“Education is a mirror to society,” says founder Lavinya Stennett, who also notes she wasn’t shocked by the findings of the report.

“It’s the first place a child is told how they can function and aspire in the country. If the education we receive tells us there was one or two Black people in all UK history and they had minimal contributions, the message we send is damaging.”

Stennett believes that teaching Black history appropriately is important for “mutual understanding, empathy and respect” between different communities in society – and says direct campaigning to embed Black histories in the UK curriculum is essential.

“Opponents of Black history are afraid that telling the full true picture of Britain’s history will make white children feel ‘bad’ and will lead to further division and strife,” Ehigie adds.

“However, by hiding the truth this only serves to reinforce incorrect narratives and harmful stereotypes. The truth is that teaching Black history and the full picture of British history is the only way to keep us from repeating the mistakes of our past.”