As we approach Black History Month in England, I thought it would be useful to share a piece I wrote for Teaching History earlier this year. When I wrote the article, I recall scanning the past issues of Teaching History and thinking about work that addressed similar issues. What was surprising is how little those pieces had been cited or apparently used by history teachers, especially based on the conversations at the Schools History Project conference this past summer.
Recent books published on education in England have made the case for consuming research from the sciences as a way to further the profession. I would like to add that we should be reading critical work from other disciplines as a way of challenging the conceptions we use in our lessons. The article came from my engagement with Michael Rothberg’s work on the Holocaust and memory in Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonisation. If you haven’t read it and you teach the Slave Trade and the Holocaust, you really should as it provides a framework for teaching connected narratives in our classrooms rather than competitive histories which seem to populate the media.
The recent Battle of the Somme memorial, We’re here because we’re here, denoted by the Twitter hashtag, #wearehere, provided an elegiac and physical reminder of the soldiers who lost their lives during the first day of the battle in 1916.[i] Thousands of volunteers across the country donned historically accurate uniforms and walked, sat and lounged silently in train stations, shopping centres and other public areas, carrying cards bearing the details of the soldiers they represented. Their silence was only broken by their rendition of ‘we’re here because we’re here’ – a song sung by soldiers in the trenches – and the overall performance captured the attention and imagination of the public and the media.
What was particularly striking – and heartening – about this portrayal was the diversity of the volunteers, a fact captured in the pictures on the memorial site. This was not a nod to political correctness on the part the organisers. The diversity of the soldiers represented in the project offered a more nuanced – and truthful – picture of history than the one often held up for memorial. Rather than focus on one example of difference, for instance the fascinating story of Walter Tull, the former footballer and first ‘black’ officer in the British army, the everyday nature of this portrayal avoided any sense of tokenism. Instead, it celebrated the complexity of our history, and showed that British history was (and is) also a global history. The #wearehere memorial proved the point laid out by David Olusoga in his book to accompany the recent excellent BBC series Black and British: A Forgotten History, that new and different stories can emerge when ‘black’ history is more than just a history of the ‘black’ experience.[ii] Seen in this way, the song ‘we’re here because we’re here’ comes to speak as much to the ever-constant role of ‘black’ and ethnic minorities in the fabric of Britain and British history as it does to the enduring memory of those who fought in the Great War.
Unfortunately, the capacity to address this diversity within England’s typical secondary school history curricula has been limited, with the material effects of this limitation seen in students from a black and minority ethnic background, as well as for white students. For the black students, uptake of England’s examination courses, from History GCSE and A-Level courses to undergraduate degrees remains low, and for the white students, their understanding of the rich tapestry of history is limited.[iii] Recent debates asking the question ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ often attribute the poor teaching of black history at school to a lack of historical knowledge and a narrow focus on topics such as the slave trade. This could be addressed by focusing on ‘Black History Month’ and by teaching units of black history, but this moves history teaching into the realms of tokenism and threatens to become an ‘add water and stir’ approach to teaching. Such an approach is particularly limiting in the post-14 phase where history becomes optional and is subject to examination specifications. The syllabi provided by examination boards are prescribed, curriculum time is restricted and recent upheaval in examined courses have whittled down the capacity for history teachers to think beyond the subject being taught.
For Rothberg, collective memory of the past seemingly obeys the logic of scarcity, where memory of the Holocaust, for example, must crowd out the memory of African-American history in the public consciousness. The rendering of the public sphere as a scarce resource creates the conditions where the interactions of different collective memories battle one another in a zero-sum way for recognition and pre-eminence. Rothberg suggests that instead of this zero-sum game, we should consider memory as multidirectional and the public sphere a place where collective memories are not simply articulated, but are ‘subject [to] ongoing negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing’.[iv] Relating this to the history curriculum beyond the age of 14, it is not a zero-sum game between teaching the prescribed examination content and, to use the phrase from a recent book, ‘doing justice to history’.[v] Both can be done. History teaching, like collective memory, has an anachronistic quality, where the here and now, and the here and there, are brought together in a lesson or sequence of lessons. This powerful creativity allows the space to rethink and make complex the history that is taught in schools, and allows a more complex and challenging narrative to emerge.[vi]
This may sound easier to state on the page than to realise, yet the examples below will illustrate what is possible by deepening the knowledge already deployed by teachers in their lessons on the modern world.
‘The sugar at the bottom of the tea cup’: a wider appreciation of ‘Britishness’ during World War II
Writing in the early 1990s, the cultural theorist Stuart Hall remarked that people coming from the West Indies and other parts of the Empire had actually been in England for centuries – if only symbolically – and that those coming over were merely ‘coming home’. He characterised this by thinking of himself, and the people from Jamaica, as the ‘sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea’ that was a quintessential aspect of British identity. Moreover, the ‘Britishness’ associated with tea also obscured the fact that it came from Sri Lanka and India, not Lancashire.[vii] The Home Front in World War II is usually seen as a cultural touchstone for Britishness, through the creation of the ‘Blitz Spirit’ and the war as a ‘People’s War’, where class and gender differences were united in their fight against Nazism. Investigations of the Home Front and the forging of the ‘Blitz Spirit’ are typically studied from the view of different economic classes but not from the Empire point of view. E. I. Ekpenyon was a former Headmaster in Nigeria who had come to study Law in London and served as an ARP warden. His account of his training and experience on the Home Front makes complex the notion of a ‘Blitz Spirit’ being created by an ethnically homogenous group of people. He recounts that the people in his area were very friendly and called him “Uncle Sam”, and followed his instructions as he was a ‘man of colour’, which to the people in his district saw as a ‘lucky omen’. Below is Ekpenyon’s account of an incident in his shelter where the mix of people in his shelter had led to tensions.[viii]
E. I. Ekpenyon, a former Headmaster in Nigeria who had come to study Law in London and served as an ARP warden, describes an incident in his shelter
Some of the shelterers told the others to go back to their own countries, and some tried to practise segregation. A spirit of friendliness and comradeship was lacking. If this spirit had continued it would, as certainly as the night follows the day, have led to riots.
So I told the people that the British Empire, which is also known as the British Commonwealth of Nations, is made up of peoples of many races. I said that though I am an air-raid warden in London, I am still an African. I also said that I am one of many peoples of other countries that make up the Empire.
Then I spoke of the three classes in the shelter – namely, His Majesty’s subjects, protected persons, and guests. These last were refugees from other countries. I said that this third group of people who were in the shelter, and who were not interned, were entitled to the protection of the Union Jack. I said that this being the case I would like to see a spirit of friendliness, co- operation, and comradeship prevail at this very trying time in the history of the Empire. I further warned my audience that if what I had said was not going to be practised, I would advise those who did not agree to seek shelter somewhere else. For to remain in the shelter and to behave in an unfriendly way would force me to report them, because they were trying to create disunity in the Empire. The people responded, and few left the shelter.
Ekpenyon’s story is a fascinating account of someone from the ‘colonies’ acting as the guardian, and enforcer of, ‘British values’ and the ‘Blitz Spirit’ at the heart of the empire. His story, rather than an additive or distraction, places him squarely within the narrative of the ‘People’s War’. Two films produced by the Ministry of Information in 1943 and 1944, Hello! West Indies and West Indies Calling also provide evidence of a complex narrative of ‘Britishness’ and the ‘People’s ’.[ix] Presented by Una Marson, the Jamaican feminist and writer who worked at the BBC during World War II, the films show a range of white and black British subjects supporting the war effort in Britain as military personnel, nurses, factory workers and lumberjacks.
These stories, and many others in texts like Stephen Bourne’s Mother Country, show that the Home Front and the ‘People’s War’ was more diverse and complex than has been previously rendered. These accounts – which have the potential to provide excellent, accessible source material for students – also move away from the ‘black’ British story which starts with the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948.[x] The ‘black’ presence in the ‘People’s War‘, like the diversity of the soldiers on the front, offer just one example of a history that preceded and anticipated our practiced narrative of migration and diversity.
The boy in the Nazi jumper
In current history examination courses offered in England at GCSE and A-Level, the study of Nazi Germany incorporates the treatment of minorities in terms of persecution and death camps. Yet the lives of Afro-Germans at the time provide a nuanced understanding of the Nazi regime and social life in Germany. Born in 1926 to a Liberian father and German mother, Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi experienced first-hand what the transition from Weimar to Nazi Germany was like and how his skin colour defined his experience and his existence. His book, Destined to Witness is remarkable not only because it details the changing social circumstances in Germany but his life in the USA after the war. He explains in detail life at school, his relationship with other people and the attraction of the Nazis to young people. He too was an unabashed Nazi supporter ‘because they put on the best shows with the best-looking uniforms, best sounding marching bands’, which unsurprisingly appealed to his developing sense of masculinity.[xi] When he finally got his hands on a Swastika, he asked the elderly lady who looked after him to sew it is on his jumper and led to the picture taken below in 1933.
The image shown is incredibly powerful. I have used it in my classroom, along with other extracts from the book, in order to help students move from the ‘concrete to the conceptual’ in their understanding of the Nazi regime.[xii] The text also provides opportunities to challenge simple historical explanations about the interactions of minorities with the Nazis. In one incident, Massquoi recounts his encounter with an SS officer at the Department of Labour in 1940. Obviously concerned that his fate lay in the hands of the one of the Nazi elite, Herr von Vett, Massaquoi was surprised when von Vett winked at him and invited him to take a seat. After inspecting his school record and an axe that he had created, von Vett stated that Massaquoi could be of ‘great service to Germany one day’. Thinking that von Vett had lost his mind, Massaquoi listened as the SS officer reasoned that Germany would reclaim its African colonies at some point and would need technically trained Germans to lead an African workforce and Massaquoi would be ‘ideal for such an assignment’. Massaquoi was promised an apprenticeship with a first-rate firm and as he gave the Heil Hitler salute before turning to leave, Massaquoi was called back by von Vett. He asked, ‘Aren’t you going to shake my hand?’. Massaquoi duly did and gained his interview for an apprenticeship soon after.[xiii]
Massaquoi is not the only example of Afro-Germans living during the Nazi regime. Louis Brody was an actor in several Nazi propaganda films and Hans Hauck fought in the Wehrmact. Their lives, as well as being fascinating, provide a more truthful narrative of life in Nazi Germany, and would enhance students’ understanding of the complex racial laws, stereotypes, and hypocrisies at work in Germany in the years leading up to and during the war.[xiv]
The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks
One popular and longstanding unit within England’s history GCSE courses is Medicine Through Time.[xv] Its huge sweep of chronology and thematic approach provides another opportunity to deploy a ‘multidirectional memory’ approach when considering the ethical, legal and social effects of technology on public healthcare in Britain. Although the name may not be familiar, it is highly likely that we have all benefitted medically in some way due to Henrietta Lacks. An African American born in the 1920s, Lacks became the unwitting donor of cells from a cancerous tumour. Prior to Lacks’ cells being harvested, human cells that were cultured in labs lasted only a few days. There was something different about Lacks’ cells. They seemed to thrive and grow in cell culture and the mass manufacturing of her cells led to innovations in cloning, drug development for cancer, polio and many other medical conditions. Lacks’ family received no profits from these advances to modern medicine, or indeed any healthcare in a country that often denied them basic rights. Henrietta’s cells – taken without the dying woman’s knowledge or consent – were helping people in countries where she would have been barred because of the colour of her skin.[xvi] Understanding modern medicine without an appreciation of Henrietta Lacks produces a history that is reductive. Her story – told in an engaging and accessible way in Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – also allows students to consider the ethics of the history they are studying, and enables them to see how one story can come into conversation, and indeed conflict, with another.
The three stories briefly set out above are only a small introduction to the rich material available to teachers and students in the move towards diversifying the curriculum. Deliberately focussed on twentieth-century history, they are all easily linked to topics already studied in classrooms across the country, and fall within the existing subject knowledge of teachers. As I hope the stories demonstrate, a ‘multidirectional memory’ approach to teaching history can move us beyond a limiting method of seeing black history as separate, superficial and distracting side-story from the ‘real’ history that needs to be taught at examination level.
[i] ‘We’re here because we’re here’ was a UK-wide event commissioned by 14-18 NOW as a memorial to mark the Battle of the Somme. Details about the memorial and additional images can be found at the following address: https://becausewearehere.co.uk/
[ii] Olusoga, D. (2016) Black and British: A Forgotten History, London: Macmillan, p.xxi
[iii] Lyndon, D. (2006) Integrating Black British History into the National Curriculum, Teaching History, 122, Rethinking History Edition, pp.37-43; Whitburn, R. and Yemoh, S. (2012) ‘Hidden histories and heroism: post-14 course on multi-cultural Britain since 1945’, Teaching History, 147, Curriculum Architecture Edition, pp.16-25; Harris, R., Burn, K. and Woolley, M. (2014) The Guided Reader to Teaching and Learning History, London: Routledge, see ‘Diversity’, p. 182; Gilborn, D. (2008) Racism and Education, Oxford: Routledge
[iv] Rothberg, M. (2009) Multidirectional Memory, Stanford: Stanford University Press, p.3
[v] Mohamud, A. and Whitburn, R. (2016) Doing Justice to History, London: UCL Institute of Education Press
[vi] Rothberg, op. cit.,p.5
[vii] Hall, S. (1991) ‘Old and New Identities’ in Anthony D. King (ed.) Culture, Globalization and the World-System, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p.48-49
[ix] Hello! West Indies (1943) Directed by John Page, Great Britain, Ministry of Information/Paul Rotha Productions; West Indies Calling (1943) Directed by John Page, Great Britain, Ministry of Information/Paul Rotha Productions
[x] Bourne, S. (2010) Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939-45, Gloucester: The History Press
[xi] Massaquoi, H-J. (2001) Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany, New York: Harper Perennial, p.41
[xii] Phillips, R. (2001) ‘Making history curious: Using Initial Stimulus Material (ISM) to promote enquiry, thinking and literacy’, Teaching History, 105, Talking History Edition, pp.19-25
[xiii] Massaquoi, op. cit., pp.198-199
[xiv] Lusane, C. (2002) Hitler’s Black Victims, London: Routledge, Campt, T.M. (2005) Other Germans, Ann Arbour: The University of Michigan Press
[xvi] Skloot, R. (2010) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, London: Pan Books