This is Black History Month in our schools and Jeremy Corbyn is calling for even more teaching about the evils of the British Empire and the slave trade.
It is, perhaps, time to take stock of the black history enterprise. Remember, though, that if you are White British you will be suffering from an ailment known as ‘unconscious bias’ which means that any views you hold do not count.
Let us start with a question. What was the ‘black’ dimension to events surrounding Magna Carta in 1215? This was asked, back in the late 1980s, by Norman Stone, Oxford University professor of modern history, of a debating chamber audience. He was my fellow-speaker in an educational debate at Ruskin College. From this venue, in 1976, prime minister James Callaghan had kicked off a nationwide dialogue about education that is still with us today. Black History Month is but one facet of that continuing dialogue.
Our audience at Ruskin were principally classroom teachers. They were enraged by Stone’s question – a response to a growing demand from the teaching profession that school history lessons become more racially inclusive. Professor Stone was doing no more than making the point that if history teaching is filtered by what we now call ‘politically correct’ perspectives, subject knowledge becomes distorted. Unusually, for an educational ‘tough guy’, the professor seemed genuinely taken back by the vehement hostility of the teachers sitting in front of him.
‘What on earth was there to argue about?’ he must have thought. Other than a universal application as a charter of rights there is no more a meaningful ‘black’ dimension to the events surrounding Magna Carta than there is a meaningful ‘white’ dimension to the pre-colonial Inca empire or a meaningful Hispanic dimension to the deliberations of Iceland’s Viking assembly, the Althing. ‘Welcome,’ I told Professor Stone, ‘to the classroom revolution, to the use of education for the purpose of brainwashing.’
Classroom teaching as a political tool has become the norm in Britain. An entire month devoted to black history has become institutionalised, regardless of its value in terms of acquiring historical knowledge. It could be cogently argued that Black History Month should be balanced by Asian, Asian British, Hispanic, Native American, Chicano, Indian, Latino, African American, Arab, Chinese British and Australian Aborigine history months.
Already we have run out of months. But surely there must be a White Caucasian month, too? What about White British? Corbyn’s proposed way forward safeguards a place for ‘white’ British history but only because it can be used to demonstrate the wickedness of whiteness, what he terms the ‘grave injustices’ of Brits.
Corbyn plans to support a new Emancipation Educational Trust which will promote the story of how slavery ‘interrupted a rich African and black history’. It will ‘focus on African civilisation before colonisation, the resilience and sacrifice of those enslaved and the struggle for liberation’. He argues: ‘Black history is British history, and it should not be confined to a single month each year. It is vital that future generations understand the role that black Britons have played in our country’s history and the struggle for racial equality.’
In other words, Corbyn wishes to nurture a sense of grievance that is unbalanced and largely unjustified. The notion that slavery and racism is somehow a white British attribute is a distortion of history and socially divisive. Enslavement of others and associated racism is characteristic of humanity in general, regardless of race.
The much-admired ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome, for example, were built on slavery. Britain, too, was once enslaved and its enslavers included, ironically and most viciously, an African Emperor, Septimius Severus, who died in York before he had the chance to fulfil a promise to exterminate all those living north of Hadrian’s Wall.
African legionaries who are often pointed to as evidence of an early black presence in Britain were not part of a Windrush generation here to help out the native Brits. They were here as part of an army of occupation whose tasks included the enforcement of slavery.
It should be more widely known, too, that at least a million white slaves, many from the British Isles, were once traded in the slave markets of north Africa and Turkey. What is most important for young people, in particular, to know about slavery is that it was the British who first abolished the slave trade and slavery.
As for empire, for all its ills, the British Empire was mostly preferable to any other empire that has ever existed.
Distorting history via the filter of Black History Month or promoting a sense of grievance against white Brits is unwise and divisive. Fortunately, many in the black community are sensible enough to understand the dangers of such narrow-minded thinking. I recall one black leader saying that his community was sick of the ‘non-stop diet of deprivation and slavery’ that their children were being subjected to in school.
A couple of years ago a statue of the Number One black heroine, Mary Seacole, was erected opposite Parliament. She was an important figure in Victorian Britain and she deserves to be remembered. The fact that her autobiography makes clear her racist, xenophobic and warmongering views is no more than a reflection of her time. We excuse her for using the n-word, describing the Turks as ‘degenerate Arabs’ who are ‘worse than fleas’, being an ardent admirer of slave-owner-connected Nelson, and being prepared to risk her life to support the red-coated imperialistic Brits in giving the Russians a good bashing in the Crimea.
Mary Seacole or Cecil Rhodes – was there really any difference in their outlook? But no one is shouting, ‘Seacole must fall!’ Quite rightly so. How about Black History month leaving out the ‘Black’ and insisting on the whole story every month? Given the distorting mirror of race-based history, even Jeremy Corbyn should see the fairness of that logic. After all, his apparent ‘mentor’, Karl Marx, was interested in knowledge, too.