Rewriting the History Books: In Conversation with The Black Curriculum

Discover The Black Curriculum, a social enterprise that was founded in 2019 to address the lack of Black British history in the UK’s national curriculum. We sat down with some of its members to discuss what needs to change, and how.

you ever stopped and asked just why the British curriculum
is so white? From the authors we study to the artists we emulate to
the hideous atrocities that belie Britain’s colonial glory, the
education system is a polka-dot of blindspots. It’s high time
someone did something about it.

Cue: The Black Curriculum, a social enterprise that was
founded in 2019 to address the lack of Black British history in the
UK’s national curriculum. “The central curriculum doesn’t outline
in much detail the experiences of Black people in Britain, and what
that does is it sends the message that we’re not part of history,
or history hasn’t been shaped by us and that’s not true,” says
Lavinya Stennett, founder and CEO of the initiative.

Along with her fellow campaigners, Bethany Thompson and
Chantelle Minta, Lavinya sat down with the activist Jaz O’Hara,
director Adrián Shankar Filho and Joshua Coombes, founder of Do
Something For Nothing to discuss education reform, the nuances of
rewriting the history books and exactly how The Black Curriculum
came to exist.

Rewriting the History Books: In Conversation with The Black

Lavinya Stennett | Photo by Philip

Jaz: Could you give us an introduction to The Black

Lavinya: The Black Curriculum is a social
enterprise, and our main aim is to give people a sense of identity
through the teachings of Black history, bringing empowerment
through knowledge. So we deliver this in UK schools as a syllabus
that we created last year, as well as workshops and longer
programmes. We also go into schools to help teachers do this
better, because our research has shown that there’s a lack of
confidence, a lack of resources and, more generally, not much of an
impetus to teach Black history. That’s what we’ve all experienced
here: that the central curriculum doesn’t outline in much detail
the experiences of Black people in Britain. It sends the message
that we’re not part of history, or that history hasn’t been shaped
by us – it’s not true. We aim to empower young people through our
materials and also teachers to implement this collectively.

Jaz: That’s amazing. I think the speed at which it’s all come
together shows how important it is. How did The Black Curriculum

Lavinya: The idea crystallised in New Zealand,
but I’d say that my degree in African studies was the eye-opener
for me, because I hadn’t learned anything about Black history in
school. University definitely shaped my ideas of the world, being
more grounded in literature and history that was non-European. When
I went to New Zealand, I saw how they teach Māori history in
schools and I thought well, why can’t we have the same thing here?
We needed a curriculum, and we needed change on an institutional
level, not just individual teachers.

Bethany Thompson | Photo by Philip

Josh: After coming back from New Zealand, what were your
initial steps to start something and bring your ideas into

Lavinya: I had a sense of urgency; I had to
write it down. I applied to an arts foundation to fund the building
of the curriculum, and when I came back to London in October, the
UK’s Black History Month, we got the grant. Over new year, I asked
a friend if she could help put together this curriculum. She
introduced me to Bethany.

Bethany: And then we met! We sat down and
Lavinya explained what she wanted to do and Chantelle and I went
through our ideas too. After our first focus group, we started
interviewing people to create the syllabus for us. We had content
creators, researchers and advisors, and in about four months we
created the syllabus. It had four modules: migration; art history;
land and the environment; and politics and the legal system, which
focuses on contemporary history too. Some of our modules even
covered Grenfell Tower.

Chantelle: We talked about not teaching
chronologically because people have this mindset that something
belongs in a certain period. We see that things that happened 200
years ago, but they didn’t start and stop there; they’ve just
morphed into something new. Even with events such as the Windrush
scandal, people are being sent home today, though started such a
long time ago.

Jaz: What about the last few months? How have
they impacted the direction of The Black Curriculum?

Lavinya: Coronavirus shifted a lot of things. We were planning
to do workshops in Manchester, but then a load of our bookings were
cancelled. So we pivoted and did a contingency plan from April to
June which focused on the digital side of things. We started online
programmes and animations. The death of George Floyd amplified
everything we were doing. It was really interesting to see how
things changed. The schools we reached out to before were suddenly
getting back to us. So in June, we decided to run a campaign,
#TBH365 targeted at the government specifically; there was no
better time to take action.

Chantelle: I think people began to listen
online. When we started getting more followers it showed that we
were doing something right. The day we launched #TBH365, we started
with 1,350 followers on Instagram, and by the end we were on 11k.
In that same week, we hit 74k.

Josh: What I love about the #TBH365 campaign is the message
that it’s not just one month, that we should learn about Black
history 365 days a year. Was this your first campaign or did you
have any campaigns before?

Bethany: TBH was running since we started on
social media, but we focused on a two-week campaign period in which
we wanted to get a response and generate interest. I think it was
successful; the campaign started partnerships and got people
listening. And also I think it helped people recognise that schools
teach a lot of American history, like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther
King. Of course they are important, but that’s not Black British

Josh: You’re completely right, the small amount
of Black history we are taught in school is focussed on America and
doesn’t stray far from the slave trade. You only learn about things
like Windrush as an adult.

Jaz: I guess what we need in the UK is for the government to
start taking action to implement this and make it mandatory in the
curriculum. I saw that you guys had this amazing win recently with
a response from Nick Gibb [Minister of State for School Standards].
Is the government supportive?

Lavinya: I guess it’s important for the
government to recognise us, but it’s not essential as they don’t
set the rules on everything taught in schools. Most schools still
follow their own curriculum. We had conversations with different
people in politics, outside of politics and we gained support from
over 45 MPs across different parties. One response acknowledged the
work that we do but said that they didn’t have time to address it
because of Covid.

Chantelle Minta | Photo by Philip

Adrian: I also want to ask: as individuals, how have you felt
over the last few months with this intersection of Covid and the
George Floyd protests?

Bethany: Tired. I joined The Black Curriculum
before everything happened, when it was still small on social media
and working things out. When everything blew up there was just so
much noise. I wouldn’t call myself an activist, but being involved
in certain movements was tiring, having to redress the same issues
that we have always been talking about. I think one thing that
exhausted me personally was just seeing the devaluing of Black
women. Black women are also victims of police brutality. We have
this whole other layer to deal with. But it was good to have
support networks like The Black Curriculum where you can talk to
others and express how you feel.

Chantelle: I think it’s also been eye-opening
because we’ve known this as an issue for so long. In some ways,
it’s like we can breathe now; we don’t have to constantly fight.
It’s there, it’s right in front of you and now people are
recognising it. It’s liberating but also tiring because now the
scramble is on.

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