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Black British History

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In this booklist, we look at a selection of children’s books to use in the classroom for teaching elements of Black History that are unique to the UK.

With Black History Month gaining increasing interest each year, we often receive an influx of requests for books that celebrate Black lives and that explore Black history both in the UK and around the globe. These books can be used for Black History Month, when many schools and families dedicate time to research Britain’s Black history and to find out more about particular Black people from the past. We believe these books are just as important all year round, too – and you can see our full Black Lives & Black History booklist here.

But increasingly, schools are telling us that the books they have gathered for teaching Black History have an imbalance towards US Black history. While a global perspective is not only important but also thoroughly entwined with British history, where are the books that focus specifically on Black history in the UK?

Author David Olusoga explains that one of the reasons for the apparent imbalance is because Black History Month is a US import – and when an American tradition is imported then so is much of its resource content. Another reason, Olusoga argues, is that it is uncomfortable to look at the more unsavoury parts of our own history, so we tend to focus the beam abroad. Olusoga explains that “The issue is that any proper debate about black history inevitably entails discussions of parts of the British past – slavery, imperialism, the development of racial thinking – that have long been brushed under the historical carpet. This means that once a year black Britons become the delivery system for parts of British history that many people are deeply uncomfortable discussing.”

There is a growing call from teachers to source children’s books that examine British Black History and – slowly, slowly – a response from publishers is beginning to emerge. For balance and a widening of context, you may also like to explore books that celebrate black communities or the lives of key Black British figures. If the only historical studies of black history that pupils encounter relate to struggle or slavery, this will allow for only a narrow segment of Black history to be covered – potentially resulting in prejudicial misconceptions and occurring at the cost of opportunities to learn about the rich and diverse cultural fabric of the UK or the accomplishments of particular communities and individuals. For further ideas, you may wish to look at the Black Lives section of our Black Lives and Black History booklist to find individual figures to study.

Baroness Floella Benjamin
 & Diane Ewen

Baroness Floella Benjamin offers her own story of the 6000-mile journey from Trinidad to England, told for the youngest children in a picture book called Coming to England – An Inspiring True Story About the Windrush Generation.

The story explores and celebrates what it means to be a British person with Black Caribbean heritage, as well as opening doors to learning about the impact of Operation Windrush and experiences of racism. Speaking about the background to the book, Baroness Floella says,”Britain has always been a nation that’s evolved due to different races coming in, from as far back as you can go. I hope Coming to England makes people of colour feel worthy, appreciated and that they belong and that it makes white people say, ‘That could be me, what would it be like if I moved somewhere else?’.”

Catherine Johnson
Chapter book

Catherine Johnson scooped the Little Rebels Award in 2019 with this short, middle-grade chapter book about the historical horrors of slavery.

The story follows a young boy called Nat, who is enslaved on a Jamaican plantation. When Nat is brought to England in the 1700s, he hopes to finally find freedom from bondage. Instead, Nat discovers the disappointing truth that slavery is still very much alive in England – and he witnesses the heavy role that Britain plays in operating the slave trade.

Little Rebels Judge Darren Chetty comments that the story “explores the humanity of those whose humanity was denied through chattel slavery. It subtly examines the similarities and the differences between class oppression and a system of slavery rooted in racism. It tells a story of Britain that continues to be neglected.”

While the main character is fictional, the details of the story are very much rooted in historical events and features real-life people and places. We recommend this book as a go-to for upper KS2 classes learning about Britain’s role in the slave trade. Teachers are likely to find very helpful the informative historical notes at the end of the book.

Patrice Lawrence
Chapter book

Part of the ‘Voices’ series, which celebrates the experiences of BAME figures in British history, Diver’s Daughter gives a unique perspective into life in Tudor times. Eve and her mother start the story in South London. Eve’s mother was stolen from Mozambique as a child and the story offers insight into the lives of black families in England during this time. Patrice Lawrence paints a vivid picture of life within the cramped and dirty London streets, which transports the reader into Tudor times. The action moves from London to the South Coast and brings in the story of the sinking of the Mary Rose, as well as the fascinating lives of the divers who went to search for its treasures​.​

Michaela Morgan
Graphic Novel

This scrapbook walks through the story of Walter Tull – famous Tottenham Hotspurs footballer and the first black officer in the British Army. Walter – or ‘Tully’ as he was known – was brought up in a children’s home before being scouted for his talent by Clapham FC, where he began his footballing career. As WW1 broke out, Tully joined the British army during a time when many people believed that only white men should become officers. His bravery and leadership in the battlefields of WW1 won him a recommendation for a Military Cross – but it is suggested that the award was never given because of the racial prejudice prevalent in the British army at the time.

Walter’s story is visually and informatively brought to life in this fictionalised scrapbook that is designed to appear as if put together by Walter himself. The scrapbook incorporates illustrations, letters, photographs, notes and newspaper cuttings.

By the same author there is also Respect: The Walter Tull Story, a short chapter book retelling of Walter Tull’s life and accomplishments, published by Barrington Stoke. For a more in-depth study of Walter Tull, we recommend the 6-lesson scheme of work from The Historial Association, which is available to download with a free account.

David Olusoga

This children’s version of David Olusoga’s account of Black British history is essential reading – not only as an accessible and informative non-fiction read for Upper KS2, but also as a book that I would thoroughly recommend for improving primary teachers’ own historical subject knowledge and especially those with input into their school’s curriculum design. As expressed perfectly by Lavinya Stennett (CEO of the Black Curriculum) in the Afterword, ‘This book is a testimony to the rich experiences of Black people of Britain in different periods of our history, and a reminder of the dearth of Black history in our curriculums.’ Why not commit to reading it together as a staff team – or choose a section that matches up to your most recent history topic for your class to study this month?

In the book, Olusoga explains the overlooked history of Black people in Britain from Roman times to the present day. Readers may be surprised to imagine the multiculturally diverse make-up of Roman Britain – and indeed to question why sources of history in primary schools may paint a historically misrepresentative picture of Roman society. Equally interesting is the development of notions of race throughout the periods of history, as the book walks chronologically through key eras. Did you know that it was only during the time of James I that the term ‘white’ was used as a description of racial identity, or that long after the abolition of slavery, the Victorians were propagating their own racist theories to justify profiting from slave-powered commerce?

Not quite due to arrive in time for this year’s Black History Month but still an absolute essential for schools will be the Olusago’s new colour-illustrated version Black and British: An Illustrated History aimed at ages 6-8 and publishing November 2021.

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