History can help young people to see the ‘big picture’ about enslavement, says E Kay Traille

The bi-centenary of the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act and QCA’s recent announcement about the inclusion of slavery in the curriculum present teachers with a variety of opportunities to explore the legacy of the slave trade both past and present within society. For students of African-Caribbean descent the topic may be one to which they are particularly sensitive. If taught badly it can create feelings of hurt, alienation and discomfort and students may find themselves silently seething.

Living together in the UK

The key proposal of Sir Keith Ajegbo’s review (DfES, 2007) is that the topic of ‘Identity and Diversity: Living Together in the UK’ should be included in the curriculum. Ajegbo suggests that this new element should be underpinned by an understanding of contemporary issues and relevant historical context. However, I believe that we need a deeper understanding of how young people experience and interpret the history they hear in the classroom. We also need to understand and acknowledge their personal experiences and the polyphony of other voices they are subjected to in society. My research goes some way towards making this a plausible reality in history, citizenship and PSHE classrooms. The ways forward I outline are potentially empowering if we are serious about making the aims and objectives of Ajegbo’s recommendations work in our classrooms.

Re-evaluating the curriculum

What follows is based on my recent PhD study of students of African-Caribbean descent and their mothers (Traille, 2006). The research attempted to understand the connections between students’ attitudes towards their history lessons and their ideas about what history was and what it does. The questions that the study explored included:

  • What ideas did students and their mothers hold about history on personal and social levels?
  • What aspects of history lessons did students of African-Caribbean descent find motivating? 
  • What picture of the past did their mothers want passed on by schools during history lessons?

Who was asked?

The study involved analysis of the responses of 124 students of African-Caribbean descent and non-African-Caribbean descent aged 13-17 who were surveyed about their ideas of the past. Following the survey a group of 12 students between the ages of 12 and 17 and their mothers were interviewed in an attempt to explore their attitudes towards the nature of history and their expectations of school history. The research was concerned with the issues and challenges facing the education of African-Caribbean students during the past 50 years. It reviewed the literature on the changes in the history curriculum and research on students’ understandings of history. Psychological theories pertinent to the study were also explored. Most importantly, consideration was given to how the ideas and perspectives of students of African-Caribbean descent necessitated a critical re-evaluation of the history curriculum and pedagogical practices in English schools and FE colleges. What is history for? My study found that the respondents of African-Caribbean descent thought of history in terms of its identity-affirming and navigational functions at group and individual levels. In contrast, non-African-Caribbean mothers and students generally thought of history principally as a tool for personal understanding of the contemporary world and the transferable skills it could supply in terms of aiding other school subjects. The following is a summary of what African-Caribbean students and their mothers thought history was for:

  • making people feel proud of their ancestors
  • giving people a sense of knowing where they came from
  • bolstering self-esteem and helping academic performance
  • navigating the self and society
  • teaching lessons of respect and ‘never again’
  • helping people fit in
  • giving people a ‘feel good factor’ about their past
  • granting legitimacy or illegitimacy, pedigree or lack of pedigree.

History was also regarded as a key factor in accounting for the way people perceived other people.

Challenging negative images

The research findings strongly suggested that if the topic of slavery was presented solely in terms of the ‘Trans-Atlantic slave trade’ the idea of enslaved people being black and victims redeemed by others, might feel alienating and shameful. On this account, a look at slavery that presents only Africans as enslaved and recipients rather than active agents might unwittingly cast them as failures and reinforce such views among all students. Students of African-Caribbean ancestry in my research also believed that negative images of black people in history created stereotypes that reinforced a negative perception of black people in society. The way the topic of slavery was taught was cited as a particular problem. How we match the preconceptions of our students with the new concepts and information we want them to learn is vital for effective learning. We also need to have a clear picture of the objectives and aims of any topic that we teach. To start, teachers can tease out how the fingerprints of slavery are to be found in many aspects of British society. Interrogating stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination and supremacy movements are all ways of exploring this sensitive issue. Discussing or debating the issue of which came first ‘slavery or ‘racism’ is another approach that helps students understand the complex nature of slavery and how it might leave perpetrators and victims centuries later with feelings of inferiority or superiority. In a culturally diverse teaching environment an awareness of these factors on the part of teacher and those taught might be useful when attempting to build bridges to bring about inclusion for minority groups within our classrooms.

The big picture

How do we become more even-handed without purposely distorting our attempts at reconstructing the past in our classrooms? The answers must lie partly in the ‘whats’ of the curriculum, as well as the ‘hows’ of pedagogy. We need to provide our students with a curriculum that gives them the ‘big picture’ in which no nation or group or creed is portrayed as privileged, into which are set studies which focus on a narrow non-local identity, whether national or otherwise. For example, if students were taught to see the big picture and the underlying causes for industrialisation in the world, it might be more useful than just concentrating on the western world. One possible response lies in the approach of Jared Diamond (1998). His insights into how the inequalities that we find in the world came about are both persuasive and empowering for black students. The incredible breadth of Diamond’s work explores how military technology, infectious diseases and complex forms of government led to the rise of conquering European states. Diamond argues that predetermined factors such as geography, and bio-geography explain why it was that European civilisations flourished while others languished. His approach indicates that human civilisations did not all start on a level playing field. Diamond’s ideas are controversial in several aspects (such as his emphasis on geographical determinism). Nonetheless, the broad canvass he paints offers a route to take when teaching aspects of history that may enable all students to understand and develop an extensive awareness of the past. It could help all students understand why some societies ended up with seemingly more than their fair share of power and influence. Such an approach would open up horizons for black students that narratives based purely on human ingenuity and western prowess limit.

Avoiding sins of ignorance

My research highlighted the importance of ‘sins of ignorance’. This is where teachers used words that alienated and created feelings of discomfort in students, for example by using the word ‘slaves’ rather than ‘enslaved’ to describe captured Africans. Teachers could encourage students to discuss the difference that using the world ‘enslaved’ rather than ‘slave’ might make to how we think about other people. Another issue of concern for students of African-Caribbean heritage was the ‘silence’ of teachers which left them feeling vulnerable to the attacks of others. Teachers may further engage students by facilitating discussion of how the words, body language and silences adopted by students and teachers may be damaging to another’s identity and self-worth. Students also highlighted the importance of creating a comfortable, safe climate when talking about sensitive issues.

Approaches to slavery

All young people need to recognise their common humanity; history taught well can help enable that process. Personal and social identities need to overlap, not collide if all students are to participate and feel a sense of connection, engagement and ownership with what they are studying. Using Diamond’s theory, the following outline is an example of one way teachers might teach about slavery so that it is less likely to be seen only in terms of ethnicity:

  • Present the topic as an important phenomenon of human history.
  • Highlight that it was to be found in all major civilisations from the ancient world to the present day.
  • Examine the factors that made/make slavery possible in terms of unequal power relations.
  • Identify reasons for unequal power by showing that it usually stems from a person, group or thing being in a superior or favourable position in relation to another person, group or thing.

Trans-Atlantic slave trade

A more empowering approach to teaching about the Trans-Atlantic slave trade would involve: 

  • emphasising that African-Caribbean history is not just about slavery. There is a history that goes back centuries (see www.whenweruled.com for some quick pointers)
  • flagging up that enslaved people refused to accept their situation even when on board ship during the Middle Passage. This would reduce the tendency to concentrate on diseases and poor conditions
  • carefully thought out role plays. Black students playing the slaves and white students the ship’s crew acting out the Middle Passage is not a good idea. Nor is having black students read out harrowing accounts of torture.
  • including references to black people who fought and succeeded in abolishing slavery for themselves such as the Maroons and Toussaint L’ouverture
  • voicing awareness that some non-African-Caribbean students may express disgust and attitudes of racial superiority towards the topic of slavery
  • relating how slavery made people who were equals unequal for instance in master/slave relationships
  • discussing how the abolition of the slave trade led to white people and black people having to view each other ‘anew’, and the problems this might have caused then and perhaps now.

Learning outcomes

The benefit of teaching the topic in these ways allows all students to see slavery as a complex human phenomenon and not just in terms of ethnicity. It would also help students gain a breadth and depth of understanding of slavery enabling them to critically question ideas about the causes in the past and the present. If students, whether of African-Caribbean descent or not, fail to see the big picture and properly grasp how history works, then there is a danger that they will form collective memory ghettos with highly distorted ‘feel good factors’. Alternatively, and to the detriment of themselves and society, they could become cultural amnesiacs with little sense of direction. Much is at stake in democratic societies if we fail to deliver an inclusive curriculum that does not demean or alienate the students it teaches. However, my research suggests that just including more diverse content may be as ineffective as prescribing antibiotics for a virus if we fail to begin to understand how our students are thinking and feeling before and when they confront the past in their classrooms.

Further Reading

DfES (2007) Diversity and Citizenship Curriculum Review www.teachernet.gov.uk Diamond, J (1998) Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. London: Vintage. Traille, EKA (2006) ‘School History and Perspectives on the Past: A Study of Students of African-Caribbean Descent and their Mothers’ (unpublished PhD thesis). London: Institute of Education, University of London.

Dr E Kay Traille is a history lecturer at Newbold College, Berkshire.

First published in Learning for Life June 2007