- Britain’s social and cultural development during the Victorian era, including: the changing role of women, including figures such as Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole, George Eliot and Annie Besant
- The slave trade and the abolition of slavery, the role of Olaudah Equiano and free slaves
Source Operation Black Vote
The latest mooted reforms to the national curriculum include the dropping of figures such as Mary Seacole and Oludah Equiano in favour of a stronger focus on ‘British’ icons such as Oliver Cromwell, Winston Churchill and many other rich white guys.
I am currently working as a historian on a small community history project for a church in Liverpool and couple with my background as an archaeology student with an interest in women and my love of intersectional feminism and indeed intersectional everything, the thing that strikes me so much about this project is how little of the history I know. How much of it is ignored or relegated to a tiny footnote in the mainstream, white male narrative of both national, local and international history. I am not just talking about ‘minor’ local events but major events of national and international importance such as the Race Riots of 1919 and the forced repatriation of Chinese seamen who left behind families, who have only recently been honoured with a commemoration plaque . I have
also come across many discussion, both historical and current academic thought on historical sources, as to the nature of ‘Britishness’ and how non-white British citizens were deliberately excluded from the definition of ‘Britishness’ and thus less ‘worthy’ than ‘native’ british citizens. The sorts of arguments played out in 19th and 20th centuries are again rearing their ugly racist heads in tory policy on immigration and misinformed rhetoric on ‘foreigners’ being a drain on resources. Obviously it’s a lot easier to get away with such things if we remain ignorant about the history of Britain,whether it be in our own cities and towns or nationwide, which has been a multicultural society for a very long time.
This is just one reason why we need an inclusive, intersectional history. If you remove peoples past you remove their right to a stake in the present, you remove a part of them, you remove their validity as individuals, communities, people. You imply they don’t matter, that because their past is irrelevant their present and future is too. When you define the default, human experience as white male, elite, heterosexual, non disabled white male especially, you imply everyone else (which is most of us) is ‘the other’.
More troubling, is the deliberate erasure of ‘troublesome’ history, history that gives many of us a reason to be angry, that reminds us of the struggles of the past and how they are related to struggles today and perhaps more importantly how the unfairness of the past has often given root to the power structures still in evidence today, for example how the trade in enslaved africans allowed Europe and the US to dominate world trade, to enhance their power, influence and dominance, the same with colonialism and empire.
Given the conservatives record on equality issues, especially on issues such as immigration, multiculturalism this is a deliberate and worrying manipulation.
History is often used to legitimise the present, ‘things have always been this way so don’t fight it’, to implant a sense of pride in where you come from, your traditions, your culture. To take this away from people is hideous. This old argument, highlighted in ‘shakespeare’s sister’ by Virginia Woolf is often used to back up claims of the superiority of the dominant group over everyone else. It relies on erasure and distortion, removal of context and the promotion of certain figures and facts over others. As a feminist I’m used to the ‘but women haven’t done as much stuff as men’ argument, something which falls apart when you examine the history of women, a history of women doing amazing things despite being actively held back by men. Similar erasure applies to the history of
A linear, blinkered history focused on rich white men, such as Gove proposes, is a history that not only ignores the vast majority of the british population, but ignores the vast majority of OUR history. It seeks to assert white male greatness with a distorted focus on rich white men, with little or no examination of the history of everyone else or indeed the atrocities committed by rich white men, like Churchill and his labour camps or Nelson and his support for slavery and an awareness of how these men and the society, kyriarchy, patriarchy etc benefits from this exploitation.
History is bloody, gory and messy. It cannot be sanitised, the tired ‘political correctness’ excuse used against Seacole’s inclusion is often implied as shorthand for making things nice and fluffy as to not upset anyone. Yet the history Gove and the conservative ilk want is sanitised and censored to the hilt. They seek to paint the ‘narrative of our island history’ in tales of glorious victory and achievement whilst remaining ignorant of the exploitation, bloodshed, oppression and all manners of evil committed to achieve it. Without this, the warts and all, it’s not history they seek to teach but propaganda and a propaganda that asserts a hierarchy with rich, white men at the top.
Edit & addendum
A comment I left on Glosswitch’s post about History and Gove, “History? It’s all about me” which I thought I’d post here too cos it makes some points I didn’t quite emphasise above.
I’m trained as an archaeologist , which I suppose has taught me that an awful lot of ‘fact’ is interpretation (that and the feminism). What worries me the way Gove et al are going is not only that history will be taught in this narrowly defined way but that due to the fact it’s impossible for anyone who’s not really quite loaded atm to do postgraduate studies (personal bitterness creeping in there ahem), esp in the humanities, the history of the future will be interpreted and created by yet more privileged white men.
It’s human nature to focus on what we can relate to easily, any good historian must be aware of their own cultural biases and how that affects their work, which is essentially their interpretation of what happened. A good example is the translation I came across studying my dissertation, a priestess had been translated as ‘son of’ so and so purely because of the bias of the translator. The original Sumerian word had no gender implications and meant ‘offspring’. Translator (early 20th c , but lets face it it could happen today) had just assumed that this child was male due to the fact his society saw/sees ‘male’ as the default, as well as her powerful position. The point is lots of these little ‘mistakes’ are still there, in print in books by academics with titles like ‘professor’ and remain unchallenged and they all add up.
History, archaeology etc are full of these, often laughably incorrect, assumptions whether they be based on gender, race, sexuality, class, whatever. They need to be challenged, after all if they are robust enough they’ll stand up to interrogation. Though I assume people like Gove (I’m not entirely sure, he does seem rather thick at times too) know deep down their take on things is not robust hence a strong desire to stop any real intellectual inquiry and focus on this narrow ‘remembering stuff you are told but not asking for any evidence to back it up’ and reinforces the idea that the history and culture of rich white dudes is history relevant to everyone and that the history and culture of everyone else is a special interest only for that group, i.e ‘women’s history’ ‘lgbt history’ ‘black history’ etc (De Beaviour has an excellent paragraph or so on history and ‘the other’ in the second sex).
The more we focus on the history of a narrow group of people and have our history defined by such a narrow group who decide what is worth studying decide what is seen as ‘important’ and part of the ‘narrative’ (usually themselves), the more we have a skewed sense of our past and a a result a skewed sense of the present. History needs to be more diverse, both in teaching it and creating it. The old saying is true, history is written by the victors and it’s often propaganda. Propaganda is exactly what Gove wants imho.