Decolonizing our history

I went to an event entitled ‘decolonizing history’ at the School of Oriental and African Studies in November 2019, which displayed a series of audio stories, created all by women of colour. It is 2020, yet that sentence still has a slight novelty about it. It is still not as common as it should be in 21st century Briton to consistently tell stories of all backgrounds. The event brought narratives from beyond just the western world to the forefront.

The emotive audio stories were told to us in a dark auditorium so that every word’s impact was fully felt. From the story of a history lecturer learning about her own biases from her Chinese British student, to a heart breaking story of rape and years of oppression amidst apartheid India and its subsequent secrecy and trauma. The stories were refreshingly honest and nuanced as they highlighted both the brutality within these different cultures as well as the vibrancy and rich history. They focused on historical figures and events in different countries, through the lens of 21st century young individuals of colour raised in the UK, a view often unheard.

Throughout our school life, we are taught of Henry VIII’s wives in great detail, WW2 from many angles and of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Whilst it would be impossible to learn the history of the entire world and culture of every region, the curriculum has never diverged to learning about the great Indus valley civilization, the brilliant Benin Empire or even examined Britain’s bloodier history with its role in the partition of India for example. When Jeremy Corbyn proposed to rethink how we teach history in schools, there was an outcry. I wonder why these predominantly right wing older middle class melanin-less men didn’t want us to learn about the harsh realities of the British Empire instead of their rose-tinted version like Corbyn suggested. Why is it so threatening to learn about the valuable contributions the rest of the world have made and the treatment people were subjected to when under British rule?

Even if the focus geographically laid in Britain, children have a right to learn about the 1.3 million Indian soldiers who fought alongside British troops in WW1 and 2.5 million of them who fought in WW2. I am Indian myself and the first time I found out about this valiant contribution was when I went to a museum dedicated to the topic in the Royal Pavilion in Brighton at the late age of 21. Why were we not taught of the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 which draws parallels to Rosa Parks stand for freedom? The boycott arose from the refusal of the Bristol Omnibus Company to employ black or Asian bus crews in Bristol, a boycott which was a success, because four months later, the company overturned this colour bar. This was particularly significant, because it’s credited to have influenced Race Relations Act 1965. The first time I hear about something as momentous as this should be in a history class as school, not from a book by grime artist Akala, who offers a better perspective on history than the government mandated curriculum.

This narrow whitewashed perspective paints a very Eurocentric view of history, by ignoring both the accomplishments and atrocities carried out by the rest of civilization. A large minority in the classroom do not see their ancestors stories represented in the classroom and these biases in the curriculum will influence their beliefs and fuel ignorance. By allowing multiple perspectives to be taught about throughout history from diverse backgrounds, we could encourage the future generation to be more open minded about the world, more inquisitive and more informed. It will allow for a more critical examination, skills which are needed for the present and the future, instead of simply getting kids to regurgitate everything they know about the Battle of the Somme for an exam.

By globally connecting our history classrooms and showing the parallels of the Tudor kingdom and Mughal Empire, would allow us a more well-rounded view of history and challenge the idea that only European history is ‘worth’ learning about. All of our histories have played a role in shaping our present and they deserve the dignity of being explored, instead of ignored, whitewashed or glossed over.

Photo by Markus Spiske on

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