It started with my first love: Brer Rabbit.
Followed by the wild imaginings of Roald Dahl. Poems stole, and still has my heart. Robert Louis Stevenson. Lewis Carrol. I could recite them word for word. English lessons wasn’t a chore for me – it was sanctuary.
2008 was a landmark year. Our teacher told us we’d be reading ‘Noughts and Crosses’ by Malorie Blackman – this was the first text we’d studied by a person of colour (excluding the poem ‘Half Caste’, which was taught in passing). Blackman’s words submerged us in culture for the whole of Black History Month. From discussing racial superiority to interracial dating – I was given my first taste of BAME literature and the societal issues sown alongside them. I desired more – but more rarely came.
I was constantly reading black writers outside of the classroom but once the bell rang it was back to basics. This longing – the insatiable urge to see myself in the books I studied lasted throughout my entire educational career. Even reading English at one of the most diverse universities in Britain seemed drenched in the overwhelming whiteness of the British literary canon.
So, in total: nineteen years of English literature equated to seven black books taught.
Seven – compared to the numerous Elizabethan, Victorian and Early 20th Century classics regularly studied and praised. To dissect this number further, only three of the above were Black British texts; assisting the erasure of my culture’s identity within education. Ironically, I realise what a privilege it was to have read this meagre number of texts on the syllabus. At least we had something – juxtaposed to the invisible representation of Asian, Polish and other European regions.
If literature is a mirror to society, then education is the hand manoeuvring its reflection. It seldom echoes the plight of a Black British woman or any person of colour for that matter. Even the illusion of Brer Rabbit was ruined once I realised it had been stripped of its African lineage. What is most chilling about this concept is its macrocosmic and long-lasting effect in the world. In most industries, BAME voices are underrepresented and have faced some form of suppression.
In particular, British arts and media broadcasters like the BBC have a lot to answer for. Since their ‘Undercover’ series ended in 2016, the visibility of Black British actors and screenwriters on their platforms has been excessively minimal. The narrative also intersects with journalism, where all too often, mainstream news and radio shows are catered towards the hegemonic norm of a white, heterosexual, middle class audience – a behaviour solidified by years of studying an unbalanced number of white texts; disregarding those culturally different to Austen and Bronte.
We were never taught the value and importance of the Black British story.
With a system inherently used to teaching one narrative; it’s hard to imagine a curriculum which mirrors the melting pot we call home. However, with the significant increase of discussions on decolonising education; it’s a promising prospect of sustainable change ahead.
Acclaimed academics such as Kehinde Andrews, Founder of the Black Studies Degree at Birmingham City University and Dr Martin Glynn, Criminology lecturer and children’s author have started to pave the way for a new generation of learning – one of appreciation for all cultures but diverse enough to reflect each identity in equal standing – and not just in the confines of Black History Month.
The English Literature syllabus must become more varied and inclusive. The classroom is a mini-model of the world. What we teach is what we will reap.
Ashlee E L Roberts