The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog

RSS

Michael Gove is air-brushing black people out of history

The Tory party’s extreme right must recognise that multiculturalism has given Britain the richness and diversity which propelled it into its current place amongst powerful world states.

Mary Seacole, in an illustration from Punch in 1857. Photograph: Getty Images

Black voices are rarely heard in classroom history lessons. Now, Education Secretary, Michael Gove, wants to eliminate the few last visible narratives of black people in British history taught within schools.

According to newspaper reports, Mary Seacole is to be dropped from the national curriculum so history teachers can concentrate on Winston Churchill and Oliver Cromwell. Tellingly, teachers themselves have not been coming forward to offer support for this move. The idea that schools must silence black voices so teachers can talk about Churchill, Cromwell or Nelson is one that barely merits serious argument. But bearing in mind that the abolition of slavery occurred during the lifetime of Mary Seacole in 1840, and the gigantic military presence in the British West Indies – 93 infantry regiments serving between 1793 and 1815 – not to mention her own crucial role, Seacole is ideally placed to mark out hugely significant historical events.

Michael Gove must trust teachers to decide what is in the best interests of children, instead of air-brushing black people out of history. There is no question that historical black role models such as Seacole give children of all races important tools in overcoming racist assumptions about black and Asian peoples’ contribution to Britain. Knowing about black history educates all of us, promotes respect and helps to inculcate shared multicultural values.

Mary Seacole was a woman famous mainly because of her services during the Crimean war when she nursed British soldiers. Her story is remarkable not because of the countless lives she saved, or, for the valour with which she served her nation. Of much greater significance is the immense white privilege and patriarchy she fought just to get to the frontline, struggling against resistance from the state. When the war office rejected her appeal to become an army assistant in the Crimea, she decided to come to London anyway. Even though she was rejected by Florence Nightingale, Seacole spent every penny to risk life and limb so she could heal wounded British and allied soldiers. Forced to take loans in order to make the 4,000-mile trip, she travelled on her own, in dangerous times.

Known as “Mother Seacole” by the British military who loved her, 80,000 people, including Major General Lord Rokeby, who commanded the 1st Division in Crimea, turned out to a fund-raising event for her when they heard she was short of funds. Clearly, Seacole had the adoration of several tens of thousands of people during her lifetime, if not more.

Compare this to the current state of affairs. Although the department of education currently seems to be experiencing something of a “Little Britain” sick scene, it was only last year when Seacole was held in great esteem by the Department of Health. In February, the department invited applications from nurses, midwives and health visitors in England to participate in a “prestigious Mary Seacole Awards programme”. The aim, of which, was to carry out health care and educational projects to improve the health outcomes of people from black and minority ethnic communities.

Maybe Michael Gove didn’t get the memo, but last week David Cameron called for greater respect to be shown towards black and minority ethnic communities. Surely, this is not what the PM meant when he said MPs should “increase their presence in the ethnic minority press.” In making these curriculum changes, Gove is out of touch with modern voters, giving the PM a proverbial middle finger, and seriously putting in danger current work to encourage diversity.

As a patriot, Micahel Gove should honour the memory of Britain’s war heroes. In 1856 William Howard Russell, special correspondent of the Times and influential journalist, wrote: "I have witnessed her (Mary Seacole) devotion and her courage...and I trust that England will never forget one who has nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead".

The Tory party’s extreme right must recognise that multiculturalism has given Britain the richness and diversity which propelled it into its current place amongst powerful world states. The sooner black and Asian history is told loudly and clearly, the more quickly we can all benefit as a united nation.

Imran Khan is an executive member of Conservative Muslim Forum and a former Conservative councillor

He writes in a personal capacity