The Case for Black Studies Courses

Black History Month (BHM)


In 1987 BHM was introduced to schools in the UK by Linda Bellos to respond to the general absence of representations of Black achievement in the education system. Since then, in October of every year, BHM has been celebrated throughout Britain in schools and Further Education (i.e. post-compulsory, pre-university and vocational) colleges, with Societies hosting events in Higher (i.e. tertiary) Education. Redressing the absence of Blackness in education is thought to have both engaged ethnic minorities in schooling (particularly those that historically underachieve in UK schools) and create recognition of the various communities that are settled in Britain, who are tolerated and whose cultures are enjoyed at social levels, but not considered as positive contributors to world history.

Pupils achieving 5 or more A*-C at GCSE/GNVQ: by sex and ethnic group, 2004, England

*GCSE stands for: General Certificate of Secondary Education. It is the qualification that pupils obtain when they leave school at the earliest age of 16. Good GCSEs are grades A*-C. The indicator of acceptable achievement is set at 5 good GCSEs.

BHM is modelled on its US predecessor. Over there BHM is one of a number of Months devoted to ethnic communities who are under-represented in the education system. The fact that some institutions over here celebrate the history and cultures of their establishments’ various ethnic communities is one reason why there has not been a perceived need for a designated month to celebrate Greek culture in North London for example. Another reason would be that Ancient Greek culture already features in education in the West. Ethnicity alone does not therefore justify the grounds for inclusion in BHM.

Notwithstanding this rationale, opposition to BHM centres on a number of issues relating to the overall focus on Black ethnicities at the expense of others. In a number of educational establishments, the English population is in the minority. Whilst English history and culture are obviously integral to the national curriculum, the absence of representations of marginalised English cultures (e.g. working class) means that the education system is similarly alienating for and dismissive of individuals from these groups. In fact, nationally, White working class boys fare worst from the education system than all other groups. The reasons for such under-achievement are undoubtedly multiple, although lack of identification with subject content is cited as one. This argument would seem to undermine the premise of BHM in a society in which class divisions are deeply entrenched. The paucity of students from working class backgrounds in the Russell Group (i.e. some of the most prestigious universities in the UK) testifies to these divisions. Fewer than 15% of students who go to universities that are in the Russell Group are from working class backgrounds.

Other opponents to BHM claim that not leading to a specific skill that is useful in the labour market or resolving a tangible social problem, BHM (particularly during the current period of economic downturn) is a waste of taxpaying resources and a niche topic, given the overall percentage of Black and other ethnic minorities in Britain.

2001 Census findings

Ethnic group Population Proportion of total UK population
White 54,153,898 92.1%
Mixed race 677,117 1.2%
Indian 1,053,411 1.8%
Pakistani 747,285 1.3%
Bangladeshi 283,063 0.5%
Other Asian (non-Chinese) 247,644 0.4%
Black Caribbean 565,876 1.0%
Black African 485,277 0.8%
Black (others) 97,585 0.2%
Chinese 247,403 0.4%
Other 230,615 0.4%

Some opponents object to BHM as it is currently practised, whereby institutions limit the academic focus of the Month to the American Civil Rights Movement, leaving students unaware of both Black British history and the histories of the Black communities (e.g. Nigerian, Jamaican and Somali) that are represented in high numbers in the UK. Further, they criticise the embourgeoisement of Black cultures by the focus on elite personalities such as Mary Seacole at the expense of grass roots individuals and movements. In addition, they are highly critical of the teaching methodology of BHM activities, where students are presented with a series of general knowledge facts and figures, illustrative of Black people’s contribution to world history. This approach fails to encourage students to actually engage with Black artists and/or movements on an intellectual level. Further, the material presented tends to give simplistic representations of Black communities as entirely positive.

Of course Black children benefit from having positive images of Black cultures, and society at large benefits from these by reassessing its superficial stereotypes. However, the Month in this form is not sufficiently challenging. These shortcomings, coupled with the focus on Black contributions to the Performing Arts at the expense of Black literature for example, suggest that the time when Black British Studies will be offered by the Russell Group is remote.

Mary Seacole

Ethnic Composition of London 2007

The fact that the White working class is marginalised in the education system needs to be addressed. Not only is a nation culturally enriched by education that reflects its social contributors, but also economically. White working class boys figure high in NEET (i.e. those Not in Education, Employment or Training) statistics. This does not, however, detract from the need to address other serious educational flaws and shortcomings which also have long-term negative consequences such as social marginalisation.

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In these times where funding is being spread thinly across a number of social interests, it is fundamental that whatever initiatives are introduced not only be seen to be fair, but also have long-term positive outcomes.

Students’ Opinions

In a survey that was conducted in schools and colleges in the inner cities of England in 2009, the majority of respondents stated that BHM improved their general knowledge. Whilst this is positive, the near universal claim amongst respondents that they knew a lot about Black cultures, yet their failure to associate the Month with academia was startling. After 30 years of BHM, school children are familiar with Ackee and Salt Fish (the Jamaican national dish) and Djembe drumming, but not with Gary Younge (author of No Place Like Home) or a chapter from Peter Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. Their limited associations of Black cultures with music and food are in themselves reminiscent of stereotypes that define Black peoples as entertainers and performers. Even the brightest of children still commonly only associate Black cultures with a history of slavery past and present, unfamiliar with the specificity of the inherited racial chattel slave systems of the Americas, and commonly refer to Africa as a country and its languages as ‘African’.

Not only is there a misperception of what Black studies can entail, but also its professional usefulness. Were students to engage more with Black literature at school, there would be no marked academic outcome because Black Studies does not exist at university in Britain. By contrast, the US enjoys several decades of Africana studies in its universities (including Ivy League institutions). Over there, the first Black Studies Programmes began in 1968, following demands by university students (black and white). Today, universities all over the US offer this programme and have lecturers of all backgrounds. The connection between this and Black aspiration to be other than a performer or sports person, and increasingly positive inter-ethnic relations post-Civil Rights has yet to be fully documented. Yet this is undoubtedly a fairer representation of the people that constitute its nation than the system in the UK. What is the long-term outcome of a nation such as Britain which is famously tolerant of difference, but also equally ignorant, despite its longstanding and continued connections with Black communities?

It seems unlikely that BHM will change in the UK, principally because of the lack of demand on the one hand, and growing concerns that other larger social groups have been sidelined in the process on the other. Whilst this is understandable in terms of bothsupply and demand and resources, a country such as France that has yet to institute Black studies would do well to take note and consider the need to implement a programme with greater foresight than that which marked the introduction of BHM in the UK. Just as France has had similar debates on integration as the UK, so too does it seem inevitable that inclusivity in schools will be explored. Rather than spending funds replicating the UK BHM system, which obliges all students to follow it, yet does not dispel stereotypes because of its rather superficial focus, perhaps a Black studies or Africana programme that was optional yet academic would at least engage those with a interest in the subject at collège and lycée and be academically beneficial (i.e. in representing a serious academic pre- or post-bac qualification that students could then use to further their studies in other areas to begin with, and eventually in this area should they choose to do so).

There are those who are highly critical of the arbitrary and inaccurate labelling of studies as Black or White. In a world where colour as a social construct is inexistent, these criticisms are legitimate. As things stand, history tells us that when there is no ‘racial’ labelling in education (as is the case in France at the moment), the education system focuses virtually exclusively on authors and a version of history in which historically marginalised (i.e. Black amongst other) groups are absent or stereotyped. The question is not whether or not there is a need for Black studies in 2012 France, but how to make it (academically) relevant to students who wish to study it.

Dr F. Marfo January 2011

Dr Marfo holds a BA in French from Goldsmiths College, London University and a PhD in African American and Afro-Brazilian Literature from Bristol University. She has published articles in Konch Magazine and Callaloo and was involved in introducing a course on Black Literature in French whilst working in Guinea-Bissau.

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