The origins of Black British history (the who, what, why, when and where...) remain a constant source of confusion and contention in the UK, with many in disagreement as to how a strategically marginalised group of people came to shape the very essence of British identity. Earlier this year, British-Nigerian writer Atinuke published the children’s book Brilliant Black British History illustrating the parts of our collective pasts that have been left out of history books – from Black Tudors to Black Roman soldiers who invaded Britain – causing uproar across mainstream media and right-wing pundits. Writers such as David Olusoga and Akala lauded the book for its comprehensive exploration of Black contributions to British society, while others, like historian Dr Zaneer Masani (Macauley: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist) and former UKIP AM David Kurten, argued that Brilliant Black British History is completely inaccurate and "brainwashed" children with outright lies and perpetuates a false version of history. These differences in perspectives have further deepened the divide, and confusion, on how Black individuals have contributed to shaping British identity over time.
For centuries, Black British history has remained in the unsafe hands of outsiders to revise and narrate, which has resulted in a skewed national education curriculum that misinforms future generations. Across the UK, British history, taught at KS3, KS4 and GCSE level, often focuses on the transatlantic slave trade through a lens that minimises British involvement, lacks emphasis on the resistance to abolition and ignores the economic benefits that Britain enjoyed because of the slave trade. A similar whitewashing can be seen in the exclusion of Black British figures whose efforts played pivotal roles in shaping Britain's history. For instance, the contributions of historical figures like Mary Seacole, a Jamaican-born nurse who provided essential medical care during the Crimean War, and Olaudah Equiano, a freed African slave who became a prominent writer and leading figure in the British abolitionist movement, were not widely taught until the turn of the 21st century.
Inaccuracies or omissions like these can create a distorted view of British history. However, initiatives like The Black Curriculum aim to address these historical blind spots by advocating for the inclusion of diverse and comprehensive Black British history within the education curriculum. And as the literacy gap is challenged and institutional racism is confronted, the whitewashing of Black British history is also questioned. The main line of enquiry: what is the truth about the lives of Black people in British history? And who has the right to answer this question?
Therefore, Unbothered has curated seven must-read Black British history books that challenge the distorted depictions of our past and have marred our understanding of a people, and more personally, ourselves.
Black Teacher: An Unsung Heroine of Black British Literature
Black Teacher: An Unsung Heroine of Black British Literature is a captivating biography celebrating the life and achievements of Beryl Gilroy, a remarkable figure in the world of literature. The book sheds light on Gilroy's pioneering work as a teacher and writer in post-war Britain, exploring Gilroy’s impact on education and commitment to promoting racial equality in the classroom and her journey from her native Guyana to becoming the first Black headteacher in London. Black Teacher: An unsung heroine of Black British Literature reveals Gilroy’s significant contributions to the literary canon and emphasises her role in fostering Black voices in a predominantly white literary landscape. Until this day Beryl Gilroy’s works, such as Black Teacher and The Black Child in the Classroom, remain vital references in the study of multicultural education.
Black Teacher: An Unsung Heroine of Black British Literature is available to purchase at WHSmith (£10.99)
Many Struggles: New Histories of African and Caribbean People in Britain
Many Struggles: New Histories of African and Caribbean People in Britain edited by Dr Hakim Adi delves into the vivid records of the African and Caribbean diaspora in the United Kingdom. Through the lens of historical insight, Adi explores the nuances of the Black experience, offering fresh perspectives and highlighting overlooked narratives. With meticulous research and captivating prose, he takes readers on a journey through the challenges, triumphs, and resilience of these communities, as well as reclaims the history and untold stories of individuals and collectives who have left an indelible mark on Britain's social fabric. Adi not only helps reshape our understanding of the African and Caribbean diaspora but also explores the vital role these communities have played in shaping the cultural mosaic of modern Britain. Many Struggles: New Histories of African and Caribbean People in Britain is a powerful testament to the enduring spirit of those who have, for generations, navigated the complex terrain of identity, belonging, and activism on British soil. In Adi's hands, history comes alive, offering a rich and enlightening account that is both timely and profoundly relevant.
Many Struggles: New Histories of African and Caribbean People in Britain is available to buy on Amazon
The Making Of The Black Working Class in Britain
The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain by Ron Ramdin uncovers the obscured history of Black labourers in the heart of the British Empire. Ramdin paints a clear portrait of the Black working class, tracing their journey from the colonial era to the struggles for equality in post-war Britain. This seminal work illuminates the countless challenges faced by Black workers, from discrimination in employment to the fight for civil rights. Ramdin’s narrative weaves together personal stories and more significant societal shifts, offering an intimate and enlightening perspective on the role Black labourers have played in shaping modern Britain. The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain recounts the tenacity and contributions of a community long marginalised by history.
Black Resistance To British Policing
Black Resistance to British Policing by Adam Elliot-Cooper offers a searing exploration of the turbulent relationship between the Black community and British law enforcement. With insight and rigorous research, Elliot-Cooper navigates the historical continuum of resistance and traces the roots of systemic oppression and the evolution of Black activism. This work unearths the deep-seated racial biases within the British policing system and unveils the untold stories of those who have courageously challenged its injustices. Black Resistance to British Policing is a call to action and a profound examination of a community's unwavering commitment to dismantling a system that perpetuates inequality and discrimination.
Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery
Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery by Adam Hochschild explores a compelling narrative of relentless determination and moral awakening. With eloquence and precision, Hochschild transports readers to the heart of the 18th-century British abolitionist movement and introduces the unsung heroes who challenged the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. This gripping account reveals the efforts of ordinary individuals who defied societal norms in order to confront an entrenched system of cruelty. Bury the Chains is not just a history lesson; it's a testament to those who fought for justice, and a stark reminder that change is possible when humanity confronts its darkest impulses.
Black People in the British Empire
Black People in the British Empire by Peter Fryer builds on the foundations of his ground-breaking debut, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, and casts a wider net to discover the untold stories of Black individuals across the expansive British Empire. Fryer illuminates the intricate web of exploitation and resilience, tracing the diverse experiences of those who encountered the imperial might of Britain. With a narrative that traverses continents and unravels the complex history of colonialism, resistance, and identity, Fryer breathes life into historical figures who navigated the shadows of empire and reveals how their stories are woven into the broader fabric of Black diaspora history. Black People in the British Empire is an indispensable chronicle of voices silenced for too long and another essential continuation of Fryer's tireless exploration of Black histories.
Black People in the British Empire is available to buy at Blackwells (£13.99)
Black People in the British Empire is available to buy at Blackwells (£13.99)
Black England: A Forgotten Georgian History
Black England: A Forgotten Georgian History written by Gretchen Gerzina is a vivid account of Black Britain during the 18th century – a fascinating and often forgotten part of England’s past. During the 90s, Gerzina was reportedly inspired to write the book after an assistant in a London bookshop informed the African-American historian that there "were no black people in England before 1945.” This, of course, wasn’t the case. As the book details, there was a large and distinctive Black community during the early 1800s. Black England: A Forgotten Georgian History is a sprawling account of the Black-only balls, interracial marriages, special churches and the Black presence in pubs and clubs that made up Black Georgian life for the many prosperous, famous and respected Black dwellers in London (many of which had come to England as slaves). However, as the book details, “whether prosperous citizens or newly freed slaves, they all ran the risk of kidnap and sale to plantations.”