Here's why Mary Seacole and other inspiring black figures should stay on the curriculum

Why can't children learn about a black woman not through the prism of slavery, colonialism or the Civil rights movement, but as a great Victorian?

Share
Related Topics

Reading that Daily Mail headline on the penultimate day of the 2012 filled me with great dismay:

‘The black Florence Nightingale and the making of the PC myth: One historian explains how Mary Seacole’s story never stood up.’

That ‘historian’, William Curtis, went on to say that ‘the hype that has built up surrounding this otherwise worthy woman is a disgrace to the serious study of history.’

There have been a small, but vocal number of Mary Seacole detractors such as Curtis, and notably the former editor of Radio 4’s Today programme Rod Liddle, who almost cannot bear the fact that the exploits of Mary Seacole were being optionally taught to seven and eight year-olds as one of many great Victorians. Top of a long list of the spurious gripes, Liddle was questioning why she inspired black people, when according to him, ‘she was white. At least three quarters’.

Given that Seacole was never mandatory to the curriculum one wondered what all the fuss was about.  Nevertheless, it seems that by the latter part of last year, Gove had been persuaded to dump her from the curriculum notes, along with the slave abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. The leaked report suggested that students get back to basics and learn about key figures such as Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill, instead of promoting 'politically correct social themes'.

My own seven year-old son had come home months earlier waxing lyrical about both Seacole and Florence Nightingale. ‘Dad’ he said, ‘this woman travelled miles, and miles on her own to care for the sick soldiers in the Crimean war. Wasn’t she brave?' His mum and I spoke about it being very significant. ‘It’s wonderful’, we reflected, ‘that our son is being taught about a black woman not through the prism of racism-slavery, colonialism or the Civil rights movement - important as they all are - but rather as a great Victorian.’

And she was great. With no title and no statue her exploits attending the sick and wounded were recognised not only by the great and good, including royalty, but also 80,000 British citizens who came out to pay respects to her in her lifetime.  When was the last time 80,000 people - the size of the Olympic stadium - came out to pay tribute to a nurse? The esteemed Times war writer Sir W.H. Russell wrote of Seacole in 1857:

‘I trust England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded..and who performed the last offices for some of the illustrious dead’.

On reading the proposals to scrap Seacole I and a small group of activists, including Lester Holloway, Patrick Vernon and Professor Elizabeth Anionwu from the Mary Seacole Trust, decided to start a petition on Change.org. Within a week 5,000 had signed. That was significant in itself, but the comments that came with it were more telling us much more: black people would say: ‘enough is enough.  Is there nothing they won’t do to our people?’ ‘Why should our children be denied these heroes’. Others would say: ‘I’m white, and me and my family love Seacole’s story. She is a strong, great woman’.

Within two weeks nearly 30,000 had signed, including the African American Civil Rights icon Rev Jesse Jackson, and best selling author Zadie Smith.

A spokesperson for Gove’s curriculum reform suggested that ‘teachers should decide for themselves what they teach.’ We vociferously argued without direction to the rich diversity of British history our children will predominantly be taught about powerful white men and a few Queens.

The Deputy Leader Nick Clegg raised the stakes of the debate claiming that on his watch, ‘Seacole would not be removed’.  Would he really make another education pledge and not keep it, we thought?

Fortunately, for Clegg that will not now be tested. Michael Gove, for all his infamy of being an ‘ideologue’ and someone who ‘just doesn’t listen no matter how reasonable’, responded personally stating:

‘I agree that it is important that our children learn about the difference that these figures have made, and it is right that we do more, not less, to make subjects relevant to the lives of our children.’

Sadly, though we are not are not home and dry.

While it’s true that Mary Seacole has gone from being in the guidance notes, to nearly being erased, to finding herself centre stage along with Olaudah Equiano, other key aspects of the curriculum seem to have disappeared. In particular the present instruction to teach African civilizations before the slave trade.  

This latter part is critically important. African history lessons that start with European conquest not only denies black children of their complete true heritage, but also shockingly distorts the view of Africans to white students, too.

Unlike others we will not be ‘kicking’ Minster Gove while he’s politically down. Our challenge then as it is now has never been about taking political sides, it has only ever been about ensuring our children have the opportunity to fully tap into the rich and diverse national and international history. 

Great Black Britons might be looking down saying ‘well done, but the job is only half finished.’ Like us, they'd probably want to ensure that all our students, black and white, get the rich history lessons they so deserve.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration Engineer

£24000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: These refrigeration specialists...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Logistics and Supply Chain

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an operational role and...

Recruitment Genius: CNC Sheet Metal Worker / Fabricator

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working within the workshop of ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st / 2nd Line IT Support Engineer

£20000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This specialist high tech compa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nick Clegg (R) Liberal Democrat Leader and former leader Charles Kennedy MP, joined the general election campaign trail on April 8, 2010  

Charles Kennedy: The only mainstream political leader who spoke sense

Tim Farron
 

The strangely parallel lives of Oliver Letwin and Ed Miliband

Matthew Norman
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral