The murder of George Floyd has increased awareness of race relations throughout the United Kingdom. A petition with over a hundred thousand signatures calls to ‘make white privilege and systemic racism a compulsory part of the British education course’. A letter calling to decolonise the Latymer Upper School Education system suggests that ‘subjects such as Britain’s role in colonialism and the effects this has globally to this day as well as institutionalised racism are subjects that if taught to teenagers would do so much for deconstructing racism in society’.
When asked what he thought of Black Lives Matter, Paul Gilroy, author of After Empire and Black Atlantic, said that he preferred the term black minds matter, presumably emphasising the need to enhance and nourish the black experience rather than just sustain it. Knowledge provides the most constructive way of enhancing our minds. I would argue that British historical memory is concerned primarily with national cohesion and fails to provide an accurate understanding of the past. Better History, with a greater focus on post-colonialism, can improve our quality of mind. This will be explained by two means. Firstly, criticising the monopolisation of historical imagination by narratives of World War 1 and 2. Secondly, explaining how the study of Colonialism, within the context of 20th century totalitarianism, provides a more accurate understanding of our past.
The stories of World War 1 (WW1) and World War 2 (WW2) dominate historical memory. These two Wars are national cohesion tools through which the British citizen can have a sense of place in the past. At England football matches pubs are full of references to these two events, with fans screaming the Great Escape theme tune, celebrating ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’ and singing about how the RAF shot down German Bombers. The major moments of public historical memory come from Remembrance Sunday, commemorating the end of WW1, and VE Day, commemorating victory over Nazi Germany. During my own school experience these two subjects were the main stays of the curriculum, visiting Ypres and studying Nazi Germany for A-Levels. These narratives are crucial to understanding the British collective imagination, however, monopolisation of these events over the national historical imagination can also serve to obscure and distort perceptions of our past. For instance, the subject of racism seems only to be confronted through the lens of the Holocaust. This conveniently allows History teacher’s to acknowledge racism through the limited narrative of a foreigner with ‘crack brain beliefs’ (Hobsbawm). Racism is therefore othered from the national narrative of history; Britain were the good nation that liberated the concentration camps from the bad fascists. This narrative causes no tension amongst Britain’s commonwealth allies and engineers a sense of esteem within the British people as a constant source for good in the wider world. The potency of this narrative is so strong that it continues to define popular views of Germany particularly in regard to the European Union. I have on two occasions been told that the European Union was a successful attempt to achieve what Germany attempted in WW1 and WW2. Therefore the limited historical narrative, taught in schools and sung on the terraces, weaponises history to assert national superiority through the failures of Germany at the beginning of the 20th century.
A broader knowledge of post-colonialism would enhance minds through a more accurate view of the past. The problem with our WW1 and WW2 obsession is that it obscures historical memory. To ghettoise racism through the vehicle of Nazi Germany actively obscures Britain’s own history of genocide and systematic oppression. Books like George Orwell’s Burmese Days and Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism explain how the regimes of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia need to be understood within the context of 19th century European Imperialism. The lessons on Hobbesian violence, the capacity for science to be used to entrench domination and the role of colonial role of literature, through the process of othering, can be found as readily in the British and French Empires as they can in the 20th century totalitarian states. To have a longer lens for history, in both schools and the general public, would serve to enhance the intelligence of the British peoples and leave them better equipped to understand and navigate our present, be it over race relations, Chinese hegemony, or the threat of artificial intelligence.
Attempts to frame the past as good versus evil are exercises in national cohesion and have little to do with History. Orienting ourselves towards a more accurate view of the past would serve to improve minds of all colour.