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History – A single narrative or a collection of stories?

One of my Somali friends once asked me to explain to her what Black History was. I said

that it covered a huge range of histories. She said that her children were learning Black

History at school that focused entirely on the Civil Rights movement in America and the

Transatlantic Slave Trade. Where was the history of Somalis in the Royal Navy? Where

was the history of colonialism in the Horn of Africa, the account of wars and conflicts that

led to migration from Somalia?

When I was part of a project interviewing people who had migrated to England from the

Caribbean in the 1950s and early 60s, the same question arose. Where was the teaching

in schools about the reasons for migration, about the concept of the ‘mother country’,

about black communities in Brixton, New Cross, Acton…?

Black History is woven from many strands even if there are many shared themes. One

good way to acknowledge this is to work with stories of personal experience. Collections of

stories are open-ended. They provoke conversations and responses and sow seeds in the

mind. They also show people to be centres of action and meaning which is surely the most

powerful way to present history, as something that is made by human beings and can be

influenced by us through social and political action.

There are many examples of history told through personal story – for instance Hentoff and

Shapiro’s history of jazz called Hear Me Talkin To Ya, Svetlana Alexievich’s many books

about the history of the Soviet Union and Alison Irvine’s history of a housing estate in

Glasgow called This Road is Red.

There are lots of different ways to present personal stories. Here are two projects that

show contrasting approaches, one more text based and the other using a range of digital

techniques. I would love to know how a teacher could use these resources or be inspired

to do their own project with intergenerational interviewing and research carried out by their

own students.



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