Race Matters

Black British Literature at A Level: A first step to many

IMAGE: ZADIE SMITH BY DAVID SHANKBONE
Reflecting on the content the new A Level teaching resource she has facilitated, Dr. Deirdre Osborne explores the importance of representing Black British literature in schools and colleges.

Literature provides a powerful touchstone and entry point for understanding the multi-ethnic and racial realities in Britain today. It is a conduit to cultural citizenship. When The Royal Society of Literature asked 2000 people in March 2017 to name ‘writers of literature’, just 7% of the 400 writers named were from black, or Asian backgrounds.

While this survey represents a snapshot, it supports recurrent findings by government bodies, cultural watchdogs and policy think-tank organisations (such as the Arts Council, the Runnymede Trust, Spread the Word, Free Verse, London Schools and the Black Child). The question, ‘why is my curriculum white?’ still remains crucial in relation to secondary school education provision. A key point made by Debbie Weekes-Bernard in a 2015 Race Matters blog ‘Whose History’ is that ‘Issues of equality and diversity need to be placed at the core of school curricula, and our national debate about British identity must critically reflect on the extent to which it either includes or excludes groups by virtue of diversity deemed “acceptable” or not.’ 

These issues remain pressing. Exposure to a wide and diverse range of literary voices dissolves the notion that there is a unique, singular experience of literary Britishness. Contemporary Black British Literature , the new EdExcel/Pearson A-level materials showcasing writers of diverse ethnic backgrounds, are directly aimed towards recalibrating British secondary education. Contemporary Black British Literature provides a starting point in supporting teachers and students in exploring literature that exists beyond the traditional mainstays of the white canon.  This marks the first time that the secondary school literature curriculum in the UK has offered such a range of texts from this field for students to select from in taking an A-level qualification. It contributes to decolonising the accepted mainstream in British literature and is relevant for everyone committed to engaging with the true richness of post-war British literature. As outlined in the guide featured in Contemporary Black British Literature: ‘”Black British literature” indicates a range of late-twentieth-century and contemporary work in a context of literary history, rather than as projecting racial restrictions upon the many possible identities that can comprise any individual, and to which they might subscribe personally and collectively. As a literary term, Black British can be asserted, disputed and problematised in turn. Nonetheless, it is an important strand within British literature that needs to be woven into educational curricula and its value recognised by current and future generations.’

Contemporary Black British Literature celebrates perspectives habitually marginalised or omitted from British education. It catalyses the cultural valuing of literature that centralises black people’s perspectives and is written by black authors. While the A-level will set the expectations of students wanting to continue this interest at university, it infers the earlier step of challenging the norms that society and educators unconsciously propagate even at primary school stage.

The Contemporary Black British Literature materials also provide contexts and support for teachers, and those training to be teachers, who might not feel familiar or confident in exploring issues around ‘race’ (and who might have been educated themselves in a British schooling system that has been primarily Euro-centric and offered limited recognition of the actual rich seam of diverse cultural heritages). This EdExcel initiative recognises too, ‘from our conversations with teachers that it can be difficult to know where to begin’. (Introduction to Students, The Contemporary Black British Literature, 2017)  

Education is the largest sphere for public engagement across all social categories and identities shaped by gender, class, race and religion. Contemporary Black British Literature aims to appeal to those with a commitment to decolonising secondary school curricula; it will broaden exposure to literary legacies within and outside personal experiences, as a first stage in filling longstanding gaps in heritage acquisition. Young people’s futures can only benefit from educational opportunities in the variety of backgrounds and experiences that are portrayed in this regrettably small selection from the magnificent literary works available.

The portfolio of resources for Contemporary Black British Literature offers a fifty-seven page guide, a twenty-two page Introduction for Students and a twenty-seven page booklet of Teaching Activities. The authors and their texts are:

Prose

Incomparable World, S.I. Martin (Quartet Books, 1997)

NW, Zadie Smith (Penguin, 2012)


Strange Music, Laura Fish (Vintage, 2009)


Trumpet, Jackie Kay (Picador, 2016)

Drama

Fallout, Roy Williams (Bloomsbury 3PL, 2003)


nut, debbie tucker green (Nick Hern Books, 2013)


Something Dark, Lemn Sissay in Hidden Gems ed. Deirdre Osborne
(Oberon Books, 2008)


The Story of M, SuAndi (Oberon Books, 2017)

Poetry

Ship Shape, Dorothea Smartt (Peepal Tree Press, 2011)


Telling Tales, Patience Agbabi (Canongate Books, 2015)


The Rose of Toulouse, Fred D’Aguiar (Carcanet Press, 2013) and ‘At the Grave of the Unknown African, Henbury Parish Church’ Callaloo, 15:4 (1992): 894-8.

Too Black, Too Strong, Benjamin Zephaniah (Bloodaxe Books, 2001) and ‘Introductory Chat’ and ‘Lesson Number Wan’ (pp.1-2 & 3-4) in School’s Out: Poems Not For School (Edinburgh; San Francisco: AK Press, 1997).

Dr Deirdre Osborne teaches a Masters in Black British Writing at Goldsmiths: @BlackWriteGold
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