Race Matters

Why the history of migration is so important

Earlier this week Runnymede launched the Our Migration Story initiative explaining the history of migration to the UK. Dr Malachi McIntosh, who heads the project, tells his story...

"My most distinct memories of my four years as a lecturer in English at Cambridge come from my supervisions and seminars, specifically from the teaching sessions I held with final-year, final-term students on a paper on postcolonial literature. 

Invariably in our first meeting I would ask my new groups what they had learned about colonisation and Empire in their education so far – including at Cambridge. A handful of the over 150 or so that I taught would mumble something about slavery; some, with their own historical connections to former colonies might say they'd picked up bits about South Asia, or about Africa, or, in the rarest cases, about the Caribbean in their readings outside of school. Others would shrug. But most would just smirk and say 'No.'

I'd follow by firing a cartridge of questions, things I thought were historical essentials: Did they do anything on slave revolts and freedom bids in school? No. On the Partition of India? No. On the 1948 Nationality Act? No. My question-attacks were a stereotypically donnish tactic  – although I should note that I wasn't smoking from a pipe at the time – that came from an honest desire to probe what they knew and didn't know and from a genuine year on year surprise. The question underneath my questioning was how was it that these students, from the nation's top-performing schools, with their aspirations to be leaders in media, in policy, in education and in industry, with their sheaves of A*s at A-Level, could know so little about Britain's relationship to the world.

I knew the answer. I started my career as a school teacher in South Croydon and had seen first-hand that for many young people 'history' was Nazi Germany, the US Civil Rights movement and Henry the VIII again and again. Still, the worry I had each spring wasn't much softened by this. I worried, and still worry, that my students didn't have what they needed to understand, much less usefully develop, Britain's present because of their lack of awareness of our near and distant past. 

I'm excited now to be working to help to make that change. From all the victories in the battles to expand Michael Gove's proposed History curriculum has come the first-ever chance for GCSE pupils to study migration and Empire in depth in the form of new modules from the OCR and AQA. Alongside colleagues at the Runnymede Trust, in collaboration with the OCR, over 60 historians based at the full range of UK universities and historical organisations including the National Archive, Imperial War Museum and the V&A, I'm helping to assemble a suite of online resources to support the teaching of these often hidden histories, a suite housed on the site Our Migration Story. 

Migration and Empire are, of course, endlessly alive in our national conversation, but the knowledge that most of us have on these topics comes mostly from ad hoc encounters outside of formal schooling. For things that are so central to our past, future and present understanding of ourselves, it seems strange to leave learning about them to chance meetings with newspaper articles, documentaries, blog posts and Twitter feeds. Just as we're convinced that our students need to be numerate and literate to make sense of the world they're entering, it seems sensible that, in line with that old cliché, they ought to know where we've come from in order to understand where we are and where we might be able to go. 

From the story of Irish nurses and Polish soldiers in the Battle of Britain; from Indian nannies and sailors to the old Chinese Limehouse; from the British Civil Rights movement to pre-Union Scottish vagrants; from Africans in Roman Britain to twentieth-century Germanophobia, Our Migration Story attempts to showcase how migrants, migration and the expanded then collapsed borders of imperial Britain helped to make us who we are. Where my worries used to be how my students could lead a nation whose global role was mostly unknown to them, our hope is that future students, at all universities, and future pupils at all schools, will not only have access to but be encouraged to absorb the knowledge that escaped their predecessors."

Dr Malachi McIntosh is the author of Emigration and Caribbean Literature and the editor of Beyond Calypso: Re-Reading Samuel Selvon. He is also the lead of Runnymede's Our Migration Story project
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