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David Olusoga: It is ‘critical’ to talk about black and imperial history

Historian David Olusoga said the Government has been slow to act (Nutopia/BBC/PA)
Historian David Olusoga said the Government has been slow to act (Nutopia/BBC/PA)

Historian David Olusoga has said he feels it is “critical” to talk about black and imperial history in order to tell a version of Britain’s past that includes everyone.

The broadcaster and writer has adapted his book titled Black And British, which explores the histories of black people in Britain from Roman times through to the present day, by creating an illustrated version.

Olusoga told the PA news agency he adapted the text for young people due to the historical omissions in his schooling, saying: “When I was in school, all of these histories were invisible.

“All of these stories, all of these characters, all of these links between parts of history that are taught and the parts that aren’t taught, all of that was edited out.

“It seems to me critical to tell a version of British history that includes the back stories, and the family stories of everybody, and that means we do need to talk about black history, we do need to talk about imperial history, because these are not just British histories, these are family histories of our fellow citizens.

“We can’t have a history that makes sense, that is functional for the country that we are, if we don’t include the stories of black and brown people from the Empire, and from Britain’s entanglements with other parts of the world.”

Olusoga, 51, first published the book Black And British: A Forgotten History aimed at adults in 2016 and explained that he decided to write a version for young people after being approached by parents who wanted to share the history with their children.

Black And British: A Short, Essential History was released in 2020 and targets older children, while the latest version, which has been illustrated by Jake Alexander and Melleny Taylor, is adapted for a younger audience.

Baroness Benjamin’s book BBC bedtime story
The historian said he was inspired to adapt the book for children after speaking to parents (BBC/PA)

He said he hopes these books can be a resource for parents and schools to engage in a discussion with children about Britain’s past and the history of black people.

The historian said he has seen a notable increase in the last couple of years of people looking for books and materials which address race, racism and black history but he feels there is a lack of action from the Government.

He told PA: “I don’t think that there’s much enthusiasm for incorporating these stories into the curriculum from Government, but what I do see is enormous amounts of commitment and energy from teachers.

“I meet teachers all the time who are going out of their way to tell histories that are inclusive of the stories of the children who sit in their classrooms, that talk about the empire, that talk about slavery, that talk about the black presence, or the Indian presence in Britain going back centuries.

“I see huge amounts of energy coming from schools and coming from teachers, and coming from young black people themselves campaigning for changes to the curriculum.

“I think the Government’s wrong on this, and I think they’re behind the public mood.”

Olusoga has previously presented documentaries surrounding the topic of the histories of black people in Britain, including the BBC documentary series adaptation of his novel Black And British in 2016.

– Black & British: An Illustrated History by David Olusoga, illustrated by Jake Alexander and Melleny Taylor, will be published in hardback on November 11 by Macmillan Children’s Books.

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