David Olusoga: ‘We need to normalise Black British history’

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IF YOU need an introduction to David Olusoga, it’s time to come out from the rock you’ve been living under. Black History Month is the perfect time to do it, because Black British history is his bag.

His groundbreaking BBC series showed us that Black people have been an important part of British history for a long time. His book, of the same title is essential reading in the best way possible. Now, he’s making Black history accessible for children in a book aimed 12-year-olds.

The Voice spoke to David about why all children need to learn Black British history, the first book that helped him see himself and when he’ll know his work is done.

What do Black British children need to know?

I think it’s important they know their history is part of British history. It’s not an optional extra or some specialist subject. It’s actually an integral part of the British story.

It sounds like a strange ambition, but we need to normalise Black British history.

Black people, of African heritage are the only people that were told they didn’t have a history.

Historian David Olusoga

What is so special about our history?

There are two things that are important about this. Black people, of African heritage are the only people that were told they didn’t have a history.

It’s quite specific what was said about Africans. They were told for generations that Africa was a land that had no history. And in that way, they were like animals.

So Black people have had to exhume a hidden history, an unrecorded history, a denied history.

Young people knowing their history as they go into adulthood is empowering for them – but it’s the responsibility of companies, corporations and institutions to examine their internal cultures and to weed out structures that create inequalities.

Historian David Olusoga

Is your book just for Black children?

It’s for all children. These are shared stories. It’s just as important for white kids to understand why their class has the makeup that it does, as it is for Black kids to understand how their family stories fit into the bigger stories.

I’ve said it for years and years and years: Black history is British history. I find myself saying it over and over again.

I’ll know there’s progress when I have to stop saying the obvious.

When was the first time you saw yourself in a book?

When I was 16, I bought a copy of Peter Fryer’s Book Staying Power. It was an incredibly empowering experience to read that book. I wish I’d been able to read it at 11 not 16.

I know at that age, knowing this stuff would have been really grounding for me.

How did you change the book to make it child-friendly?

Obviously, some of this history is very difficult and shocking. It needs to be managed for children. There’s things it’s better they learn later.

I like using historical sources and that language is quite difficult. So I had to use sources in very different ways and that was quite a challenge.

But I think the big challenge is not to patronise children. They’re not stupid, they’re just young.

Can this book empower Black British children, so they’re able to better face the challenges their parents did?

That’s a different issue. That’s about changing organisations and understanding how structures can disadvantage and exclude Black people.

Young people knowing their history as they go into adulthood is empowering for them – but it’s the responsibility of companies, corporations and institutions to examine their internal cultures and to weed out structures that create inequalities.

So I think they’re separate issues.

Interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

You can buy David Olusoga’s book Black and British: A short, essential history from all good bookstores


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