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“History never looks like history when you are living through it” (J.W Gardner)
… or does it?
It has been twenty eight years since The Queen famously summarised the year gone by as her ‘annus horribilis’, but palace officials may be well-advised to go rifling through the royal bureau and dust off that speech in preparation for Her Majesty’s address to the nation this Christmas. 2020 is proving to be a year to remember, or perhaps, a year to forget!
Even amidst the dominating narrative of pandemic and lockdown however, a second, potentially more enduring narrative is emerging. What began as a sombre subplot, with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis back in May, quickly became headline news as Black Lives Matter protests spread first across the continental US and then over the Atlantic to European shores, even to the banks of Bristol’s Floating Harbour.
With the toppling of Colston’s statue there were few Bristolians who would not have spent at least some of their lockdown in reflection and introspection about what sort of society we were, we are and, most significantly, we want to be. Such questions added great impetus to a process that has been a key focus of the History Department in recent years; that of diversifying our curriculum with the intention of shining a light on the contributions and experiences of previously underrepresented groups in the history we teach. By no means are we an exception in this respect, with Ms Lobo facilitating a school-wide ‘De-colonising the curriculum’ working group. Our work in this area has been helped by our reviewing the units we offer at GCSE and the introduction of the globally-minded International Baccalaureate in the Sixth Form, but crucially we have focussed on the learning experience of our younger Senior School pupils. After all, much as we might wish them to, not all our students stay with studying History throughout their time at BGS and therefore might never get to wrestle with units on South Africa’s apartheid, America’s civil rights movement, Mao’s revolution or Algeria’s decolonisation, to name but a few. It’s important then that when our Year 7 students delve into society in the Middle Ages for example, they not only meet the tapestry-weaving conquerors from Normandy, but also the vast trading empire of medieval Mali. Or when they consider the Crusades, they do so from the perspective of the followers of Islam and Judaism, as well as the crusading Christians.
Black History Month, celebrated each year in October in the UK, has provided yet another impetus to keep our momentum going. Faced with the COVID-linked challenges of trying to organise events within school, we have instead opted for a more self-directed approach, creating an enrichment grid for our school community to delve into in expanding their understanding of a more diverse and representative history. This year we are also choosing to make a focus of the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963, a powerful but often overlooked episode in both local and national history which deserves to be celebrated as the victory of diversity and peaceful, direct action over the forces of prejudice and segregation.
We have certainly not reached our destination of historical diversification yet, but I am happy to be on the journey and to see first-hand the enormous appetite that exists within our student body for such a process. Perhaps 2020 isn’t a year to forget after all, for this surreal and unsettling time is also an opportunity to reconsider and begin to rewrite our roadmap for the future. Whatever the ‘normal’ proves to be after this pandemic it will not be the normal of before; what better time then to ask ourselves just what we want the new normal to be.
Head of History, Bristol Grammar School