UPON ENTERING The Beats Residency in Shoreditch, the atmosphere was electric. I instantly spotted a stall piled high with books. The first thing that caught my eye was a bright pink cover, featuring a silhouette of a head with a neat braided bun and golden hoop earrings – it could only be Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams. As I took a closer look, I noticed there were dozens of novels written by our people. I felt a great sense of pride, and this sighting set the tone for the evening ahead.
My eyes darted to the artwork that was plastered over the white walls, classic novels reinterpreted with black representation.
The infamous Tracy Beaker, reimagined by Jada Art, had dark skin and a fro. The 12-year-old book worm in me almost squealed out loud.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the artwork. There were so many classics displayed that I had grown up reading through education or leisure but with black faces – I was in awe.
While I was studying every detail, I realised that from a young age I had never allowed my mind to go this far. I never thought that I could even possibly be represented or create a literary classic, because I was never shown these examples growing up in education.
The event really opened my mind to the idea that I could one day write one of these classic novels. With the help of a publishing company like #Merky Books, there is space for us to tell our own stories, we just have to be daring enough to do it.
This leads me on to the topic of the evening’s conversation, Rewriting the Curriculum
Hosted by Chelsea Kwayke, co-author of Taking Up Space, the panel featured Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, Sharan Dhaliwal, editor of Burnt Roti Magazine, and Dapo Adeola aka Daps Draws, illustrator of children’s book Look Up,
Panellists explored the stories that are missing from today’s classroom, how to make the existing UK curriculum more inclusive beyond the white British population, the need to steer away from the curriculum’s standard writers, and those subjects that only accommodate the narrative of the British Empire.
Here are some of the highlights:
Reflections on the UK education system
Eddo-Lodge said: “I remember my English teacher telling me I was going to fail. My school didn’t invest energy in nurturing my talent.
“In my later years in English class I was always compared to a white girl – in terms of talent in the subject we were probably equal. But I was in a chaotic situation at home and she wasn’t and was knuckling down. I literally saw the teachers get her ready her for Oxbridge in a way that I wasn’t. I saw them pour resources into her, in a way that I wasn’t. I was written off.”
This experience was echoed by Adeola. He said: “My story is quite similar, I was the kid who and had no focus or direction, but not to brag, I was more talented than a lot of my peers.”
“Coursework was difficult to get done given the chaotic home life. I would see the same as you (Eddo-Lodge). The lecturers would pour so much time and effort and energy into the mediocre students and I didn’t get any of that. Only one of my lecturers, who is now a friend of mine, showed me the attention and gave me the direction that I was craving at the time,” he added.
Dhaliwal said: “I never had any inspiration from school. I just went through the motions of school or university or college. I wasn’t inspired by any teachers or any of the subject matters either, because of how structured it was. I wanted to be creative but there was a limit, and so much I could reach.”
She continued: “It was particularly at university where I saw mediocre white students getting ahead. And that made me feel like giving up. It was only well after education that I actually started doing what I wanted to do.”
The need for representation within the curriculum
“Nothing really shook the table. Outside of education I read this book published by Lambeth Council on the story of Dr Howard Moody. He was a physician from Peckham who tirelessly campaigned for the better treatment of black Brits and gave free treatments in the early 20th century,” said Eddo-Lodge.
“This stuff really hooks your interest, and concerns all of us. When I learnt about Civil Rights – which was only in October because apparently we’re only relevant for a month. While it was interesting to me, I almost couldn’t relate because it was set in America. It would be interesting to learn about local histories like Dr Moody, that directly concern the area that the kids are learning in,” she added.
Adeola said: “Thinking about WW2, at the time I didn’t have the knowledge to realise the version of WW2 we were taught omitted us. For black people and Asian people; our participation in this was removed, erased or it wasn’t covered at all. That would have made a massive difference to know the roles that we played.”
The illustrator added: “From the age of four, textbooks only illustrated an altered reality of history. At this tender age, I believed everything that was taught to me was accurate. But as I grew up and began digging, I realised that this wasn’t true.”
Dhaliwal even went on to say that if she was informed about the full history of WW2, she would have known earlier to ask her parents about any family’s history. She later found out that members of her family fought in WW2.
Changing the narrative
“It starts with teacher training, guidance counsellors, anyone within the school board – there’s a lot to be done. Especially when there’s a lot of unlearning to be done in terms of the standardised way of teaching. There’s a lot that needs to be done there first, before you can start looking into the curriculum and tearing it apart,” Dhaliwal said.
Beyond the curriculum
When asked how children can learn beyond the curriculum outside of the classroom, there were some insightful answers.
“The Advocacy Academy. You can apply from age 16-17 and work in activism. Young people can work on particular issues they are passionate about like gender, race etc. If you’re not getting what you need in school, which is a shame because you should be able to just get that information, there are things outside it,” Dhaliwal said,” Adeola said.
He added: “I never thought I would get further information from school. I think school gives you the most basic education. Any extra stuff you have to find outside – and it’s the extra stuff that really shapes you. There are loads of podcasts out there that talk about difficult issues; like mental health, gender issues and LBTQ issues. I would encourage you to be curious, go out there and find those conversations. Listen to people from different walks of life talk about a range of things, and even listen to people that disagree with you!”
The final question was full circle back to the topic of novels. Panellists were asked: “If you had to recommend a book to be staple on the UK curriculum, which book would it be?”
Dhaliwal: For younger children – The Boy and the Bindi
Teenagers/adults – Mottled Dawn: Fifty Sketches and Stories of Partition by Saadat Hasan Manto and Bengal Divided by Nitish Sengupta.
Eddo-Lodge – August Town by Kei Miller
Adeola – Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman