Week thirteen: in answer to a question

Yesterday a museum colleague and friend of mine asked on Facebook:

“What to think when people I know have not supported the movement of black lives matter. Maybe they don’t want the backlash from friends maybe they disagree. I dunno! Maybe those people could respond as to Why?”

It’s a good question, and my first response was ‘Maybe they are afraid of getting it wrong’, and after a bit more thinking “I think we’re going to get things wrong, but to recognise that is a starting point to work from: ok, I am wrong, but I’m open to being put right.” So, I may get the next few paragraphs wrong, but I hope they are a start.

From 2005 to 2017 I ran the schools programme at the Museum of London Docklands: I was there when the London Sugar and Slavery gallery was opened, and a couple of weeks ago I was really pleased to see the statue of Robert Milligan removed from the quayside outside. It’s worth noting that the statue doesn’t belong to the museum (no one is quite sure who it does belong to, but possibly British Waterways who are the landowners) but we drew attention to him as part of visits to the museum, particularly for secondary school groups, as he led the consortium that built the West India Docks. Those docks – and the museum building, No 1 Warehouse, which was originally one of nine warehouses stretching the better part of a mile – were built on the profits from the Transatlantic Slave Trade, to house the valuable products of that trade, and to ensure that the supply of those products into London was entirely controlled by a small minority of men who saw the way that public feeling was leaning and built a giant walled lock-up, which opened in 1802, to ensure their own pockets were lined long after the trade (if not slavery itself) was banned in 1807. Like a reformed smoker, the British then took it upon themselves to enforce the ban across the world, despite being the nation who industrialised the Transatlantic Slave Trade. London was the fourth largest slave trading port in the world – not one where enslaved Africans were bought and sold, but one from where ships departed on the first leg of the triangle and returned to after the third, supplying the capital with sugar, rum, indigo, and more.

It’s right that we should remember this horrific period in world history – to ensure that, like the Holocaust, it never happens again, but it needs to be taught in context – bear with me before you fly off the wall here. I’m coming at this from my position as a museum educator (and perpetual learner), as a migration educator, and as an adoptive Londoner.

Every September, my phone lines would light up with teachers from all over London and Essex (including from schools and boroughs with high levels of African and Caribbean pupils – Hackney, for example) who started their conversations with the same words: “It’s Black History Month in October, what have you got on slavery?” Because – obviously – Black History begins with John Hawkins in 1562 and ends in 1833 with the abolition of slavery in parts of the British Empire through the good works of William Wilberforce and co. These teachers would tell me that they were playing field songs and spirituals in assemblies and over the tannoy, how they’d reenacted a slave market and so on, or that they were looking at the abolition through the works of Clarkson, Wilberforce and friends. Right there, right there, you can see why Black children are disillusioned – when the only part of your history you’re taught is of violence and subjugation, and that your freedom came only through the work of white people, what else do you expect? And these requests were coming from teachers of Year 2 (6 and 7 year olds) upwards. The indoctrination started early, so we focused on stories of escape from enslavement (Ellen Craft) for KS2. There were no positive role models offered by these school schemes of work, no celebration of Black culture – only the history of enslavement.

So, we became part of the Understanding Slavery Initiative, with a number of other institutions around the UK, to explore how the Transatlantic Slave Trade could be taught with sensitivity and as part of a much wider history – from the pre-TAST Africa to the legacy of the trade. Sadly, this project was an early victim of the 2008 recession and lost funding, but you can find the website and resources here. With this is mind, we built a day aimed at Year 9 which had three parts – a drama which set the whole day in context by exploring the life of a grandfather who had migrated to London in the 1950s through his interactions with his teenage grandson; a sensitively-delivered handling session using replica objects (from beautiful Benin bronze plaques to sugarcane and manacles); and a responsive creative writing session using poems by the wonderful Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison as a starting point who was kind enough to give us permission to use her work. These are poems of resistance, of how African culture survived the Atlantic crossing (never the middle passage – that’s a white perspective) and sustained people through horrific experiences. The day was informed by work with the wonderful Jean Campbell, who gave us perspective. Students would also have time in the London Sugar and Slavery gallery, with resources designed to make them think and talk to each other rather than read labels and parrot information.

I developed a shorter session, called Slavery: London and beyond, which looked at London’s role in the trade and the legacy of that trade – including the Maroons, Toussaint L’Ouverture and the role enslaved Africans played in gaining their own freedom, as well as Windrush and how all these things related to children’s own lives in London today. And we offered these sessions all year – and they booked. And the next year people would phone to book again and say ‘Well, we want to come back but could you not mention rape/brutality/death please? It upset the children’. I can’t imagine that these same teachers phone the IWM for a Holocaust education session and ask them not to mention gas chambers. We’d make a note, and we’d carry on as normal. None of my amazing freelance educators were prepared to whitewash history to make it acceptable.

Things became worse after the publication of the 2014 history curriculum and its narrow framework. Although the examples given in italics were ‘non-statutory’, we knew that many teachers would take these as ‘official’ guidelines. Mary Seacole, admirable and determined as she was, is not the only Black person to have an impact on British history. She was also mixed-race, and her experience as a Black person in London was by no means typical.

I became involved with the London Curriculum project and put forward the idea of a unit on migration called World City – an expanded version of the London Home from Home session I developed for schools, exploring how London came to be the superdiverse city it is today through 2000 years of migration. As a result of this, I ended up working with the History Lessons steering group for the Runnymede Trust exploration into how migration was being taught, alongside such experts as David Olusoga. The Runnymede Trust are a wonderful race equality resource, by the way, with some excellent teaching materials.

I also had conversations with Tony T and Rebecca Goldstone of Sweet Patootee, who are doing brilliant work in uncovering and sharing stories of Black history. All these activities and the people I have met have fed into my thinking about Black Lives. They matter – oh, so much – and I believe passionately that if their stories were built into education (across the world, but starting here in the UK), as part of world history and citizenship then we would be moving towards more understanding in the generations coming up behind us. I want to see Black History Month abolished: it’s tokenism at its very worst. I want to see the legacy of the diaspora spread across the curriculum: rock and roll, blues, ska, fashion, food, art. I want ALL kids to see that Black history is our history too.

I am prepared to be told I am wrong: I want to open conversations, to understand people’s experiences. I want this to be more than a hashtag somewhere on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter. I’m going to share this with my friend who started the conversation yesterday now: I hope she knows how much I do support the movement, even from a position where I can never truly understand. I am prepared to try, though.

And now for something completely different…

I finished the puffin dress, and I’m quite pleased with it – it’s been a while since I have made anything quite this smart, and several years since I have felt the need to fully line anything, so this was a good project for brushing up my skills. Regulars will recall that I made the bodice last week, using the burrito method to enclose most of the seams so this week was all about the skirt.

I started with the skirt lining, and I knew that I didn’t want to add too much bulk to the waistline by gathering it, but equally I didn’t want to lose fullness through the rest of the skirt so I pleated it. I bought these pens a couple of weeks ago and they have been worth every penny – I was able to mark pleats quickly, do some quick working out on the fabric and then the markings just disappeared when I ironed them. There was a LOT of pleating to be done – 20 inches on the skirt front alone had to be taken out, and then the pleats had to be stitched down to keep them flat. I also shortened the lining by 3 inches so it wouldn’t show. The lining is plain cream polycotton fabric.

I used the pocket template from the Sew Over It Tulip skirt to add inseam pockets to the skirt outer, gathered it and finally tacked the lining to the outer before stitching it to the bodice and overlocking the seams together. I found a cotton zip in a mixed lot I’d bought a few weeks ago from EBay which was the exact colour of the stripes (a happy coincidence as I didn’t have a white one!) and although it’s not as invisible as I’d like it to be I like the finished look. Finally, I sewed the centre back seams on the skirt and lining separately, and used a pink bias binding to finish the hem. You can see Lucy my dressmaking dummy modelling the finished dress below. She’s also wearing a fluffy petticoat as that’s how I’ll be wearing the dress – my beloved was at work so I didn’t get to model the dress myself for photos!

Flushed with my success from binding the skirt, I finally finished my red quilt from earlier in lockdown – a wider purple shop-bought binding this time. Perhaps making my own needs to be my next challenge. I have the equipment so there’s no excuse except laziness.

Thing 2 has been busy this week too – she decided she’d like to make some drawstring pouches from the leftovers from her shaggy pants. She made the template herself and I helped her with the buttonholes for the ribbon. I really like them and might make some for myself! She’s also worked really hard on a painting to give to her dad for Father’s Day, focusing for hours on getting it perfect.

Thing 2’s drawstring bags

I felt productive on Thursday and made cinnamon buns (a success) and Anzac biscuits (er, not a success). Last time I made the recipe they fell apart into crumbs, this time they formed an amorphous lump which the family just hacked chunks off. Ah well.

Cinnammmmmon buns

That’s pretty much it from me – I’ve been doing a lot of cross stitching in the afternoons and finished the fourth panel of the Seraut pattern; I tried week 4 day 1 of the C25k and promptly injured my other ankle, and have had a lot of siestas! Thing 1 has been having a bit of a wobble – she was diagnosed with anxiety in primary school and occasionally it flares up. I have been so proud of her through this period, but this week she has really missed her friends. Last night she had a virtual sleepover with some of her cronies, using the HouseParty app, and she seems a bit better this morning.

I’ll leave you with some pics of the garden and some fluffy pollinators in action! See you at the end of week 14…

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

V I Warshawski novels – Sara Paretsky

Venus in Copper/The Iron Hand of Mars (Falco series) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

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