Historic Canongate tenements returned to former glory
Major conservation work, led by Edinburgh World Heritage, has just been completed on the last of three historic tenements on…
17th July 2020
Scotland’s black history was the issue tackled by the panel of experts at Edinburgh World Heritage’s ‘in conversation with…’ online event Thursday evening, the fourth in a series programmed in response to the lockdown. Joined by a large on-line audience, the panelists were asked about a range of issues including why black history is poorly taught and understood in Scotland.
“There’s an issue with Scottish history not being taught in schools adequately enough,” said Lisa Williams, founder of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association. These concerns were echoed by Sir Geoff Palmer OBE, Professor Emeritus in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt, and human rights activist, who expressed his sympathy for Scottish people who ask, “‘why hasn’t anybody told us this before?’” Olivia Kanyike, ambassador for Intercultural Youth Scotland, explained how black history was completely absent from her education, “I had to learn it in my own personal time. It wasn’t introduced at school or secondary school. It was never part of the curriculum at all.”
Dr Melanie Newton , Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto, tackled one of the main reasons for this absence, highlighting the “erroneous narratives” that are constructed to exonerate nations from responsibility for slavery and the slave trade. “There is a bit of a game of white supremacy in which places likes Canada and Scotland perpetuate a narrative in which the problem is always to the south, it’s England and the United States.”
Discussing the role of museums and heritage organisations in promoting black history, Lisa explained that “there’s an issue around co-curation that we’re really missing at this particular point.” Geoff argued that the problem does not lie in a lack of interest from the public. “The general public has taken an interest in this history through the media and have learnt a hell of a lot more than they learned in school or in university. It’s insulting to say that the Scottish people don’t want to hear their history, it’s not true.”
There was overwhelming support from the panelists for changes to the curriculum to tackle this problem, with speakers recognising the power of education. “Without education we’re not going to decolonise the curriculum,” said Olivia. “More needs to be done with the community of young people of colour who are students, they need to feel empowered and involved.” Lisa highlighted the importance of diverse historic sources, “it’s important to try to bring in as many different perspectives from historians who are looking at it through a different lens.”
Questions and comments were coming in via email and social media throughout the event, with one user joining with her 15-year-old daughter who “listened, asked questions and discussed points raised together.” One of the other points panelists tackled was the confusion between indentured slavery and chattel slavery. “Legally they are two completely different things,” explained Melanie. “Indentureships are people who have made contracts for their labour and their passage to work for a planter, and in exchange for promises of land after their contracts were over.” The panel also discredited the idea that Henry Dundas, whose statue is in St Andrew Square, was an abolitionist. “He was a politician trying to prolong the slave trade. This is not an abolitionist,” said Geoff. His view was supported by Melanie who said that “there is no debate among people who actually do this research. No one sees him as an abolitionist.”
Bringing the conversation to a close, panelists were keen to emphasise that black history is about more than slavery. Olivia called for a celebration of “what we’ve contributed to society instead of the trauma and the sad stories.” Lisa drew particular attention to the story of Scotland’s Windrush. “900 men came from British Honduras during the Second World War and were stationed throughout Scotland. Hundreds stayed and married Scottish women and integrated into Scottish society. Their children and grandchildren are still here.” Melanie stressed the need for “richer stories about the past that extend our understanding of what history is. We have to teach the full complexity of the human experience.”
Over the coming weeks, we will be hosting a series of on-line conversations with leading local and national figures to discuss some of the issues we face as a city, both during and after the coronavirus lockdown.
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