SOAS alumna: Lavinya Stennett and The Black Curriculum

Lavinya Stennett

Lavinya Stennett graduated from SOAS in 2019 from BA African Studies and Development Studies. She was one of two winners of the Walter Rodney Memorial Prize, which is awarded each year, recognises student excellence for work on the History of Africa and the African Diaspora. Lavinya was also SOAS’s first Black Student Officer at the Students’ Union, and in her final year at SOAS, won the Student Activist of the Year award.

After making her mark at SOAS, Lavinya was quick to found her own organisation, The Black Curriculum, a social enterprise which works to encourage the teaching of Black history all year round.

We asked her a few questions about founding The Black Curriculum and her time at SOAS.

teaching black history
Photograph: NeONBRAND/Unsplash

Was there any one point which led you to found The Black Curriculum (TBC)?

Many different points, but one of the main ones was going to New Zealand for a study abroad semester.

The people there were so open with me. They shared their own perspective, they cried in front of me, they were very honest about the effect that colonialism had on them. For me, coming out of my society and then coming back into it, I had perspective and it opened my mind up. It’s a global problem, of erasing histories of black people and people of colour, particularly. It made my mind switch.

What were your school/ classroom experiences of learning about black history?

Nothing, aside from Black History Month. In primary school, there was one project my mum was helping me out with. We were supposed to bring in icons for black history month. That’s black history, rather than black British history. So you have your Rosa Parks, your Martin Luther King, but I remember my family had this book on black inventors, and I chose the guy who invented the traffic lights.  I wanted to find different people and I tried to put a little edge on my project through the book.

In terms of black history in primary and secondary school, there was not that much. If there was, it was because of Black History Month – if it was taught, it was because they had to do it. Throughout my secondary school, there were no black history classes at all. History was just white history. If this is taken as a fact, it does mess with people’s understanding of the world. My mum would tell me one thing, then the school would tell me, or not tell me, another thing.

When I was in New Zealand, I couldn’t help but compare. Their culture is fed through everything they do. Spirituality is everything. It’s so powerful. It’s just there. 

What were your experiences at SOAS, studying African Studies?

Definitely! I remember my first lecture, it was Culture in Africa, with Akin Oyètádé, the then convenor of the African Studies Programme.

It was so interesting, but so intimidating, because I didn’t know half of what I was being taught. I almost felt there was a duty, not only coming to SOAS, but also as a black person. As someone who is here, should know this. This feeling of … not imposter syndrome, but incapacity. But the reason for this is that this information has been systematically whitewashed and not given to us. This and the support/ study groups I was in, we all came from the same entrance point – that we didn’t know, and we were doing our best to know. 

I’ll never forget my first lecture with Dr Kwado Osei Nyame Jnr who is a Professor in African Literature(s), Language(s) Cultural and Diaspora Studies. He came in with high level energy. In that lecture, we explored the preference for literacy over orality in the history of colonialism in Africa. I recorded it and remember it well. It inspired me so much to study the next course in the second year.

Kwado’s pedagogy also inspired me. He’d be like ‘here’s your reading, go away, come back, and you’ll teach us’, and we’d take turns week by week. It gave me more of an incentive to do the readings, giving us back the power. Learning African history, it’s supposed to be learning a piece of information that you haven’t learned before. It’s not going to resonate in the same way if you are teaching it just as you’d teach European history. The way he gave that class, it inspired me to think about how to teach. How to get people to interact with knowledge. 

University students black history

Has anything you learned at SOAS inspired the content of the TBC curriculum?

Yes. Particularly in terms of place and identity. That was the focus of my dissertation at SOAS — it’s about the ways black communities have been affected by and interacted with land. There was a module in which we looked at examples from Wales (1919 Cardiff Race Riots), The Bristol Bus Boycotts, Grenfell, Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle which has seen gentrification.

What kind of history content do you cover when you go into schools?

It’s very wide. The way I approach it, black history is not just history. History is geography, it’s art, it’s music. It’s very thematic, so we’ve split 12 topics into four different themes. Migration, for example, has three topics under it. A topic might be ‘Black Tudors’, focusing on John Blanke. We get young people to explore, as a black man at that time, what made John Blanke unique, or special? He was a trumpeter, and his life can be seen on the Westminster Tournament Roll. He campaigned to get a pay rise. And he got it. In 1516. Mad. Small things like that.

The historical focus is really important, to contextualise –if you’re learning Henry VIII, then why not learn about about John Blanke, who was playing the trumpet for him? That’s one example. There is a whole black history in precolonial Britain. We were here before slavery. Who gets to decide what is an important part of history? 

When people think of black migration or black history, they think of Windrush, but there was other important migration before this, from 1940s. In a class I taught on early migration, I was able to point to the example of my great uncle, Boysie, who came here from the Caribbean when he was 17 to serve in the RAF, before Windrush. We don’t know about people like him. We shouldn kow about these missing parts of history –we shouldn’t live life in a deficit. 

The general feedback we’ve had about TBC has been that young people want more of this. They learned more about their heritage, and enjoyed the focus on collaboration. One individual feedback that really stayed with me was from a 15 year old boy, who attended a pilot workshop on black history at SOAS. He was very involved in the session. Three weeks later, his mum emailed me to let me know that he enjoyed the session so much, that he started his own black British book club. Things like that reassure me know the work we’re doing is invaluable and worth it. 

Photograph: Kyle Glenn/Unsplash

What about other histories? Would you teach Chinese British History? South Asian British History? 

I understand the need for this, as the UK School curriculum is so whitewashed that it has taken away other parts of history, but we at TBC are about black British history. I think there is a power in doing something just for ourselves. And if others feel inspired to do what they need to do, and teach other histories, then that’s good. There are many which do intersect, for example WW1, India was fighting in this as well. Some people might not connect with what we’re doing, but ultimately, I think they understand the place for it. After all, it’s British history. 

Also, I don’t want this to be the part to get stuck on. I think there is a tendency within academic circles to get stuck on debating and talking about the same issue over and over. No. We’ve got to just do the work, and if you like, have the intellectual debates too – as they do compliment each other. I get the need for it, but we can’t be talking forever. 

So far, you’ve focused on delivering content to schools within low socio-economic areas, targeting black and young people from other minority backgrounds. Why was this your main target area?

We did go into a school which was very ‘well to do’, and they were very interested in what we are doing. The intention was to get young black people interested in learning, and becoming rounded in their identity. However, if you have a society that’s not teaching anyone black history, that’s not just impacting young black people, it’s impacting how other people view black people – impacting how they interact with them. The lack of black history manifests misunderstandings and perpetuates the divide in society. Lack of knowledge, lack of empathy, for the histories, the contributions that black people have made. I think it’s vital that every person has to learn about it, especially as we have never seen the impacts of what could happen in this version of human history. 

What are your plans and aims for TBC going forward? Are you planning to continue teaching in classrooms, or are you hoping to start lobbying government? 

It’s a starting point, and I am interested in campaigning. We did speak to the Department for Education in December, which was good, and they were very very interested in TBC. However, schools don’t have to follow the national curriculum. So even if it’s in, schools aren’t under obligation to follow it. The education system is very fractured, and so the campaigning work we do has to have a policy approach. We’re currently working with academy chains and individual schools to provide teacher training and workshops until we get to a point where every single school will have black history in their curriculum.

As we’ve grown, campaigning and lobbying is something we are working on with support of Helen Hayes MP. She helped the Runnymede Trust to build up a resource called ‘Our migration story’ on migration from 15th century to today. The Runnymede Trust have expressed interest in helping us with campaigns too. As they’re policy-focused, it makes sense to have that collaboration with them. 

In the next five years and beyond, I’d like to take TBC nationwide. People need to know. Teaching black history should be normalised. I hope that can be within the next three years, and that schools won’t need us. I also want to take this into different countries. There are Italian black people, French black people, they all face erasure in some way or another, and there is a need for it. In five years, I hope that Britain knows about us, and we can start to scale outside the country.

What about your personal plans? 

I’d like to do a Masters in Land Law. That’s where my passion lies. And ultimately, I’d like to become a judge. That’s where I personally see myself.

Photograph: The Black Curriculum

Finally, for anyone reading this, who may have also been through the British school system or similar, what should know about black British history?

Let’s start with the fact that we were here before slavery. Just to emphasise that, because it’s so easy to think that black people didn’t contribute to anything worthy in society. I wouldn’t say that slavery shouldn’t be taught. Because it should be. But the contributions that we have made now have paved the streets of London and built the banks. 

Also, the War. We have a whole National Remembrance Day. Black Poppy Rose is an organisation that works towards raising awareness about black people’s contributions to the war.

Contributions to the arts are quite well known. I think, when people think of black people’s contributions to British society, they would struggle because of the lack of accessible information. There are many to name, especially women pioneers such as Olive Morris, Claudia Jones, Jessica Huntley. I also think the underrepresentation is certain fields such as science, technological innovation is something that needs to be addressed.

Lavinya Stennett graduated from SOAS in 2019, with a BA in African Studies and Development Studies. Find out more about her work with The Black Curriculum here.

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