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Bright stars of black british history
BLOGS
Created: 16th February, 2024

History fascinates me. We can learn so much from the lives of people in the past! As a British-born child with mixed African and English heritage, I was naturally curious about Britain’s Black past. I knew that people of African descent had been living in Britain for many centuries, but where were our stories in print? I had to go on my own journey of discovery to find the extraordinary life stories I later came to write about in Bright Stars of Black British History.

My inspiration came from the people I encountered through my years of research as an educator. Meet Ignatius Sancho, Abolitionist writer, composer and family man of Westminster. Or Dr. Harold Moody, community doctor and law-changing civil rights activist. May I introduce Claudia Jones, the Trinidadian journalist who brought Caribbean carnival to London? The more I learned about each remarkable person, the more determined I became to share their stories more widely.

The flames of my curiosity were first fanned by my own family history. My mother came to Britain from Sierra Leone, formerly a British colony, in the early 1960s. For many years I had believed that she was the first person in her family to come to Britain. But then I discovered that her father came here to work as a dentist in the 1940s. His father before him qualified as a lawyer in London in the 1880s. So there is a strand of this history running through my own family: in fact, Evelyn Dove, the jazz singer featured in the book, was my great-aunt! Sierra Leone was also where Britain settled the ‘Province of Freedom’ in 1787, sending a ship with formerly enslaved African people from England to found Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. Some of my West African ancestors were Londoners before they were Sierra Leoneans!

I wanted to share the history of Black presence in Britain pre-Windrush, to show that Black people were here long before 1948 – and to explain why. Our history is complicated and complex, so has often been surrounded by silence. The stories in the book speak to celebration and struggle, to resilience and resistance, to migration and movement, to challenge and change. They do so in direct, accessible language that children can understand and that educators can use with confidence. Because this is a shared history. It always was. And children are open to learning about these histories. They are ready, and it is our responsibility as their educators to meet that readiness.

Learning is all about inspiration. Positive role models offer a vital point of connection for young readers. Who is celebrated in our society and why? Writing biographies for children opens up unique opportunities to spotlight people’s childhoods. What were the early experiences that influenced their life journey? These moments are often ‘hidden’ from view in history. Mary Seacole, the pioneering medic who ran a hospital for wounded soldiers in the Crimea, practised her early nursing skills on dolls and pets when she was a child. Walter Tull, the gentle-natured footballing hero, joined his first football team at the National Children’s Home when he was orphaned. Una Marson, the BBC Broadcaster, wrote her first poems, or ‘heart-throbs’, as a young girl, before starting a feminist magazine in Jamaica at the age of 23: almost a hundred years ago! These significant life moments can create magical sparks of connection for young readers. I want them to understand that their life has already begun. What choices will they make to shape their own future?

Each figure featured in the book has a unique personality: each is a powerful protagonist driving forward their own life story. But the distinct personal stories are woven together with a ‘golden thread’ of historical context, to show the wider communities in which these figures moved and to deepen children’s understanding of the world and times in which they lived. These stories make clear the longstanding colonial connections between Africa, the Caribbean and Britain.

My research process is very immersive. I read books and original archive material; I listen to music of different eras; I visit galleries and museums; I walk the streets and stand in the places and spaces these people stood in. The work of ‘situated’ imagining is key.

I am passionate about placing beautiful books at the centre of our teaching. As a writer, I am driven by character and voice. I write to be read aloud. How does a book sound? What is the rhythm, the music of a story? Hearing stories, in our own voices, in the voices of others, makes them even more memorable. The language in this book is literary, challenging at times, but Angela’s gorgeous illustrations complement the text beautifully: a sumptuous layer of visual storytelling.

My favourite moments as a primary school teacher were all about reading: storytelling aloud; displaying and sharing beautiful books in the classroom; creating special time and comfortable space for children to read at leisure, for pleasure. Huddled in twos and threes in a cosy book corner; lying on the carpet, chins in hands, turning the pages of a book together. Picture them: one child is reading aloud, one is finger-tracing the words on the page, one is listening and gazing at the pictures. Each reading experience is different; each child brings, and takes away, something unique. Reading together is a joy, a pleasure, a sharing of treasure!

My work is driven by a determination to help children and young people to find their own voice: reading, listening, talking, writing, performing their work. I hope that children, their educators and their families will share this book with one another and be inspired to create their own responses to the life stories in its pages. I hope that the stories will spark their curiosity, and inspire them to do their own research. Who will they write about? Will they write diary entries, praise poems, letters? Life stories can be written in a wealth of ways!

We all know how crucial it is for all children to see themselves reflected in the pages of the books they read. For many children, this book will mirror the communities to whom they belong, but who for many years have had no place in our history books. For some, it will act as a window; an opportunity to learn about amazing people who have influenced British history and whose stories can inspire us all.

‘Each one, teach one’ is a central tenet of Black history education. The stories here are for everyone. Embrace them, enjoy them, and pass them along!