I used to find it strange that during my years of schooling I learned more about German history than I did about my own country. When I say “German history” I mean, of course, 12 particular years of German history; I learned little else about the country, which is why so many of my countrymen continue to have such a weirdly outdated view of Europe.
People love to make points about “why aren’t we taught more about the Tang Dynasty or the Benin Empire or whatever” at school as if the subject were limitless; there’s not enough time for passionate history enthusiasts to learn about the whole world, let alone bored schoolchildren, so the subject is limited, and benefits from having a clear narrative.
The “Our Island Story” narrative worked for its time, but the focus on Nazi Germany also has the advantage of presenting a story of good versus evil, and a morality tale still relevant today. Most people are only capable of holding limited numbers of ideas at one time, so less central historical narratives tends to get crowded out.
For my children’s generation, it’s another morality tale altogether. When my eldest finished Year 3 she had been taught about three historical figures — Elizabeth I, Henry VIII and Rosa Parks — and my younger daughter just learned about Harriet Tubman as part of Black History Month, which often seems to be more like American History Month. Indeed I wonder if they will go through school learning more about American than British history.
Aris Roussinos compared our obsession with American politics as being “Like backwoods Gaulish or Dacian chieftains donning togas and trading clumsy Latin epithets”, and the ultimate sign of cultural assimilation — or colonisation — is to adopt another culture’s history.
The story of the African-American struggle from slavery to civil rights is moving and powerful, and ultimately one of human dignity and redemption, but it is not our story.
Historically segregation in Britain was about class. When working-class footballers first tried to join with public schoolboys they had to wear a different kit to their fellow players, and afterwards had to dine separately; that’s the kind of story that would receive the Netflix treatment today if it was race, but because class is quite boring, and doesn’t trigger the same emotional response, it’s largely ignored.
Unlike with the horrors of Nazi Germany, in which villains and victims can both seem distant, the American story can appear relevant to people who have US social media drama shoved in their face all day long. After a while they might start to see it as their own story; indeed I’d be genuinely interested to know what percentage of younger people today believe Britain used to have segregation, lynching or laws against intermarriage. I’d bet it’s double figures and rising.
America’s national story, of which racial redemption is a central part, is swallowing ours. And the most bizarre thing about it is that no one even seem to care.