Grace McIntosh: Black history that schools don’t teach

Former child star Grace McIntosh talks about presenting on Black History School and why she feels it could make up for the absence of such teaching in classrooms

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From working with CBBC to presenting for an online curriculum, Grace McIntosh is helping to educate young people about black culture and history as one of the faces of Black History School.

Black History School is a refreshing resource for young children looking to learn more about vibrant cultures.

The teaching of black history in schools became optional in 2014 when then education secretary Michael Gove introduced sweeping reforms to the curriculum. Since then, black people’s role in events such as world wars has been overlooked, and the tendency for their history to be framed only in terms of slavery has grown.

As a child actor, McIntosh starred for seven years in 4’O Clock Club, the comedy and musical series for kids that was filmed in Swinton, Greater Manchester and premiered in 2012. With British-Jamaican heritage, she grew up in Yorkshire. Now 19, she is studying media and performance at Salford University.

What is Black History School?
It’s an online creative curriculum for all children, but the key age range is 7-12, and it encourages children and families to talk about black history and explore their culture, race and heritage in all sorts of different mediums. We have storytelling, cooking demonstrations, sketches and mindfulness classes – all kinds of different things to do with children to teach them about black culture and black history. I’ve described it before as a mash-up between Horrible Histories and Blue Peter. The content is like an online TV show.

What made you want to get involved?
I want to give others what I didn’t have, and I’ve done a lot of my learning about my culture and black history in the last two to three years. I was never taught much in school about black history other than the negative aspects like slavery and segregation in America, and the subsequent civil rights movement – although that wasn’t negative. And I didn’t really know a lot about black British history until I started speaking to my grandad about the Windrush Generation, because that’s when he came to Britain. I thought, wouldn’t it be lovely for other children – black, white or any race – to learn about black history and culture in such a fun and interactive way. It would’ve been something I’d have loved as a child and I thought about my little cousins watching it and that was why I was like, I really want to do this.

Growing up, what was it like being in a school culture that was so narrowly focused on white British history?
It was difficult at times because I think you felt under-represented and almost not British because your history wasn’t included in the classes, whereas other people’s history was, and I think it probably did slightly exclude me. Then I went to high school and we were doing things like slavery and I just felt like all eyes were on me. I think being, at that time, one of only two black students in a class of 30 and discussing things like slavery can be quite daunting because everyone assumes you’re going to start crying and everyone just looks at you because, well, that’s your history and my history’s Florence Nightingale and the victory of the world wars. I felt like ours was just very sad and negative. Well, it is a sad and negative part of history but because that’s all that’s taught and there’s less of the triumphs and the great things, it casts a bit of a shadow over you. I suppose being a black child in a predominantly white school, it’s a little embarrassing.

You mentioned feeling excluded. Was that something you and your family were always aware of or was it something you realised later on?
The area I grew up in, although it was predominantly white, it did always feel very accepting and very inclusive. It was more little micro-aggressions that I would say was the moment you felt, oh, they think I’m different. That’s the thing I would say, along with people grabbing my hair to touch it or questions like: “So where are you really from?” That one I got a lot. They’re the things that made me feel different growing up.

To clarify for our readers, what is a micro-aggression?
A micro-aggression is an unconscious or unintentional comment or question that is actually rooted in racist, derogatory meaning.

Back to the curriculum, what’s been your favourite part so far?
I would say it was the cooking demonstrations because if you asked me to cook a lasagne, great, I could cook it, but cooking some of my cultural dishes, Jamaican dishes, I wouldn’t have a clue where to start! That was a really exciting thing for me to actually try out and it’s something I have been meaning to do for a long time, to actually try and cook my cultural dishes. And also to watch the other presenters cook their cultural dishes and learning about others and trying other dishes that I’ve never tried before – it was great.

Why is it so important to have a set of resources that focuses on black history and culture?
It’s important for people to know that British history isn’t all white, you know? Britain is a melting pot for a lot of different reasons and that makes the history rich and diverse, so it should be taught that way and we should enrich ourselves with learning different cultures that have been brought into Britain and have now integrated into British society. History should reflect the classrooms and the classrooms are diverse and so should the history being taught.

What impact do you want your work to have and why?
I would like to start conversations among children of all different ethnicities about culture and black history or Asian history, Bangladeshi history or Polish history. Wherever it is or whatever your race is it would be great to start those conversations in the classroom and at home to encourage children to learn more about their own heritage and history. That’s something that I didn’t do until much later because I didn’t feel that I had the resources to do it really. If one child can come home and ask their parents or their grandparents some questions about their experience in Britain or food or about being in the country they originate from that would be an amazing thing to achieve: to be able to start those conversations and to get people to understand that British history isn’t just white.

Finally, as someone who has worked both as an actor and as a TV presenter, what advice would you give little ones who see you and want to do what you do?
I would like to say just go for it! I used to be a bit conscious of what other people would think at school and I sometimes used to get a little embarrassed because I used to think that other people would be like: “Oh my god, it’s the girl on TV.” Now I think why was I embarrassed? What I did was amazing. If you have a real passion then just go for it and have confidence in yourself.

Living in the north is no longer a barrier but an advantage as so much TV and film is now being made here, when before London was the place you had to be if you wanted to act – especially Manchester with Salford’s Media City. It has a wealth of opportunities around so my advice is to stay up to date on social media and keep your eye out for casting calls and exciting opportunities you could put yourself forward for.

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