Watching Steve McQueen’s Education (Small Axe, BBC 1, 13 December 2020) put me in mind of my mum. She was always there for me during my education. As assertive as she is diminutive, she came to the UK from Trinidad aged 11 in 1961, following her mother who had arrived in 1953 in search of a new start and a better life for herself and her children. I know that life in London was a shock for mum after Port-of-Spain, and schooling in England perhaps – apart from the weather – the biggest shock of all. She went from the (I think) relatively genteel setting of St Joseph’s Convent, an all-girls’ school run by Irish nuns, to Priory Grove Secondary School in Stockwell.
Mum has not told me much about her time at school, though she did reveal that the kids in her class teased her on account of her accent and that the teacher responded by telling them all that she spoke better English than they did. I suspect that didn’t help with the bullying, but it may explain why she is the family member who has the closest to RP. She has told me about her mother working two jobs in order to save up for the house they eventually managed to buy in Ribblesdale Road in Streatham, about how she and her sister did the cooking and cleaning at home in order to make time for her mother to work, and about her own comical attempts to help by running up the extra pieceworks her mother brought home on her sewing machine (the seams were never straight enough, and my grandmother would have to unpick them all and start again from scratch). She has also talked about the shock, and excitement, of meeting people from other Caribbean islands, especially Jamaicans (whom she says far outnumbered everyone else) and getting to know these people whose language and culture seemed in some ways so different from her own but with whom, now in England, she discovered an affinity. Married with a child at 17, she did not have the opportunities to participate in higher education that she was so keen to secure for me and my siblings. Somewhere during these years, between Stockwell, Streatham, and Norwood, she developed the grit and ferocity that characterised her attitude towards my education.
When my parents left London in 1980 and moved to north Essex it often felt like we were the only Black children in town. Mum watched our education like a hawk. She was always down to the school – much to my mortification – telling the teachers just what she thought of what they were doing. I realise now, and perhaps I always knew, that this embarrassing level of engagement was fuelled by her concern that we would be underestimated and dismissed in the British educational system on account of race. I remember the anger in her voice when she recounted how, even in London, a teacher at my older sister’s primary school suggested to her that ‘Perhaps reading isn’t going to be her thing’. (Shortly afterwards it turned out that my sister was severely short-sighted; glasses solved the literacy issues.) Or her frustration at the decision my brother’s new school took to place him in the bottom group for reading, when he’d been reading since nursery and, before we left London, doing really well in his primary there.
Her vigilance in the case of me, the youngest, was informed by what she had seen happening to my brother and sister, but also by her wider political awareness and her knowledge of the ways in which schools and other authorities were letting down Black Caribbean children. Certainly she knew the work of Bernard Coard, whose pamphlet, ‘How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System’ featured in McQueen’s film. This knowledge also came from her own work, for after we moved to Essex she qualified, and then practised, as a child social worker (she had previously done youth work in London). She found that work stressful and at times traumatic and would later say that she would rather have stayed at home with us. I also suspect that it gave her additional insight into the harms being inflicted on kids by the care system – looking back I have no idea how she managed to deal with all that and come home to her own kids at the end of the day. Frustrated in her own career progression in ways she attributed to racism, she founded a Black social workers’ group and later, when she acted as a placement tutor to social work students, was keen to foster their political and multicultural awareness as well the more immediate practical aspects of the qualification. She found in her social work colleagues of the 1980s some of those same, dismissive attitudes she had seen in teachers of the 1960s and 1970s (see Small Axe Alex Wheatle for this). Nothing angered her more.
‘Small Axe: Education’, Steve McQueen and Alastair Siddons (December 2020)
I related to Kingsley’s mum in Education, in the scene where she gave her son a slap for staying up late at night drawing pictures of rockets and told him to go to bed. Not because I have ever smacked a child, nor was I ever smacked. But the frustration and despair of the mother, trying to do well by her kids in a basically hostile society and feeling impotent and resourceless, came across so clearly, as did the way in which, despite parental love, that trauma could be transmitted through the generations. My own education could not have been more different than Kingsley’s: a primary-school headteacher who believed in me, sent me on curriculum extension courses and advised my parents to put me in for the 11-plus, which then got me onto the royal road of the inequitable, two-tier educational system still operational in Essex and eventually to a place at an ancient university. No Supplementary School for me, then, nor really any need for the three Rs since my mum made sure I was reading before I got to school, and when it looked as if I was falling behind in maths around Year 2 or 3 she bought copies of the school textbooks and worked through them with me at home. But my mum did what she could for my Black history education (US-centric as it then was), buying me books on ‘Black history for beginners’ and even J.A. Rogers’ ‘100 Amazing facts about the Negro’.
Most of all, however, I knew she had my back. She would be down the school complaining if she thought there was even a hint of a teacher treating me unfairly or with disrespect. And she also made sure I was offered every opportunity going, if they were being offered to other kids. I remember when, in the first- or second-year juniors at my primary school (Year 3 or 4), those children who had shown talent at music were offered violin lessons. I was terrible at music – but my mum was straight away down the school asking why her child had not been offered this opportunity. When I wanted to take three science GCSEs as well as German and French and my grammar school said it could not accommodate this, my mother found a French teacher (the parent of a friend) who could teach me; she then kept on at the school until they grudgingly agreed to enter me for the examination. And when I got into the sixth form and decided to apply for a Classics degree my parents supported me in applying against the advice of my school, and helped me contact a retired teacher who lived in a nearby village and was willing to teach me Latin on weekend mornings.
All this added up to a hefty dose of educational privilege, fostered by parents who had the financial means to pay for extra opportunities. And I look back on it with mixed feelings. I can see that I benefited from a system designed to promote a minority while others lose out, and the academic focus of my school ultimately fostered some fragile ego formation that I struggled to overcome in graduate days. But one thing I can also see now is how far my mum had my back, even and perhaps especially against my teachers. And the context for all that care and vigilance was the framework presented in Education: a Black mother’s awareness that she was navigating a path for her kids through a system that might well be stacked against them.
It’s no accident that education emerges as a theme through the Small Axe series as a whole. From Altheia Jones-LeCointe’s activism in Mangrove, to Simeon, the Rastafarian cellmate who lent Alex Wheatle a copy of C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins, McQueen showed how African-Caribbean (now joined by African) people in Britain placed their hope in education as a means of betterment, even in the face of racism, and developed their own resources to support and provide for the next generation. We see their legacy in this generation in the priorities of young leaders like Stormzy, who has funded educational scholarships. Like Lewis Hamilton, who is working with the Royal Academy of Engineering to create routes for Black people in STEM. And like Marcus Rashford, who after feeding the bellies of hungry children in the UK turned to feeding their minds through his book club. In the awful year 2020 it lifted my heart to see these young Black men rising to the top of their fields and then turning to uplifting others.
Professor Katherine Harloe teaches in the Department of Classics. She specialises in the history of classical scholarship and the reception of classics in the context of other humanities disciplines and broader political, cultural and intellectual currents, from the middle of the eighteenth century to the present. She’s presently writing a book on the queer love letters of eighteenth-century classical art historian, Johann Joachim Winckelmann.