In yesterday’s paper was an article ‘How about a black face on the back of a tenner?’ in which the journalist led with an incident from her mother’s career as an English teacher in Liverpool in the 1980s.
“Half way through a lesson on Shakespeare, one of her pupils, a black boy from Toxteth, asked:
“Why should we listen to you?”
Taken aback, she replied that Shakespeare was the greatest British storyteller whose plays were as relevant today as they were then.
“Yes,” said the boy, “but why should we listen to you?” – a white middle-class woman talkng about a white middle-aged man.
My mother said, “Okay, so who would you rather have as a teacher?”
The lad, clearly thinking of the signing Liverpool FC had just made, said cheekily: “John Barnes.” so my mum called Liverpool FC and asked if Barnes would take her class. And eh did.
“Listen to Miss,” Barnes told the speechless children, and the Anfield star went on to tell the class exactly why William Shakespeare should matter.”
The article continued into discussing the ongoing debate on who should be on the British pound notes, having had the only female, Elizabeth Fry, about to be replaced by Winston Churchill. She then asks why shouldn’t we have a black or Asian face?
Let’s start with the maths. This country has been predominantly white, with male leaders for thousands of years. Black and Asian faces are still a minority, and like women, are struggling to make headway into the dense forest of public fame. Commemorating anyone involves some judgement, not only on their public worth, but on whether they should displace someone else.
History is a fickle thing. I am constantly uncovering – and often sharing here – amazing people who have never been famous or whose huge fame has disappeared over time. The public arena is just too crowded for everyone to get their Warholian 3 minutes of fame.
But there is another point in the above article. A young black child is in school and is disputing the authority of his female white teacher, preferring to be taught by a black male footballer. what is this really about? Is the child holding his teacher in contempt because she is female, white, or does he not value her profession? This is important, because dealing with each one of them requires a different approach.
We have a national education system in order to equip children with the tools to navigate the world they will be entering into, and part of that is learning respect for people, and the roles that they fulfil, or at least to behave in public as if they do. And part of that is respecting the various roles that people carry out, be they teachers, police, or just showing courtesy to people who serve us in shops.
Maybe expecting young black people to respect Shakespeare is pushing things too far, after all, The Bard is a difficult though worthwhile read for most of us. But it really begs the question as to what constitutes culture in these islands. And if this culture is not widespread and unifies us, gives us a common language, points of contact, then what does it actually mean to be British or English or whatever?
The British are not and never have been perfect. But every country works on the basis of people wanting it to, feeling that they want to be part of something. Like having a standard form of English, people can deviate from it, but they still need to know what they are deviating from. If we all invent our own languages, communication breaks down completely.