Can education be revolutionary? With a focus on the experiences and work of black and Caribbean women in Britain, Heidi Safia Mirza interweaves stories from her life, family and academic research to reflect on education and its potential for social change.
In the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts, Jason goes in search of the Golden Fleece. It is a journey of courage, love and endurance which, at the end, transforms him and makes him king. My father shared with me a touching story about an old friend in Trinidad who told his son to go to England and get educated. ‘Leave’, he said, ‘go in search of the Golden Fleece’. I think that the idea of searching for a Golden Fleece, a journey that transforms your life, is a useful way for us to think about the postcolonial educational experience of Caribbean people who came to Britain as British subjects. My focus here will be the three issues which I have spent my career addressing: the intersection of race and gender and the relationship that this has with education and what I call ‘educational desire’.
My Father and Mother were part of the post-war migration to Britain in the 1950s. My Mother came from Austria as a nanny. My Father from Trinidad as a student. He was part of what the great Caribbean intellectual John La Rose calls the ‘heroic generation’. We have heard of the Empire Windrush, but there were many other ships and my father came on the less romantically named Colombie – which he told me was a real ‘banana boat’! He arrived in October 1951, and to keep warm he took hot showers in his bedsit. His theory was that the contrast between the hot and cold made him lose his hair! He struggled to get into college, get a job bookkeeping and raise his family. It was a difficult time of overt racism. ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ was the landlord’s slogan of the day. Even in the 1950s, 70 years before the wave of Islamophobia after September 11, he had to change his Muslim name to protect us. Recently, my daughter had to do the same, just to get a job interview.
My Parents, Ralph and Hilda Hosier. Wedding picture, London, 1956.
White women, like my Mother, who married black men – those so-called ‘dark strangers’ – are the silent heroes of this generation. They were true pioneers, those who crossed over in another way. They too have a story to tell of racism and transcendence, of love and care for their dark-skinned children. My Mother protected her children’s identity and made me understand both sides to my heritage. She gave me what the African-American writer Ralph Ellison describes in his novel The Invisible Man (1952) as ‘the gift to see around corners’, the ability to see things differently. Their story of mothering work to shape a new generation of ‘dual heritage’ children is one that is largely forgotten in the post-colonial story of diaspora and displacement. It is she, as much as my father, who instilled in me the desire for education – the quest for the Golden Fleece.
Can education be revolutionary?
Sometimes you read a book that transforms your life. My book was not an inspirational novel or a grand Shakespearean tome. It was an ordinary textbook we used on my undergraduate degree course in Development Studies at the University of East Anglia in 1977. It was called The Diploma Disease by Ronald Dore. The irony was that a book about the narrow goal of education and the emphasis on ‘qualification getting’ (credentialism) in countries such as Trinidad opened up my thinking about the possibilities of education as transformative. What was my Father chasing when he came to Britain? Was it education for neoliberal self-advancement, or knowledge to transform his newly independent country? Were his motives radical or conservative? Can education be revolutionary or is it always about control and containment?
Young, female and black
In the late 1980s I went back to my school in south London, near Brixton, to find some answers. I did a PhD, and in Young, Female and Black, the book from that study, I found that second-generation, young, African Caribbean working-class women appeared to deeply identify with the ideology of meritocracy. On the surface they wanted to climb the career ladder and were seeking academic success through getting more and more qualifications. But as I dug deeper, I found that their motivation was not simply driven by a desire for educational credentials. They were engaged in a process of transforming their schooling and working against the social inequalities created by racism and sexism. The schools they were in were poorly resourced and teaching was stretched. The young women sat in the back of the classroom and got on with their work. They often pretended to not be working, but actually did their homework. Most of all, they had to stay on longer and go to college to achieve academic success. They are driven by what I have called ‘educational urgency’, a desire to succeed against the odds. Ironically, because the young women’s aspirations were linked to the growing gendered labour market, they could do Access courses in social work or nursing, which opened up a path onto a degree. In this way they could climb the ladder into further and higher education – a kind of ‘backdoor entry’, which was not often available to young black men in the same way.
Cover to Young, Female and Black (1992) by Heidi Safia Mirza.
For them, like the post-colonial experience of their parents, education was linked to job opportunities. But herein lies the difference. They were no longer in the Caribbean: they were in the UK and their experience was deeply racialised in a particular way. I found that they were forging new identities grounded in a refusal to be quantified as failures. They were not, as is so often assumed in theorising about black female success, building on the ‘strong role models’ of their mothers and grandmothers. Neither were they resisting through ‘accommodating’ the system, as many have also argued. Their educational stance was related to the context in which they were in, what was actually happening to them. Indeed, it happened to me.
My brother and me at our primary school, Balham, London, 1962.
It was London, 1962. I was just four years old, but at school I remember being given two dolls and asked which one I liked. Milner’s scientific doll studies suggested that if you chose a white doll rather than a dark one, like yourself, you were exhibiting ‘negative self-esteem’ and ‘low self-concept’. This, it was believed, reflected your sense of alienation and disaffection, and in turn your ability to be ‘assimilated’ into British society and thus to learn. Fifty years ago Bernard Coard (1971) brought to light the scandal of disproportionate numbers of Caribbean children being labelled as Educationally Sub-Normal (ESN). When I returned to England in 1973, at the age of 16, I was deemed a failure. They said I couldn’t speak English and put me down a year. They even thought I cheated when I passed my entrance exams with flying colours. I had to remake my identity to succeed. I dropped my comfortable patois and learnt to speak the Queen’s English – like them. But following the counsel of the black feminist writer bell hooks, in the journeys we make when moving from the ‘margin to the centre’, I kept alive in my heart and mind my ‘other ways of knowing’.
Black women educators as activists
I never met Theresa, my Trinidadian Grandmother. I was born in Britain and by the time I went to Trinidad aged four, she had already passed away. She had been the force behind the founding of one of the most prestigious girls’ schools on the north of the island, St Augustine Girls. I went to the sister school in the south, Naparima Girls.
My Grandmother Theresa Hosein (circa 1940).
My school: Naparima Girls High School, Trinidad (c. 1960).
These were the Presbyterian schools of the Canadian missionaries, who began their work, educating, training and converting, when the first indentured Hindus and Muslims arrived in Trinidad from India in the 1860s. She was one of the first ‘Bible women’ who travelled the island to teach literacy through catechism to daughters of impoverished labourers, like herself. Women like my Grandmother were conservative but also radical; they were agents and educators who contributed to transformative social change. They worked not against the grain but within and alongside the mainstream, challenging and changing from within the structures and institutions in which they found themselves. In a world that valorises masculine forms of resistance and dissent – riots and clamour – quiet, stalwart women such as my Grandmother are too often the forgotten souls in history.
In the US, when we think of civil rights, we think of the charismatic Martin Luther King. But it was Ella Baker’s ‘Learning by Doing’ literacy programme that stretched across the nation, powering the drive for voter registration. In South Africa we hail Nelson Mandela, but it is the women who are the backbone of the everyday struggle in the townships. The amazing, unsung women who work the HIV and Aids trains that criss-cross the country, educating as they go. In the UK there are thousands of women and mothers in the black community who give up every weekend to teach their children. Often becoming ill with overwork, they are the vanguards of change in their important work to ‘raise the race’.
Black supplementary schools: Spaces of hope and transcendence
This is what I found when I did research on black supplementary schools in Britain. These amazing places were originally set up by the Black Education Movement and Black Parents Movement to ‘supplement’ the failing racist education system. Hidden from the mainstream, yet working alongside it, they are autonomous and receive little or no state funding.
Black Saturday School (c. 1970).
These schools have been core grassroots black organisations since the 1970s. Set up against the odds in cold church halls, damp basements and dilapidated houses, they thrive with the support of the black church and the overwhelming commitment of the parents. Armies of black women work alongside men to fuel this radical movement, which is often seen by the authorities as creating separate, dangerous ‘Black Power’ spaces. But what is clear is that these schools are much more than a response to mainstream failure. They are spaces of hope and transcendence underpinned by invisible women’s work.
On one hand, the schools work to ‘fit in’ and build a dialogue with the mainstream schools and the curriculum. With a traditional and often disciplinarian focus on the three ‘Rs’ (reading, writing and arithmetic), they have been seen as buying into conservative ideas of education. On the other hand, they are also radical. They provide an alternative world with different meaning and ‘other ways of knowing’. The women talk of the ‘joy’ of what they do, their work ‘to raise the race’ and the ‘gift of giving back’. In their stance against racism, the teachers have developed a radical approach that centres on black history and knowledge. These schools are places where whiteness is displaced and blackness becomes the norm, creating a sanctuary for black children in which they are celebrated and their humanity re-centred.
In the same way that my Grandmother was both radical and conservative in her approach to education, so too are these Caribbean women in Britain. It is a strategy borne from their understanding of the value of education in the struggle for group survival. In their space on the margin they operate between, under and alongside the mainstream educational and labour market structures, renaming and reclaiming opportunities for their children. In the process, they subvert racist expectations and beliefs. Although there are two sides to this story – with one side being about the painful realities of racism and the failures of mainstream systems – I argue for a story of hope. I see the energy and commitment and love of education through teaching and learning as a mechanism for social change. For black and Caribbean people in Britain education is a lifeline, a transformative mantle – a Golden Fleece.
 John La Rose, ‘Remembering the Past, Forging Forward to the Future’, Martin Luther King Memorial Lectures (Martin Luther Twelve, Crofton Park, Root and Branch Consultancy, 1999).
 Heidi Safia Mirza, Young, Female and Black (London: Routledge, 1992).
 Heidi Safia Mirza, Race Gender and Educational Desire: How black women succeed and fail (London: Routledge, 2009).
 David Milner, Children and Race (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975).
 This pamphlet has been re-appraised 35 years on in a collection of essays, see Brian Richardson, ed., Tell It Like It Is: How Our Schools Fail Black Children (London: Bookmark Publications/Trentham, 2005)
 bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics (London: Turnaroun, 1990), p. 150.
 Diane Reay and Heidi Safia Mirza, ‘Uncovering Genealogies of the Margins; Black Supplementary Schooling’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol 18, No 4, pp. 477–99 (1997).
 Photograph by kind permission of Runnymede Collection at BCA (Black Cultural Archives). TES 6.1.1984.
Banner: A series of photographs from Heidi Safia Mirza's personal collection.