The Scotsman recently ran an article on Britain’s first black school teacher for Black History Month. While the article was brilliant, it was not the piece itself that struck me. It was the fact that, of all places, the first British black teacher was from the Scottish Borders.
This is where it got personal for me. I’m not black but growing up as a person of colour in this part of Scotland, I was astounded to learn that there was a black person who lived there in the early nineteenth century- and that too a teacher.
At first, I was filled with joy as I learnt about the life of Tom Jenkins. In 1803 he was sent from West Africa by his Father to receive an education. Instead he found himself in the Borders aged six and penniless. These humble beginnings did not stop him. Jenkins learned to read and write not only in English, but in Greek and Latin too. He was at first refused a teaching post in Teviothead but he had strong supporters in the community. Soon after, local landowners established a school where Tom taught for four years. He then went on to study at the University of Edinburgh.
This information was a delight to learn but then a thought occurred to me; why on earth hadn’t I, or my friends from the Borders, been taught this? Why did we have to wait for an article from the Scotsman to learn about a pioneering Scottish black man? It wasn’t as if the Borders shied away from local history. On the contrary, our teachers rattled on and on about the Romans and Trimontium whenever they could. Despite this, the closest we got to learning about black history, or even any kind of colonial history, was the Atlantic slave trade; conveniently blamed on our cousins across the pond.
Having grown up in the Borders, moving to Edinburgh has allowed me to experience far more diversity. This may sound shocking to many, but any Scottish person of colour will tell you that, with the exception of major cities, diversity is the exception and not the norm.
However, while Edinburgh may be a refreshing change, there are still some uncomfortable and striking similarities between my experiences here and in the Borders. For one, the systemic ignorance of narratives centring people of colour. Studying in both places has shown me how education is still very much geared in favour of white history and literature, more specifically of white cisgender men.
The fact that I learnt about Tom Jenkins from a link sent to me via Facebook messenger and the fact that every part of my knowledge of colonial history has been gained from my own research or from my parents is an insult. An insult not only to Scottish people of colour, but to the legacy of Tom Jenkins. He deserved far more than a fading plaque in Teviothead and one mere news article.
I experienced a great deal of what I like to call ‘subtle middle-class’ racism growing up. Much of this was because people didn’t know why people looked like I did, and why my parents came from where they did. This ignorance may seem harmless but it is racist nonetheless. Tom Jenkins’ story and the stories of many others that have been ignored or even actively suppressed must become part of mainstream story told of Scotland. White people must begin to learn that we have a history here too. Most importantly, people like me, people of colour, can begin to learn to love their rich heritage; right here, in Scotland.
Image: Vaishnavi Ramu