Andrea Stuart: Uplifting stories of individual triumph, like those of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Mary Seacole, don't do nearly enough to fill the knowledge gap
When Vladimir Putin's spokesman dismissed Britain as "a small island no one listens to", David Cameron defended our nation's honour by mentioning among its triumphs "that Britain helped to abolish slavery". He made this statement without any apparent irony, or awareness that Britain was also one of the originators of the institution of slavery, certainly in the Atlantic context.
As we approach the end of Black History Month statements like this make it clear how much it is needed – and, at the same time, how little these annual 31 days have done to address the widespread ignorance aboutcrucial aspects of our history.
The truth is that the trade in sugar and slaves helped build Britain's greatness and create some of our most beloved cultural symbols. It was sugar, harvested by slaves, that generated those great fortunes jockeyed for in the novels of Jane Austen, and helped to finance the splendid houses which provide the model for Downtown Abbey.
Nor should we forget that even today, more than 150 years after slavery was abolished, Africans and their descendants remain markedly disadvantaged compared to the descendants of those who promoted the trade against them.
So why does this ignorance persist, 25 years after Black History Month was launched in Britain? This month we've seen events that range from the sublime, such as the award-winning American musical The Scottsboro Boys, to the tokenistic. At my children's school, many heart-warming pictures of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Doreen Lawrence have been produced, as well as innumerable portraits of black sportsmen from Usain Bolt to Theo Walcott. At a friend's school, the pupils have been encouraged to turn up dressed as a black pop star. Most of our children have become familiar with the travails of Mary Seacole. But these stories of individual triumph, however uplifting, don't do nearly enough to fill the knowledge gap. We need to integrate black history across the educational curriculum, and among adults, so that people like our prime minister will also comprehend it.