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I Heard What You Said

Jeffrey Boakye

Picador 2022

Reviewed by Viv Adams


The purpose of school education is to orient the young to their culture in such a manner that they are able to make sense of an adult world as they progress through it. At least, so the story goes.

In a country like Britain, with such a turbulent past of conflict between people, it would be a small miracle if the result was trouble-free progression between the generations. Throw into that cauldron the hoary presence of race and racial conflict, and you are left with an amalgam that can seem unmanageable. 

It is from that soup of violent confusion that Jeffrey Boakye believed it possible to construct a career in teaching at a secondary school in England. He recounts that experience in I Heard What You Said.

He seemed ill-prepared for what he would encounter as a teacher. Being black with Ghanaian roots did not help. Could someone – a relative, say – not have forewarned him about what to expect? I certainly received cautionary tales when I embarked on a profession in education. 

I went to the West Midlands College of Education in Birmingham in 1976, to train as a teacher on their PGCE programme. I withdrew from the course before completion. I just felt estranged from the culture of the college and the schools I had to visit; I could not perform well in an environment that knew so little about someone with my background and experiences.

White English schools have set negative notions about black people; it bleeds from the culture. White English children are therefore not accustomed to the subversive stance a black teacher might play when they usually associate people of Boakye’s ilk with reggae artists or someone running in the Olympics. 

His book includes myriad examples of his students’ bewilderment and prejudicial expectations: ‘Are you really a teacher?’; ‘Can you rap?’; ‘Have you ever been to prison?’

As if to emphasise that he was the wrong guy in the wrong place, at his first encounter with a white school, the facial recognition system failed to recognise that Boakye had right of access, and would not issue a pass to him. But Boakye soldiered on, determined to confront and stare down the blank white faces in the school when they saw him. 

The truth is, Britain never had an inkling that the black masses from the Caribbean and Africa would one day think of upping roots and navigate to this, their so-called mother country. Immigrants came with their children, and white English teachers tutored them in the ways expected of ‘indigenous’ British children. And, as Shakespeare was wont to say, there was the rub. Britain faltered and failed them as a result.

Boakye outlines several of the causes of this failure; they include Britain’s willingness to lie about the past wrongs of colonialism. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Operation Legacy, a British Colonial Office programme, encouraged officials to deliberately expunge from the records the kind of malpractice, injustice and brutality that had occurred in places such as Kenya and Malaysia. The evidence highlighted Britain’s racist policy in those countries. And then there was the way black children in Britain were, and are, excluded from schools. In his assessment Boakye echoes the views of my contemporary, Bernard Coard, who in 1971 wrote the seminal text How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System. Coard made clear how black children were subject to racism and disproportionately enrolled in schools previously designated for the ‘mentally subnormal’. 

I Heard What You Said is a delightful read in parts. But it deals with an intractable truth that the education of black children in white Britain is a special case of social amelioration. Success in the school system depends on black children’s acceptance of the dominant values of the mainly white schools they have to attend. But often those values can be overwhelming and drawn from a cultural past that was not forged with a great understanding of black people. A student once described Boakye as a ‘waste man’, meaning that he had nothing to learn from him that could at all be useful. The insult stirred Boakye into working closely with that pupil; it eventually resulted in great success. 

In the end Boakye writes that he can but hope to have made a difference: ‘I’ve lived in education for over thirty years…I’ve witnessed the quiet tragedy of wasted human potential that comes from systemic racism. I’ve tried to shift the needle by challenging the curriculum and being an ambassador for blackness in a white system.’

Along the way, Boakye has tried to do what was probably not possible: to inculcate in black pupils a view of the world that was too far from the real one they knew.