Top ten tips for accessible social media

Social media platforms are a great way to communicate, but many posts aren’t accessible to users with visual or hearing impairments or loss. The good news is that it is relatively easy to ensure that our content is accessible to everyone. Here are my top ten tips.

1. Use alt text for images

Alternative text (alt text) is a description of an image that can be read by screen readers used by people who are blind or partially sighted. The description enables them to build a mental picture of the image. You don’t need to include every detail, just the key components that will help create the picture. You might find my post on audio description helpful.

2. Use simple fonts

Many platforms allow you to use a range of different fonts and mix symbols with letters. This can be a lot of fun but can often make text difficult to read for those with visual impairments and can render it completely unreadable by screen readers. Stick to simple sans-serif fonts for your text but also your name / handle.

3. Capitalise hashtags

Camel with the phrase CamelCase aligned with its two humps.
Image credit: Silver Spoon CC BY-SA 2.0

Hashtags are used to identify key words and phrases with the hash symbol, e.g. #Accessibility. They aren’t case sensitive and are often written in lower case but this makes it difficult for screen readers to distinguish the individual words in a phrase. Instead, use ‘CamelCase’ by capitalising each word, e.g. #AccessibleSocialMedia. This way screen readers will be able to convert the text to audio accurately.

4. Use emojis sparingly

Emojis are great fun and often useful in expressing what we mean when we have to stick to a character limit. Be aware that screen readers will read them each in turn, so use them sparingly rather than repeating them for emphasis.

5. Be careful with colour

When working with colour in fonts charts and graphics, contrast is as important as the colours themselves. Although red might seem an obvious choice for providing emphasis, it is low contrast which can make it harder to read for those with a visual impairment. Red/green colour deficiency is also the most common type, so avoid these colours in combination. Similarly, a spectrum of colours might seem a good choice for a graph but may in fact make elements harder to distinguish for some. Instead, use a narrower colour palette or tonal theme.

6. Use bold for emphasis

We often use italicised text to highlight words or phrases but for many this is harder to read. Instead, use a bold typeface for emphasis.

7. Add captions to video content

Adding captions to your video content ensures that it is accessible to a wide range of users. Open captions are ‘burned’ into the video, and so will be visible on any platform, but users can’t switch them off. Closed captions can be be switched on or off by users. Unfortunately, unlike alt text for images, most social media platforms don’t make it easy to add captions. Most video editing software has a facility to add captions, but this can be time consuming if there is a lot of dialogue. If you upload a video to YouTube, captions will automatically be generated. You can then edit these. This can be a quick way to ensure your video is accessible.

8. Make use of platform-specific advice

It is not always obvious from the user interface, but each of the main social media platform offer advice and tools to make content accessible.

Twitter: Advice on making images more accessible from the Help Centre. Follow @TwitterA11y for updates.

Facebook: accessibility pages from the Help Centre.

Instagram: guidance on alt text from the Help Centre.

WhatsApp: FAQs about accessibility

YouTube: YouTube Fundamentals: Accessibility

TikTok: guidance on accessibility from the Help Centre.

9. Test before you post

Always preview or test your content before you post it online, checking that fonts, colours, alt text etc. work first. Computer and mobile phone software usually include a text-to-speech feature which you can use to preview content.

10. Listen to your users

It’s really important to get feedback from users about how accessible your content is. Ideally, following the principle of ‘nothing about us without us’, users with particular needs should have a say in how content is produced. This will help us all produce better quality content. Here are some links to useful guidance:

RNIB accessibility guidance

Stroke Association accessible information guidance

Sense guidance on accessible social media

I hope you find these tips useful. If you think I have missed anything, please let me know and I will happily include it.

Image credit: Flickr / Stacey MacNaught, www.staceymacnaught.co.uk, CC BY 2.0

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Lots to look forward to in the Autumn term 2021

After the challenges of the last year were all hoping that the coming term will be a return to something like normality for UK schools. Whatever the future holds, here’s my roundup of things to look forward to this autumn.

Autumn Term Top Ten

  1. Although we didn’t get the best of summers this year, we should still have a few weeks of warmer days before the nights draw in. Let’s make the most of them while we can.
  2. It’s a new school year! Remember that feeling when you wrote your name on a new exercise book and opened the first fresh page full of possibilities. While we may have concerns about the return to school, children will have that same feeling of open possibility. This is an opportunity to help them capture that feeling and go on to achieve great things!
  3. Keats famously described autumn as the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ And we can all take delight from the many natural signs that summer is turning into autumn. Keep an eye out for which plants are flowering now, which fruits are ripening and which leaves changing colour. Which changes in the behaviour of birds and other animals do you notice? You’ll soon find that no two days are alike. You can find out more, and a range of nature-based activities on the Wildlife Trusts’ Looking After Yourself and Nature webpage.
  4. The annual Macmillan Coffee Morning, this year on 24 September, is now a firm fundraising fixture in many schools. You can sign up and get more information and a fundraising kit here: Macmillan Coffee Morning 2021.
  5. In the UK, October is Black History Month, which honours and celebrates the contribution Black Britons have made to our vibrant and diverse society. Why not make BHM 2021 a focus for an inclusive and diverse curriculum, not only for a month, but all year round. You can find out more about events and activities throughout the year, and order a school resource pack, from blackhistorymonth.org.uk. There are also regional listings so you can look for events local to you. Friday 22 October is Wear Red Day when we are encouraged to wear something red to show unity against racism. You can find out more on the Show Racism the Red Card website.
  6. This Autumn sees a range of other national awareness events. The links here will take you to information and resources for schools. This year’s Big Draw Festival has the theme ‘Make the Change’, exploring ways to live in balance with the world around us, to reconnect with each other and create a better world for future generations. Jeans for Genes Day lasts a week this year, with schools able to hold their day at any time in the week beginning Monday 13 September. We are all encouraged to #ShareAPoem on the theme of ‘Choice’ on National Poetry Day 2021, which is 7 October. You can download free resources from the education pages of the website. Another event featuring in the calendar of many schools is Anti-Bullying Week, which this year takes place between Monday 15 and Friday 19 November with the theme of ‘One Kind World’. 19 November is also the date of this year’s annual BBC Children in Need appeal which has become a regular fundraising focus for many schools.
  7. When the nights do draw in, and the weather gets colder, humans have responded by making lights and loud noises for as long as history records. In the UK, our excuse to celebrate with bonfires and fireworks is now Guy Fawkes Night on 5th November; well worth a reminder about firework safety.
  8. Some of the best school traditions happen in the Autumn term and will be upon us before we know it. So, check your Christmas jumper for moth holes, change the battery in your LED-lit elf hat, try to recall where you put that box of decorations, and start planning the Nativity Play now!
  9. At the end of this term, the Christmas Holiday beckons. This year, because it and Boxing Day fall on the weekend, the UK Bank Holidays are on Monday 28 & Tuesday 29 December.
  10. There are many other key dates, holidays and festivals you may wish to mark during the Autumn term:
  • Tuesday 7 September Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year celebration
  • Thursday 16 September Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement
  • Tuesday 22 September Autumn Equinox
  • Sunday 31 October is Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, and this year it is also the end of British summer time, so clocks go back one hour
  • Monday 1 November is the Christian feast of All Saints’ Day
  • Tuesday 2 November is the Christian feast of All Souls’ Day
  • Thursday 4 November Diwali / Deepavali, the Hindu Festival of Lights
  • Thursday 11 November Armistice Day, with Remembrance Sunday following on 14 November
  • Sunday 28 November marks the start of Advent in the Christian Calendar
  • Monday 29 November is the First Day of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, with the Last Day falling on Monday 6 December
  • Tuesday 30 November St Andrew’s Day, a Bank Holiday in Scotland
  • Tuesday 21 December is the Winter Solstice, with the shortest day length of the year.

What do you most look forward to in Autumn? Let me know if there are any dates or events that I’ve missed here.

Looking for some more inspiration for assemblies? Have a look at these educational quotes for Monday morning motivation. 

Festival dates from timeanddate.com

Image: Pixabay / Peggy Choucair

Decolonization in exhibition trails: first steps

Increasingly museums and galleries are addressing the colonial nature of their collections with audiences. My work as an Education Officer involves producing resources to help school groups explore the themes of exhibitions and displays. Roots to Seeds is an exhibition exploring 400 years of plant science in Oxford, currently open at the Bodleian Libraries.

The curator, Professor Stephen Harris, and the team at the Bodleian Libraries and Oxford Botanic Garden who are behind the exhibition, have acknowledged the colonial nature of some of the material on display with statements at the centre of the exhibition space.

A Matter of Justice

A matter of justice acknowledges the marginalisation of people involved in the collection and exploitation of their knowledge.

Supporting Decolonization

Supporting decolonisation explains the current frameworks under which botanists operate and the work to address centuries of inequality.

I wanted to address the issue in an exhibition trail I created for Roots to Seeds. The aim of the trail is to help children and young people explore themes of the exhibition. The content touches on themes within the exhibition, rather than providing comprehensive coverage. Open questions encourage exploration of the texts and objects on display.

Trails can be used by visiting school groups making a self-led visit and the Education Team may also use them as a starting point for a taught session; we also make them available for use by visiting families.

A trail is usually two A4 sides and includes text, questions, illustrations and, in the case of Roots to Seeds, some space for responses.

I decided to include a version of the A Matter of Justice statement in the section about plant collecting called ‘A World of Plants’:

As European botanists began to explore the world, they found many plants they had not seen before. Local people explained which plants were useful as foods or medicines. We often don’t know the names of these people because the explorers didn’t record them.

I was aiming the language level at Key Stage 3. In a later Art Trail, I changed ‘local people’ to ‘local experts’ because I thought this phrase better emphasised indigenous understanding of local flora rather than simply the knowledge of where to find particular plants.

I’m interested to know readers’ views on the approach I took. Is this enough? Should I have included something about current practice? Could I have taken a different approach? I’m interested to hear your views.

Roots to Seeds is open at the Weston Library, Broad Street, Oxford, until 24 October 2021. Admission is free.

Things to look forward to in Summer Term 2021

I’ve been writing these ‘start of term’ posts for a while now. This time, more than ever before, it feels like we’ll all be looking forward to making the most of what summer has to offer as we emerge not just from winter, but from over a year of tackling Covid.

Times remain difficult and much that would normally happen this term must be postponed, or happen in a different way. Nevertheless, I hope that there is still a lot to look forward to.

The clocks have gone forward and each day is a little longer than the one before. One thing to enjoy is more waking up and coming home from work in daylight. Longer (hopefully) sunlit days help lift our mood, so it’s a good idea to try to make some time to get outside each day; even if it’s overcast, natural sunlight will do you good.

For 2021, The Big Pedal, organised by the charity Sustrans, runs from Monday 19 April to the end of the month. This annual event challenges primary and secondary school pupils to cycle, scoot and wheelchair as many miles as they can. You can find out more, register and pick up free resources from the Big Pedal website.

If you prefer two feet to two wheels, Walk to School Week is back to it’s usual time in the calendar, spring, running from 17-21 May. You can order a classroom pack now from the Living Streets Website.

While you’re out and about, take some time to connect with nature. Look out for the many changes in the natural world as spring turns into summer. Which plants are coming into bloom? Which berries and fruits are starting to form? Which birds, bees and butterflies do you notice? Take note of these small changes and you’ll soon see that no two days are alike. You can even use an app such as iRecord to add your nature sightings to the National database. If your pupils are feeling inspired by nature, the might want to submit a poem for the Into the Green Poetry Project that I’m involved with, run by The Bodleian Libraries and Oxford Botanic Garden to celebrate 400 years of plant science in Oxford. You can download a project pack from the Bodleian’s website. The deadline for submissions is 1 July 2021.

Connecting with nature is one way to look after our mental health and ‘nature’ is the theme of UK Mental Health Awareness Week which, this year, runs from 10-17 May. You can find out more from the Mental Health Foundation who are asking us to share images, videos and sounds of nature on social media using the hashtag #ConnectWithNature.

Lockdown and travel restrictions have highlighted adverse effects of fossil fuel use including air pollution and the climate emergency. The UN World Environment Day is on Saturday 5 June and this year marks the start of the UN’s Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. This could provide a focus for learning activities about human impact and the environment. You can find out more at worldenvironmentday.global #GenerationRestoration

THERE ARE MANY FESTIVALS, HOLIDAYS AND EVENTS THIS TERM:

  • Ramadan has already started and is observed by Muslims until Eid ul-Fitr on, or near 13 May
  • Stephen Lawrence Day is on Thursday 22 April
  • St George’s Day is on Friday 23 April and this is also Shakespeare Day
  • May is topped and tailed by bank holidays, with the Early May Bank Holiday on Monday 3 May and the Spring Bank Holiday on Monday 31 May
  • Friday 7 May is the Jewish Holiday of Shavuot
  • The Christian feast of Pentecost is on Sunday 23 May
  • In the UK, Fathers’ Day is on Sunday 20 June
  • Monday 21 June marks the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year
  • Tuesday 22 June is Windrush Day which marks the anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks in 1948 and celebrates the British Caribbean community
  • Tuesday 20 July is Eid ul-Adha, or greater Eid

Many of the most memorable aspects of school life usually happen during the Summer term: school trips, outdoor education, Summer concerts and productions, PTA barbecues, sports days, enrichment weeks, proms and end of year awards.

These enrich the curriculum and help build communities. This year these events will be very different, and some may not be possible at all, but schools will find ways to celebrate their own unique community and the landmark transitions for years 6, 11, and 13.

Hopefully, by the end of the summer term, teachers and pupils alike will be able to enjoy a well-earned summer break after an extraordinary school year.

The goal of true education

The third Monday in January is celebrated in the United States as Martin Luther King Day, close to his birthday on 15 January. This year it falls on 18 January.

The day celebrates Dr King’s activism for the Civil Rights Movement and his leadership of the successful campaign against racial discrimination.

He was a powerful advocate for education and this is one of my favourite education quotes. You can find many more in my posts on Motivation for Mondays.

Ten Things to look forward to in Autumn 2020

I have been writing these ‘things to look forward to’ posts at the start of each school term for a few years now. Of course, 2020 was the year everything changed. Like everyone else, I didn’t anticipate at the start of the year that we would all have to cope with lockdown and then adjust to living with COVID-19.

Nevertheless, after all the planning as schools prepare to return for the start of the new school year, there is still plenty for us to look forward to. Many events will have changed their format, but hopefully their essential character, and importance to schools, will remain the same.

Autumn Term Top Ten

  1. It may not feel like it, following a chilly August bank holiday weekend, but we still have a few weeks of (hopefully) warmer days and longer evenings before the nights really draw in. British Summer Time ends when the clocks go back on Sunday 25th October.
  2. It’s a new school year! Remember that feeling when you wrote your name on a new exercise book and opened the first fresh page full of possibilities. This year, more than ever before, children will have that same feeling. This is an opportunity to help them capture that feeling and go on to achieve great things!
  3. During the lockdown, many of us noticed the natural world more than ever before and took solace from spring blooms, birdsong and other signs of environmental renewal. Now we can take delight from the many signs that summer is turning into autumn. Which plants are coming into bloom now, later in the year? Which fruits are ripening and which leaves are changing colour? Which birds and other animals do you notice? Noting such changes helps us see that no two days are alike. You can find ideas on how to safely get more actively involved on this Wildlife Trusts’ webpage on Looking After Yourself and Nature.
  4. The annual Macmillan Coffee Morning is now in its 30th year and has become a firm fundraising fixture in many schools. This year it is taking a different format and is running throughout September. You can sign up and get more information and a fundraising kit here: World’s Biggest Coffee Morning 2020 and find further information on running safe, socially distanced events here: Coffee Morning Guidance.
  5. In the UK, October is Black History Month, which honours and celebrates the contribution Black Britons have made to our vibrant and diverse society. In recent months Black Lives Matter has drawn our attention to the work that remains to be done to tackle racism across British society, including decolonialising the curriculum. Perhaps this October can be a focus in addressing these issues not only for one month but all year round. You can find out more about events and activities throughout the year, and order a school resource pack, from blackhistorymonth.org.uk. There are also regional listings so you can look for events local to you.
  1. There are a wealth of other key dates, holidays and festivals you may wish to mark during the Autumn term, including:
  • Saturday 19 September Rosh Hashana
  • Tuesday 22 September Autumn Equinox
  • Monday 28 September Yom Kippur
  • 31 October Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve
  • 1 November All Saints’ Day
  • 2 November All Souls’ Day
  • Sunday 8 November Remembrance Sunday, with Armistice Day falling on Wednesday 11 November
  • Saturday 14 November Diwali / Deepavali
  • Sunday 29 November Start of Advent
  • Monday 30 November Scotland celebrates St Andrew’s Day with a bank holiday
  • Friday 11 December is the First Day of Hanukkah, with the Last Day falling on Friday 18 December
  • Monday 21 December Winter Solstice
  1. Your school may already be involved in one of the many National and international Awareness events that take place in the Autumn term. This year, many organisers have modified their events to enable teachers to take a more flexible approach. As well as being Black History Month, October is also time for the annual Big Draw, with artistic events around the country. Registration is now open for the 2020 Big Draw Festival and this year’s theme is #ClimateOfChange. A fundraising event that has become a regular fixture in many schools is Jeans for Genes Day. This year, the format is more flexible with schools able to hold their day at any time during the week beginning Monday 14 September. You can find out more and register at jeansforgenesday.org. We are all encouraged to #ShareAPoem on National Poetry Day on Thursday 1 October. You can download free resources from the education pages of the NPD Website. Many groups and charities that receive funding from the annual BBC Children in Need appeal have been helping disadvantaged children and families during the COVID-19 outbreak. This year’s event is planned for Friday 13 November. Another event featuring in the calendar of many schools is Anti-Bullying Week, which this year takes place between Monday 16 and Friday 20 November. The theme is ‘United Against Bullying’ and you can get more information and resources from the Anti-bullying Alliance.
  2. When the nights do draw in, and the weather gets colder, humans have responded by making lights and loud noises for as long as history records. In the UK, our excuse to celebrate with bonfires and fireworks is now Guy Fawkes Night on 5th November. Worth a reminder about firework safety and undoubtedly there will be additional guidance on staying safe.
  3. Some of the best school traditions happen in the Autumn term and will be upon us before we know it. Whatever guidance is in place to keep us safe this winter, it’s probably worth checking your Christmas jumper for moth holes, changing the battery for the LED lights in your elf hat, and starting to plan the school Nativity Play right now.
  4. At the end of this term, the Christmas holiday and New Year! Here’s looking forward to 2021!

What do you most look forward to in Autumn? Let me know if there are any dates or events that I’ve missed here.

Looking for some more inspiration for assemblies? Have a look at these educational quotes for Monday morning motivation.

Festival dates from timeanddate.com

Image: Rodger Caseby

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 8

For Diverse Book Week this year, I have been reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. I explained why I chose this book at the start of the week. This is my concluding update. I know a week doesn’t have 8 days, but I needed a little longer to finish! You can catch up with my previous daily posts here:

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 1.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 2.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 3.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 -Day 4.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 5.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 6.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 7.

The final chapters of the book take us from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first. This was a period of huge social change in Britain and themes that run through this section are a nation uncertain of its identity in the light of these changes, and differing views among individuals about what it means to be British.

The late nineteenth century saw the emergence of social Darwinism and other ‘scientific’ approaches to ‘race’. As a biologist, I find this an extremely uncomfortable aspect of scientific history. There is no biological basis for the assertion that there are different races within humanity, yet this period saw many applying dubious methods to make not just that claim, but that some races were superior to others. Unsurprisingly, the purveyors of such ideas placed themselves at the top of any supposed hierarchy.

This came to a head in horrific enactment of eugenic policies in Nazi-occupied areas before and during the Second World War. Because the horrors of the holocaust turned the world against such ideas, it is now easy to forget how prevalent they were beforehand, both in Europe and the United States. This resulted in vicious forms of discrimination based on entirely false ideas and was often used as a justification for prejudiced views. The horror with which many British people reacted to the prejudice of white American GIs against their black comrades is particularly well recounted. It is evident that what induced the most aggressive response among these racists was the prospect of inter-racial sexual relations, an irrational fear based in the ridiculous notion of ‘racial purity’.

Sadly, while British citizens may have deplored the violence Black GIs were subjected to, it is clear that in post-war Britain many held the view that children of mixed parentage were somehow inferior and ‘neither one thing nor the other’. This, despite the long history of intermarriage both in Britain and throughout territories under her influence. Such views were rooted in the same irrational pseudoscience of race originally constructed to justify the exploitation of black populations. While it’s clear that only a minority of The British population held prejudiced views, its also apparent that, for too long, a much larger group was not prepared to contest them.

In the light of the long history covered in this book, the struggle for equality in the post war period, which still continues, can be seen not only in the context of contemporary issues such as employment or the influence of individual politicians, but also as the resolution to the various legacies of our past. It seems that both politicians and sections of the populace seemed genuinely surprised that black people of the Empire/commonwealth should want to live in Britain. The subsequent response to that wish in immigration law, employment, Education, social segregation, and day-to-day prejudice (not to mention hate crime perpetrated by extreme right-wing organisations) created a long-standing wound in British society.

That wound is evident now. Those living in substandard and disgracefully unsafe housing of the type that led to the Grenfell fire are more likely to be from BAME groups. These same groups are more likely to be employed in medical and caring roles at the forefront of tackling COVID-19, and at the same time more likely to succumb to it.

I hope it is not too optimistic to think that the current Black Lives Matter protests offer us all an opportunity for real lasting change. Looking back over almost 2000 years of history as this book does, it seems clear that the vibrant mix of ethnicities and cultures we see in modern Britain is exactly the joyous outcome we should expect to result from our history. The fact that so many still see Britain as a land of opportunity is something we should celebrate.

Black and British: A Forgotten History has shown me that it’s time to remember our history, both it’s courageous highlights and it’s more uncomfortable truths, in order that we can at last shuffle off the vestiges of myth, propaganda and prejudice from the past that too often hold us back from building our future.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 7

For Diverse Book Week this year, I’m reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. I explain in this earlier post why I chose this book. You can read my previous daily posts here:

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 1.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 2.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 3.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 -Day 4.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 5.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 6.

On the last day of Diverse Book Week 2020, Sunday 14 June, I read chapter 8 which looks at the activity of the Royal Navy, in particular the West Africa Squadron, to tackle slave trading from the coast of West Africa. This day is also the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, and I read the book with the prayers, thoughts and music from the live-steamed anniversary service to commemorate the 72 victims of that tragic event still resonating in my mind.

Prof. Olusoga gives a lively and well-sourced account of the actions of the West Africa Squadron, as well as the various ruses that slave traders used to evade their attentions. I particularly liked the extended direct quotes from accounts of the time.

Some of the key protagonists have a similar ambiguity surrounding their role as the historical figures I mentioned in my last update. In this case, Lord Palmerston was a prime mover in the efforts to tackle slave trading at its source. This stands in historical contrast to his record of colonialism: a champion of freedom from slavery, but only under British rule and in the British interest. In the current climate of change, the underlines the need to reassess the record of many of the historical figures of this age.

The chapter relates one of the main criticisms of the British efforts against slave trading at this time, that it was under resourced and half-hearted. While the crews and their commanders made great efforts and secured notable successes, the ships of the West Africa Squadron were few in number, old, often in poor repair and technologically outclassed by those of the slave traders.

Others may regard this as a non sequitur, but I couldn’t help make the comparison with the modern world. In the same way that a public commitment was made to ending the slave trade, but then hobbled by underfunding, so too have many of our post-war aspirations been thwarted. Then and now, the consequences of this are felt not by the decision makers, but the most vulnerable. Two of the tangible outcomes of the Beveridge Report, and the post-war consensus were the foundation of the NHS and the largest social housing building programme in British history. Subsequent lack of investment and cost-cutting have sadly caused huge damage.

In the face of the pandemic, and despite warnings, our healthcare system was underprepared and under resourced. The Grenfell fire resulted in tragedy because cost-cutting resulted in inferior – and lethal – cheap cladding materials were used and warnings were ignored by local authority officials. In both cases the group that has been most vulnerable, and has suffered most, is the one which has been subject to prejudice, denied opportunity, and held back economically – the BAME community.

Sunday was the last day of Diverse Book Week, but I finished the final chapters of the book in the following week. You can read my final update here.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 6

For Diverse Book Week this year, I’m reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. I explain in this earlier post why I chose this book. You can read my previous daily posts here:

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 1.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 2.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 3.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 -Day 4.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 5.

In this post, I’m thinking about my reading of chapter 7 which considers moves by abolitionists to tackle slavery in the United States, following their successes in doing so first within Britain, and then British territories overseas. if the need for a better understanding of history needed emphasising, current events couldn’t make the point better. The media on Saturday was full of stories of protest. While hundreds of thousands of people took part in peaceful Black Lives Matters protests in UK cities, towns and villages, a few hundred fascists (I think that’s what an ‘anti-anti fascist’ is) ‘defended’ monuments in London by giving Nazi salutes, chanting ‘we’re racist and that’s the way we like it’ and attacking the police.

While the abolitionists threw themselves into this new challenge, American plantation owners were not going to relinquish their lucrative businesses without a fight. At the same time that former slaves, and enslaved Americans toured Britain relating tales of the violence and brutality of those plantations (to considerable effect), other lobbyists were portraying them as inferior.

These twin messages inter played in the already ambiguous attitudes among the white British public, even among some of the abolutionists, some of whom viewed slavery as morally reprehensible, but also preferred to see former slaves as passive beneficiaries of their goodwill, rather than active agents in their own emancipation. Prof. Olusoga cites Charles Dickens as an example: a passionate advocate of abolition but finding people of colour so distasteful that he actually tore out a portrait of Frederick Douglass from the autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, that he was sending to a friend in support of that cause.

Other ambiguities existed, and persisted into the twentieth century, in forms such as minstrelsy, which became hugely popular among the Victorians, and the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe. Minstrels introduced Victorian England to songs and music derived from the plantations of the southern US states, but also grossly parodied the supposed voices, mannerisms and behaviour of black Americans and served to denigrate them. The best-selling Uncle Tom’s Cabin proved a powerfully persuasive in conveying the brutal reality of the lives of slaves, but portrayed the central character as passive in the face of them.

While slave owners were unsuccessful in convincing the public of their incredible claim that Africans were actually better off enslaved the underlying message of inferiority in many ways aligned with the abolitionists portrayal of a people needing to be ‘rescued’ by white philanthropy. This was despite the many examples of equality of intellect and ability, provided by those former slaves campaigning for their cause.

I wonder if there is a parallel here with modern charitable giving? Victorian abolutionists sometimes raised money to free individual slaves (and the government had compensated British slave owners in 1833) delivering undoubted immediate benefit to those individuals, but risking the reinforcement of the very system they sought to end. Modern charitable campaigns often present Africans as passive victims of famine or disease, in need of the benevolence of ‘white saviours’. When we give to such campaigns we too undoubtedly provide immediate respite, but do we also reinforce damaging stereotypes? How often do we tackle the underlying causes, which lie in long-standing global iniquity?

You can read the day 7 update here.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 5

For Diverse Book Week this year, I’m reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. I explain in this earlier post why I chose this book. You can read my previous daily posts here:

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 1.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 2.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 3.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 4.

This post is about Chapter 6 in which Prof. Olusoga covers the campaign for the abolition of slavery in Britain which finally led to the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 and the eventual ending of slavery in British territories in 1833.

Like most other people in Britain, I was aware of the history of the abolitionist cause and the role of figures such as William Wilberforce. What I did not realise was the extent to which that narrative, which I would say is part of Britain’s National ‘legend’ in the twenty-first century, has been shaped not by the actual events, but rather by narratives of them written afterwards, including, notably, by Wilberforce’s own sons.

This has resulted on a focus on a single campaigner, to the exclusion of other key figures and events. These include the accounts of former slaves, those who had formerly worked in the trade, women, and that of slave protests and uprisings in the Caribbean. Once again, this book has filled in some of the gaps left by my formal school education in the 1970s and 1980s.

Former slaves such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano were able to give powerful accounts of their own experience which proved highly effective in swaying both public and political opinion. They and the group they founded, The Sons of Africa, cast light on a trade whose most brutal aspects were out of the public gaze on the western shores of Africa and other side of the Atlantic. First hand accounts coupled with physical evidence such as shackles and plans of slave decks could not be refuted by slave traders and investors.

The pivotal role of women Such as Elizabeth Heyrick in the abolitionist campaign is also made clear. Women’s groups were often more radical than their male peers, often seeking immediate abolition rather than the gradual approach promoted my the most prominent male figures in the movement, or even giving open support to slave uprisings on plantations. While politically disenfranchised, women played a key role in campaigns such as the sugar boycott.

Protests and uprisings by increasingly informed, literate, and connected slaves communities in Caribbean plantations also played a huge role. The successful uprising in Haiti led by Toussaint Louverture and the brutal oppression of a slave strike in Jamaica made military support of slavery increasingly untenable and helped sway public opinion towards the abolitionist cause. In the end, freedom from slavery was not so much ‘given’ but demanded and achieved by the enslaved.

It struck me that a further factor which the book repeatedly mentions, but has not so far focussed on, is literacy. Whether as a crucial factor in the emancipation of a single individual such as Jonathan Strong, or as the crucial factor in enabling the idea of freedom to spread within and between slave communities, it seems to me that literacy was a central factor. Through literacy, Informations and ideas as disparate as Thomas Paige’s The Rights of Man, British parliamentary proceedings, and the evangelical baptist Gospel message contributed to the end of slavery in British territories.

You can read the Day 6 Update here.