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“Education Is Your Passport To Life” – An Interview With Floella Benjamin

As a Caribbean child coming to England, Baroness Floella Benjamin experienced hostility and rejection, but today she helps young people embrace the rich cultural tapestry of British life

  • “Education Is Your Passport To Life” – An Interview With Floella Benjamin

What were your school days like in Trinidad?
We were told to be proud that we were part of the great British empire, so we learnt everything about Britain; its history, poets and explorers. School gave me a sense of pride that I would like all children to have instilled in them through education. Because those formative years are the foundation on which everything else is built.

Were you a swot?
I loved all subjects. I’m a very creative person, full of imagination, so I was good with writing compositions and stories. I was good at singing and dancing, at history, geography. My father used to test me and my brothers and sisters every night before bed about the capitals and populations of each country. He gave us that sense of adventure in going to find out about the world.

Did you like being tested before bedtime?
Definitely. Every day before we went to school my mum used to say, “Education is your passport to life”. She gave us lots of love and confidence about who we were as children. All my brothers and sisters had a very competitive sibling rivalry about who got the best grades and the highest mark. It was great.

Did you first experience of Britain meet your expectations?
There was a huge contrast. It wasn’t what we were told back in Trinidad. In the Caribbean there were adverts begging people to come and rebuild England. It was a shame that the British government didn’t educate the people though; they didn’t understand why we were here and there was a lot of rejection.

Are the problems you faced a thing of the past?
I’m really surprised when I go into schools and hear from children that they’re having the same experiences I had 56 years ago – the names they’re called and the fear they feel. I’m telling you, when I walked down the street as a 10, 11 and 12 year old, there was a real fear; not knowing who was going to attack me, or who was going to be horrible to me. And that anxiety that you carry with you makes you very, very angry. It gives you a sense of injustice. All of these emotions that you can’t imagine are put upon you for the simple reason of people being prejudiced, ignorant and not at all all-embracing.

Is this something that schools today can help alleviate?
If you look at history, if history is taught properly, people could see that Britain is made up of a rich tapestry of cultures that made the land richer and better. If you were to say ‘go back home’ to the people of Britain , most would say ‘Well, you don’t mean me. I’ve been here a long time’. But everyone came from somewhere else originally.

So you feel things have changed, or that they can?
I feel very proud of my contribution to Britain. I’ve fought to get seatbelts on buses, and campaigned to get black and Asian faces into children’s picture-books. When they wanted to take Mary Seacole off the curriculum, or just have her in inner-city schools, I said to Michael Gove ‘No, no, no. It has to be nationwide because people who don’t know about black history need to understand how their country is made up’ .

Is that how you feel about sharing your own story?
If I can help somebody feel better through what I do, whether they’ve seen me on television or read my book, that’s fantastic. As a writer you’d like to feel that people appreciate what you’ve put down on the page, that you’ve inspired them and that you’ve taken on your responsibility as a guardian of the future. That’s how I see Coming to England. I hope it helps people see that they can integrate and participate and feel that they belong.

Coming to England by Floella Benjamin is published by Macmillan Children’s Books, and you can find free teaching resources to accompany it here.

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