Introducing Nat Holmes

Nat Holmes wearing hat and coat against a background of blue sky

Nat Holmes, who will be working with us to create new teaching resources

Please note: In this piece we use the term global majority communities. By this we mean Black, Asian, people of colour, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Often labelled as minority in the UK, we represent 80% of the world population, therefore: global majority.

Thanks to funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund we are developing an exciting set of teaching resources. These will be based on our archive collections and will equip educators to centre the voices and experiences of Greater Manchester’s global majority communities in classrooms and other educational spaces. The resources will include curriculum-referenced resources, creative activities and suggestions for using our archives in the classroom.

We are delighted to introduce Nat Holmes, who has been appointed to create these resources for us, and I interviewed her for this piece.

So Nat, tell us about yourself…

I am a mixed-race African-American/British White woman who grew up in a very white town in the North West during the 1970s and 80s. I remember at the age of 8 asking my mum who Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X were and getting a very ‘1980s white mum’ answer: ‘They fought for Black people’s rights; one was good and one was bad’. From then on I did my own research on Black history, and eventually I became a history teacher specialising in American and African American history. Despite my years of teaching, I am continually learning about my ancestors and my history. 

In 2010 I left teaching, for the first time, and went off on my travels – I worked on a chateau in Bordeaux, a goat farm in the Ardèche, and a buffalo farm in New Jersey. Eventually I came back to the UK and did a master’s in Inclusive Education and Special Education Needs, which was insightful not only from an educational perspective but also on a personal basis as it provided me with the tools to verbalise the racism that I had experienced over the years. After my master’s I went back into teaching for three years, except this time I worked in an SEN school. This proved to be an amazing experience – as well as making me a much better teacher the position also introduced me to a myriad of awe-inspiring people, many of whom, despite leaving teaching once again in 2017, I am still friends with.

We’re so pleased to have you with us, as you bring experience and skills that we don’t have in-house. What was it that attracted you to our commission?

 My friend actually found the job advertisement and sent it to me. I immediately knew that I had to apply for it! The role was clearly connected to an issue that is very important to me, it would give me the opportunity to be a true history-nerd in the archives collections and would allow me to utilise all the fun resource making skills I had acquired as a teacher. So I applied….

Educational resource development - exciting opportunity
Banner advertising the educational resource development role

I know it’s early days right now, but can you share a bit about what you’re currently working on?

 I am working my way through a number of archive collections; I have several summaries going at the same time so that I can spot themes between them and see where they might overlap. I am currently looking at artefacts related to Ukrainian refugees, the Partition Project and Marilyn Cuffy, who was a community and youth worker involved in a number of Black and Asian women’s groups in Manchester. I have lots of possible lesson ideas written down whilst also researching and harassing my friends for more ideas, and taking the dog on walks up hills to help me figure out ideas.

Given you’re so immersed in our archive collections, can you share what you’ve learned so far? Has anything surprised you?

A number of the collections are about events I remember being on the news as a child but of which I had no real idea of their context. I heard lots about Hulme and Moss Side as a child, and I remember watching the Moss Side and Brixton riots on the news, but I didn’t really appreciate the complexity of the situations. I have also been surprised by the level of community action in Manchester over the decades. When you think of political activism in Manchester you immediately think of suffragettes and the Labour Party, yet these archives show a rich history of BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] activism over the decades.

This is so true, the activism that is documented in our archives and library is often overlooked when it comes to the wider stories told about our area’s political heritage. This is one reason why we’re so excited about these resources – young people will learn all about our global majority communities and the many ways in which they campaigned and fought for rights and space.

Thinking more widely, what do you think are the greatest challenges for teaching multicultural histories in anti-racist ways?

The reality is that the majority of educators in Britain are white, and the curriculums they follow are predisposed towards white culture. The teaching of multicultural histories would benefit greatly from having diverse and representative staff within schools and a curriculum that celebrates Britain’s multiculturalism. As a former history teacher I am aware of how Britain’s colonial past still influences our society today, and how a lack of knowledge regarding the realities of this history can create opportunities for racism. As proud as I am to be British. I am also conscious that the racist consequences of British history are often obscured by myths that can be difficult to challenge.   

 And opportunities?

Multiculturalism in Britain is not a recent thing – the reality is that the Britain of today has been influenced for centuries by other ethnicities and cultures. You see it in the words and numbers we use, the food we eat, the architecture around us. Within our history there are both positive and negative experiences of multiculturalism, and it is vital that we learn both. Events of the past few years seem to have provided us with an increased opportunity and willingness to hear about negative events of the past, and I hope we take the opportunity to learn from them.

Before I let you get back to the archives, can I ask what tips you have for teachers and educators, in terms of teaching inclusive histories?

Show a willingness to learn from others about cultures and history that are new to you; your students, for example, can be a wealth of knowledge. Don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’; the reality is we are all learning all the time. Broaching uncomfortable issues is scary but keeping silent about racism in our past allows it to continue today – those issues need to be discussed with students.

On the flipside of that are the positive aspects of BAME histories which are often omitted, presenting a skewed perspective. As a teacher of African American history I was aware that I was often presenting only the negative aspects of Black history and omitting the African empires, universities and technology that existed long before the slave trade. Balance is important. 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this interview with Nat. Her energy and enthusiasm for this work is inspiring and we’re really looking forward to being able to start sharing the resources with you. Please follow us on social media for updates and access to the resources when ready.