Black History Month and the Continued Erasure of African-Canadian History in Schools

It was the frustration of having to celebrate another Africa Day that drove my son to ask a classmate if he knew who Viola Desmond was (Canada's Rosa Parks).
Publish date:
February 15, 2015
parenting, childhood, racism, race, social justice, Discrimination, weekend

For one month a year, North Americans deign to pay attention to black history in the most cursory fashion possible. For many, this includes learning about Martin Luther King (as long as it's not anything he wrote after 1963), and maybe a little bit about slavery — unless you're Canadian. In that case, it's all about the Underground Railroad and how progressive Canada is. The little Black history that is taught today in public schools is what has been colonized and edited to make it palatable to those who are either wracked with white guilt or else so enamored with their white privilege that even the smallest distraction from the supposed greatness of whiteness is an affront.

It's an absolute fact that many adult Canadians aren't even aware that slavery was legal in Canada and yet, the first purchased black slave, Olivier LeJeune, was brought to Canada in 1628. When Canadians talk about slavery, it's always about the Underground Railroad because it allows Canada to position itself as morally superior to America because African-Americans escaped slavery in the U.S. by moving to Canada. These former slaves certainly weren't eating manna from heaven, or living in a society which believed in equality or the humanity of blacks. As long as Canada defines itself discursively as “Other” in relation to the United States, it will never have to deal with its own bad acts.

Personally, I have a troubled relationship with Black History Month. Perhaps it is because it wasn't until 1995 that Jean Augustine (the first black female MP) made a motion in the House of Commons to officially recognize Black History Month in Canada. When I was growing up, black history was not part of the curriculum. I learned all about the strife between French Canada and English Canada and the War of 1812 until I wanted to be ill (yes, Cannucks are still celebrating burning down the White House), and basic facts about a few indigenous tribes (naturally, nothing that would educate me about the reservation schools, treaty breaking, land theft, murder, or rape of indigenous women). I would not seek out information about black Canadian history until well into my adulthood because I bought into the lie of omission that all black history really just happened in the U.S.

I am a first-generation Canadian with West Indian parents. I am not considered to be truly West Indian because I wasn't born in the Caribbean, nor do I feel completely Canadian because of the invisibility of people who look like me in every single social sphere. Still, being raised in Toronto without any life plans for future immigration to another country, I had to know if there was a place for me in Canada and what it would look like. That journey started with a look backward. I wanted to know what other immigrant families of color went through, firm in the belief that it could not be the national narrative (read: fairy tale) of benign neglect. Believe it or not, when I lived in Niagara Falls, I was asked several times if I was a descendant of slaves because I apparently look like one of the historical families. In 2004, after being stopped for what felt like the millionth time, I asked the man about it. He told me all about the slave descendants in the area and the yearly picnic they hold. This lead to searching libraries for rare editions and combing through microfilm (remember those?) for the stories of early black settlers in Canada. I wanted to know how slavery was abolished and about the resistance movement in Canada because I was sick to death of hearing about the civil rights movement in the U.S. At last, I found the truth about what building a life in this country would look like for someone black like me.

When I had my first child, I vowed that he would not grow up as ignorant as I did. All of these years later, my son, who is currently a public school student in the eighth grade, has not had a class in African-Canadian history, Black History Month notwithstanding. Each year, his school celebrates something they like to call Africa Day — as though the history, culture, religion, and traditions of an entire continent can be learned in eight hours for one day a year. What would make sense is learning about the Canadian government’s destruction of Africville Nova Scotia, instead of a cheap display of a Canadian interpretation of what Pan-Africanism looks like. At its best, Black History Month is casually thrown into the curriculum and not intended as part of yearlong learning. At its worst, it's used to brush aside or outright erase the past. My child's French school board has gone out of its way to ensure that he is well aware of Francophone culture, but not the cultures of people who look like him and who have shared his experiences.

Unlike far too many, I don't believe that our history is something that should be limited to the shortest month of the year. For my son, the studies which I have imposed upon him have been an ongoing project. He has benefited personally but the education he has learned at home has served to highlight exactly what is missing in his formal education. It was the frustration of having to celebrate another Africa Day that drove him to ask a classmate if he knew who Viola Desmond was (Canada's Rosa Parks). When his friend responded that she's an actress (yes, the child confused Viola Desmond with Viola Davis), it pained my son deeply. Learning black history has given him a strong sense of self, as well as an understanding of where he fits in socially, but the lack of black history in his formal education means that the socialization of white supremacy happens almost invisibly for his peer group. For those kids who don't have the benefit of an engaged, social justice–minded parent who cares about their child learning more than the oppressor’s truth, there is no political or social context to the world around them, only the messages that they pick up in the media. In Canada, that means a decidedly African-American understanding of what it is to be black. The African-American struggle plays a key role in the experiences of the children of the African Diaspora; however, when it overshadows the stories of African-Canadians, it means that all of the racial issues that blacks face in this country are continually ignored and erased.

We have spent countless hours watching movies, reading books, and scouring the Internet for sources. With each movie we watch, we always discuss the portrayals and the significance of the story. I have assigned him book reviews and movie reviews, always asking questions. How accurate are the stories? How do they make you feel? How do they explain the current position of African-Canadians in Canadian society? It's not enough for him to know the nuts and bolts of the struggle. I want him to understand and identify with our heroes of the past. I want him to understand that when he feels the vicious sting of oppression based on his brown skin — which is the legacy from my womb — that he is not alone and he can survive.

Because I am fully aware how marginalization works, I have taken great care to ensure that in preparation for the life that he will lead, not only is he aware of the issues that black men face, but also how racism and sexism combine to marginalize black women. Left to the limited exposure of the Canadian public school system, he would be lucky to learn about Harriet Tubman, let alone feminists like Rosemary Brown, the first black woman to run for the leadership of a federal party, or Carrie Best, who is a Member of the Order of Canada (1974) and established the first published and owned black newspaper in Nova Scotia. There’s also Senator Anne Clare Cools, the first black senator and founder of one the first shelters for survivors of domestic violence in Toronto. These names should resonate and yet, for most people, they don’t because all of the aforementioned women are black.

Currently, we are watching CBC's The Book of Negroes, a miniseries based on a book by the same name by author and screenwriter Lawrence Hill. The Book of Negroes is a historical dramatization of the Black Loyalists, centering on the fictional character of Aminata Diallo. Speaking on the importance of the six-part miniseries to the Globe and Mail, Lawrence Hill said, “It’s a Canadian story that has not been dramatized before . . . the story of the Black Loyalists. That’s the problem with Canada — we have a very limited notion of what constitutes Canadian history.” Even as Hill acknowledges the importance of the Black Loyalists to Canadian History, the miniseries actually only dedicates a small section of the story to what life was like for the Loyalists in Nova Scotia. What is sad is that even this small hint of what life was like for these early settlers will probably be startling to many Canadians on several fronts. Canadians culturally exist with the idea that people of color are recent arrivals and that they have always been treated with paternalistic kindness and this convenient misinterpretation of the truth is specifically because our history has been systematically erased.

A lack of formal education regarding African-Canadian history and experiences has made my child realize how insidious white supremacy is. Each child who passes through the system without learning about the various deeds of people of color in this country will leave their school with the understanding that only white people have ever contributed to Canadian society and that people of color exist to complain or borrow trouble from the Americans. It stunts our growth as a nation and leaves all of our children unprepared to deal with the world and its changing global demographics. It's ironic that Canada is called the Great White North given that, by 2031, one third of the Canadian population will be made up of visible minorities.

The stranglehold of white majority is starting to unravel and the only question now is: Who will inherit the country, and how will they lead if they don't know where they began?