Students call for more Black history education, starting in elementary school
Published Wednesday, June 10, 2020 6:27AM PDT
VANCOUVER -- Daniel Afolabi remembers one soccer game in particular at age nine in Okotoks, Alta., when a player on the opposing team refused to shake his hand.
“He goes 'I don't want to shake your hand because you're Black,' ” Afolabi remembers.
He was around the same age when a woman showed up in his class wearing black face to portray American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who freed slaves in the 1800s via the Underground Railroad to Canada.
“I don't really want another kid to have to go through that and not realize what's with that until like five years later,” he said.
Afolabi, who is 20 and entering his third year at the University of British Columbia's Sauder school of business, said the outpouring of emotion after George Floyd's death in Minneapolis is an opportunity for Canadian schools to address racism against Black people.
He is planning an online petition to present to Alberta Education in hopes of getting more Black history taught in schools. It would be based on the teaching of Indigenous history and cover the historical, social, economic and political impact of racism.
“I'm not saying learning about racism in high school or elementary school will solve racism but at least people can be held a bit more accountable,” he said.
When he was in high school, one of the few Black-themed assignments Afolabi remembers was the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a book he enjoyed reading on his own but not hearing it read aloud by the teacher.
“My discomfort was when a white woman is reading it and there's the N-word and other students will point to you whenever the word is read,” he said.
Alberta Education spokesman Colin Aitchison said the province's current curriculum for kindergarten to Grade 12 addresses race and racism by teaching students to value and respect diversity and support equality.
“Throughout the social studies curriculum, there is a strong focus on Canadian history, including issues related to the histories, cultures and contributions of Indigenous Peoples and people of African and Caribbean descent to our province and country,” he said in a statement.
“The recent events unfolding across North America are a clear example as to why it is important to educate our youth about racism.”
Aitchison did not immediately respond to questions about possibly changing the curriculum.
Jean Ngendakumana, a Grade 11 student in Vancouver who moved from Tanzania when he was four, said any Black history he has been taught at school was skimmed over.
“I would say the best learning I've had was maybe about Viola Desmond and what happened to her and why she's on the $10 bill,” he said.
“I don't think many people are well educated, or educated at all, about what we had to go through and what we still have to go through.”
British Columbia Education Minister Rob Fleming said his ministry is examining ways to work with local groups to develop a curriculum that better incorporates Black history, including the slave trade and the Underground Railroad.
Ministry staff is meeting with the B.C. Black History Awareness Society next week in an effort to address the needs of young people who are demanding change, Fleming said in a statement.
“We plan to listen and we are committed to working with community partners to strengthen the curriculum, to support diversity and to add to the global effort to end systemic racism,” he said.
Yasin Kiraga, executive and artistic director of the African Descent Society British Columbia, said he began discussing the significance of Black history with the Education Ministry in 2016.
He said Black students could be empowered by learning about their ancestors in Vancouver.
Kiraga, who came to Canada as a refugee from Burundi in 2009, has visited schools to teach about the once-thriving Black community in Vancouver's Strathcona neighbourhood.
He said many moved out of the city before the buildings they lived in were demolished in the 1970s to make way for a viaduct to connect the area to downtown.
Nora Hendrix, grandmother of rock legend Jimi Hendrix, co-founded a church in Strathcona and was a well-known figure in the community along with her husband Ross Hendrix.
Kiraga said B.C.'s curriculum should include more than a minimum amount of teaching during Black History Month.
“We can educate Canadians who don't understand the stories of racism in the past and how it affected the Black community,” said Kiraga, who is working with the Vancouver School Board to develop a course on Black history.
The board said it is using content from the African Descent Society to seek approval from trustees for a course.
“Once a course is developed and approved, it is then added to the curriculum options at secondary schools according to timetabling and student interest,” it said in a statement.
Trustee Jennifer Redding said anti-racism learning should be strengthened starting in elementary school because an elective course in high school isn't enough.
“What I've learned as a trustee from young people, young Black learners in our school district, is that they want to learn more from an elementary age and want their peers to learn more from an elementary age,” she said.
It's also important to recruit more Black teachers, Redding said.
“I'm a racialized trustee so it's both personal and professional. I know what it's like to not see yourself in the educator or in the curriculum,” she said.
“Young people are frustrated and their parents have gone through the same stuff. I think it's an important time for change because it's such a call to action all around the world, so business as usual isn't working out for our kids or our educators.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2020.