[Taking Back Control: African-Canadian Women Teachers' Lives & Practice]

By Henry, Annette; N, Njoki et al. | Resources for Feminist Research, Winter/Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

[Taking Back Control: African-Canadian Women Teachers' Lives & Practice]


Henry, Annette, N, Njoki, Sharma, Tirbenny, Resources for Feminist Research


In this work, Annette Henry explores and problematizes the challenges, barriers and restrictions facing Black educators who seek to assume control of education for Blacks -- hence the title, Taking Back Control. Henry interviews five African-Caribbean Canadian women educators from Guyana, Jamaica and St. Kitts: Makeda, a school principal, and four classroom teachers, Ese, Inez, Rita and Viv.

Henry's study, initially a doctoral thesis, was conducted between January 1989 and June 1991 at Bedford Elementary School, a small, southern Ontario urban elementary school that is 80 percent Black, where these women taught. Ese and Viv taught grades four and five; Inez and Rita two and three. Henry employed a variety of methods for her research: participant observations of classroom activities, life-history interviews, teacher/student discussions, students' conversations, and interviews with teachers on their roles and successes/failures. She used audio-tapes, transcriptions and triangulation of data to obtain as accurate a picture as possible. She hoped at the end of her thesis to generate enough theory and raise enough questions to elicit "how Black women teachers' consciousness and understandings at the intersections of race, class, gender and culture contribute to and shape their pedagogical practice" (p. 3). Knowing that the practitioners themselves are heirs to the legacy of European colonialism and current imperialism in educational practices, Henry seeks to explore, simply put, what the women are doing about it. How are they "taking back control"? In answering this question, Henry seeks to encapsulate the problems and challenges facing Black educators today. Through the lens of the five educators' stories, Henry shares with readers the oppression facing not only the teachers themselves but also their charges -- Black and other minority students who participate in a learning environment which is weighted heavily against them.

The following chapter titles convey an idea of the breadth of the book: (1) Black Women Teachers Speak; (2) Contextualizing Black Women's Lives and Activism; (3) "So You Close the Door and You Do What Works": Possibilities and Limitations of Oppositional Standpoints; (4) Literacy, Black Self-Representation, and Cultural Practice; (5) Sustaining and Re- creating Intertextual Relationships in the African Diaspora; (6) The Dilemma of the Empty Shelf and Other Curricular Challenges for Transformative Teacher; and (7) Holding on to Hope.

By creating space for Black women teachers, Henry, of Black Jamaican heritage herself, gives voice to the five Black educators; she lets them speak for themselves, with little or no interruption. She captures them constructing pedagogies of cultural resistance and Black self- representation. Through their autobiographical accounts, Henry records the frustrations, anxieties, complexities and contradictions that face Black educators in a white, hegemonic society.

Henry extols the accomplishments of these Black teachers. They are filling in the huge gaps left by mainstream education. Viv, for example, teaches important segments of Black History within the regular History class. Henry envisions the pedagogical contributions of these five women as "part of a historical and diasporic Black womanist tradition" (p. 65). Blacks and other minorities have been taught from the perspective that only Western or Eurocentric civilization has any value. Contributions from other cultures, especially that of the Blacks, are negated or minimized.

In the second chapter, "Contextualizing Black Women's Lives and Activism," Henry frames the women's accounts within the larger socio- political contexts of their activism, of their presence in the labour force, of immigration factors and concerns arising from within the Black community itself. Black parents, activists and teachers are all involved in the educational "liberation" of the Black child. She states quite bluntly that Black people are not treated as true citizens of Canada, despite the fact that many of them have been here since the 1700s; and that negative stereotypes of Black people -- morally and mentally inferior -- prevail. …

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