BLACK HISTORY: Much More Than Slavery and Civil Rights

By Gillmore, Meagan | Teach, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

BLACK HISTORY: Much More Than Slavery and Civil Rights


Gillmore, Meagan, Teach


The Grade One student expected Nikki Clarke to discuss slavery. So Clarke showed a picture of a potato chip bag.

As president of the Ontario Black History Society, Clarke often speaks about black history in schools. A former teacher, she regularly asks students what they know about black history. Children don't sanitize their answers. This student responded simply, "Black history is when we're made to feel bad about the blacks because they were slaves," Clarke remembered. Some teachers chuckled and gasped, but Clarke continued with her presentation, telling children how people of African descent invented things they all loved, like the potato chip (George Crum) or the super-soaker water gun (Lonnie G. Johnson).

She wanted to show students black history is part of everyday life-and worth celebrating. "Black history isn't about a blemish in history as this [student] understood it to be," said Clarke. Helping students learn this presents challenges. Most North American students associate African, or black, history with slavery. Teachers may be the first to introduce students to that history.

Racism continues in our society. Descriptions of racist incidents fill newscasts and social media feeds-sometimes those platforms become places of racist activity. February may officially be Black History Month (called African Heritage Month in some places), but students and teachers see and experience racism all year.

While news about racial divides is constantly accessible, geography determines what racial tensions students encounter. Students who don't know anyone of African heritage may ignore black history altogether. After all, February was only declared Black History Month in the United States in 1976. (This came 50 years after Negro History Week was first celebrated in 1926.) The government of Canada did not officially declare February as Black History Month until December 1995.

Canadian teachers may have fewer resources available than their American counterparts. Traditionally, Canadians shy away from uncomfortable topics. Discussions of racism often focus on the history of Aboriginal Canadians, particularly residential schools, or anti-Asian policies, like the Chinese Head Tax or Japanese Internment Camps during the Second World War. Students need to know about these events, but they also should be exposed to African history. "Anti-black racism doesn't seem as a predominant story in Canada," said Maryam Adrangi, a high school teacher in South Burnaby, BC.

Teaching African history well means telling the story properly. This requires creatively engaging the past and present. It also means encouraging students to reconsider their collective past so they can consider creating positive individual futures. Students need to see their cultures reflected in classroom materials, whether in posters or characters in books. Professional artists can help; some visit schools to teach African heritage.

Arts Express started in-school dance, visual arts, and drama workshops throughout Ontario in 1995. In 2011, the organization began offering presentations focused on African Heritage. Despite the racial diversity in Toronto's schools, little material was available on the topic, said Danelle Smith McManus, the organization's executive director. Professional storytellers of African descent present stories in an interactive way. Some are fictitious, like Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt written by Deborah Hopkinson with paintings by James Ransome. It is a picture book about a slave escaping to Canada via the Underground Railroad. Others are non-fiction, like Jody Nyasha Warner and Richard Rudnicki's Viola Desmond Won't Be Budged, about the black businesswoman's refusal to move to the all-black balcony at a segregated Nova Scotia movie theatre. She purchased a ticket for a floor-level seat, not knowing that area was reserved for whites. Her arrest sparked movements against segregation in Canada. Arts Express presented this story before it was announced that Desmond's portrait will grace the new Canadian $10 bill, set for circulation in 2018. …

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