Listening to her student teacher tell the class that Egypt is not in Africa and Egyptians don’t look like her struck a chord with Azana Hyman.
Enrolled in the African Canadian Heritage Association (ACHA) Saturday curriculum-based education program, the nine-year-old knew that wasn’t right as she was exposed to a class on Egypt taught by Dr. Eric Wickham who, with his wife Emily, have imbued students with their wisdom and knowledge for the past 43 years.
Hyman challenged the teacher, who attempted to sanction her.
“Think about the onslaught our children face each and every day when they not only are struggling to learn about who they are, but they also are forced to challenge what they are learning,” said Hyman’s mother, Thando Hyman, in the keynote address at the ACHA 45th anniversary celebration last Sunday in Scarborough.
“We have not been afforded the opportunity in public spaces to be able to ensure that our children are well educated about their own African people. As such, we have had to create institutions like the ACHA to address that gap because we say that if we are truly about serving humanity and where there is a need, we must fill that vacuum. As a grassroots organization, the ACHA has helped push and advance the envelope of what African-centred learning looks like. If there was no ACHA, I believe very strongly we could never have had an Africentric Alternative School.”
An ACHA student and youth instructor, Hyman was the school’s first principal five years ago.
Launched as the Black Heritage Association by Dr. Ronald Blake, the organization’s name was changed in 1992 to preserve its unique identity following the establishment of several Black heritage programs across the city. It was started as a necessary response to intense social provocation by Canada at a time when the majority of people of colour were systematically not welcomed.
The need for the institution heightened after York University professors Dr. Wolseley “Percy” Duncan and the late Dr. Rudy Grant sounded the alarm in the late 1960s while conducting a sociological experiment that Black children were in crisis when they observed that they rejected Black dolls in favour of White ones.
“Your 45 years stand as a testament that institutions like this are not only vital and important but definitely relevant,” said Hyman.
In addition to Hyman, countless ACHA graduates are enjoying successful professional careers.
Dr. Chike Jeffers is an assistant professor in Dalhousie University’s philosophy department, Emily Mills is a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Toronto senior communications officer and Aisha Wickham-Thomas is an Ontario Media Development Corporation program consultant.
Ontario Superior Court judge Kofi Barnes, who attended the event, saluted the ACHA for providing a forum to teach children about their rich heritage.
“By teaching our children about their heritage, ACHA feeds their souls,” he said. “Our children are equipped with that special indelible quality and a sense of belonging, pride and positive self-worth. They have a belief that this world is truly their oyster and a sense that they shall overcome and be successful.”
To mark the milestone celebration, the organization presented awards to outgoing president Carole Cushnie and Freddy King.
A paralegal with the federal government for the last 16 years and recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, Cushnie has led the organization for the last six years.
“The ACHA remains a testament to the shared belief that our culture must not be lost or forgotten,” said Cushnie, who was presented with a Community Service award. “It stands for the belief that we have to empower not only our children and young people but also our adults.”
Born in Rexdale, King graduated from Central Technical School and has a passion for sports, volunteering and the arts.
“It’s one thing to get recognized by other communities, but it’s a greater experience to be honoured by your own,” said King, who was the Youth award recipient.
The winner of a Michaëlle Jean Foundation/TD Bank Group $5,000 bursary last year, King is a member of the 2015 Toronto Pan Am/Parapan youth advisory council.
Libation, drumming, spoken word, dance performances and inspiring vocal renditions marked the anniversary attended by guests from across Canada and the United States, including National Dance Association author and researcher, Frank Ross; Modell Gault Jr. of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations and Paul Hill Jr. of the National Rites of Passage Institute.
“We commend the ACHA for understanding that history is an important starting point in the development of children and young people,” said Hill, who is based in Cleveland. “History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It’s a compass that they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are, but more importantly, what they must be.”