Dr. Keren Brathwaite’s honour well deserved


I believe the children are our future

Teach them well and let them lead the way

Show them all the beauty they possess inside

Give them a sense of pride to make it easier

Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be

Excerpt from The Greatest Love of All by George Benson, released in 1977.

We are almost at the end of June and Black Music Month and halfway through 2009. It is the last week of school for the 2008 – 2009 school year and summer officially began last Sunday (June 21). Parents will be looking for places to send their children to keep them involved in summer time activities so that their minds do not turn to mush during the two months when they are not in school.

It is very important to keep children occupied to prevent the calamity that some older folks in Guyana used to predict: “Satan finds mischief for idle hands”. Africans, whether from the continent, the Caribbean or the Americas, come from communities where education is extremely important.

Even during the dreadful days of slavery when our ancestors were forbidden under pain of death, access to formal education, they recognized that gaining education was a form of resistance and freedom. That is not surprising given that Greek philosophers like Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, who are considered the fathers of western civilization and education, were educated by Africans.

Guyanese scholar, Dr. George Granville Monah James, wrote in his 1954-published book, Stolen Legacy: The Greeks Were Not the Authors of Greek Philosophy, But the People of North Africa, Commonly Called the Egyptians:  “After the death of Aristotle, his Athenian pupils, without the authority of the state, undertook to compile a history of philosophy, recognized at the time as the Sophia or Wisdom of the Egyptians, which had become current and traditional in the ancient world, which compilation because it had been produced by pupils who had belonged to Aristotle’s school, later history has erroneously called Greek philosophy, in spite of the fact that the Greeks were its greatest enemies and prosecutors, and had persistently treated it as a foreign innovation. For this reason, the Greek philosophy is stolen Egyptian philosophy, which first spread to Iona, thence to Italy and thence to Athens”.

In Toronto our community has demonstrated our acknowledgement of the value of education and so it was not surprising that the University of Toronto recognized and honoured Dr. Keren Brathwaite – one of the community’s prominent education activists – on Wednesday, June 17 with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

Dr. Braithwaite has been in the trenches of community education activism for 40 years. She is co-founder of The Transitional Year Program (TYP), an access program at the University of Toronto, co-founder of the Canadian Alliance of Black Educators (CABE) and the Organization of Parents of Black Children (OPBC). Tireless in her determined efforts to ensure that our voice is heard and our views considered when decisions are made about education, Brathwaite has made deputations to the Board of Education and presentations to government bodies like the Ontario Royal Commission on Learning.

She has also written about the state of our children’s education in the Canadian education system in the 1996 book, Educating African Canadians, which she co-edited with Professor Carl James of York University: “Black parents and community have been engaged in a struggle for educational change since the nineteenth century and earlier but the struggle though of long duration has not produced results which we anticipated. However the point cannot be over-emphasized that we have been participants”.

Members of our community were justifiably proud on June 17 as we witnessed Dr. Brathwaite honoured by the University of Toronto, to which she brought much acclaim and recognition in her role as a faculty member of TYP and an advocate for inclusive education.

For me, June 17 was a day of great contrasts and irony. On the very day that I witnessed a champion of inclusive education being honoured by what is considered one of the highest educational institutions in this country, I witnessed two White educators exhibiting the behaviour that contributes to the dampening of our children’s spirit. That morning, I left my home before 7 a.m. to meet a young African-Canadian mother whose 10-year-old son had been suspended from school for seven school days.

She contacted me because she was at her wits end trying to deal with a situation that seemed to have spiraled out of her control. According to the suspension letter she received from the school where her child has been suffering: “On May 27, 2009 ‘The Child’ (in order to protect his identity) was sent to the office for not putting his toy away. He refused to give the toy to ‘Ms. Principal’. He got his lunch without permission. Ms. Principal tried to trade his lunch for the toy, but The Child left the classroom to go to his sister’s class. He took her sandwich and, while the principal tried to organize a trade for the lunches and the toy, he threw the sandwich at his sister. After Ms. Principal gave his sister his sandwich, he tried to grab it from her”.

At the school, named after an Ethiopian saint where the staff is overwhelmingly White, the child’s mother, OPBC member Owen Leach and I met with the principal and the superintendent of schools for the area. The principal and the superintendent both refused to acknowledge that the principal’s reprehensible behaviour in provoking the reaction of a hungry child, teasing and tormenting him by withholding his food led to the escalation of a situation that could have been resolved with less drama. The Child had already put the “offending” toy in his pocket when the principal became involved but she was determined to throw her weight and power around.

Thankfully, that was all she threw, unlike Principal Maria Pantalone, who pleaded guilty to assaulting a 12-year-old male student when she threw human feces at him because, on that fateful day in 2006, she “couldn’t take it anymore. It was total, total frustration”.

More recently, Pantalone has reportedly been charged with “three counts of threatening death and bodily harm”. The principal at The Child’s school intimated that she was frustrated also so I hope that the Board intervenes and gets her some help before she follows in Pantalone’s footsteps.

Later the same day I was struck by the difference in experience as Brathwaite gave her convocation address when she spoke of the joy she experienced as a child being educated on a small Caribbean island and I compared that to the trauma many of our children experience here. Because of the sense of entitlement that White middle class women (who are the majority of principals in the elementary schools, both public and Catholic) exhibit, we continue to need activists like Brathwaite to advocate for our children in an education system that is still not inclusive.

I believe the children are our future…


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