Don’t cheat Black youth out of their history

By Pat Watson Wednesday February 25 2015 in Opinion
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As if to show by example why Black History Month matters so much, the CBC ran a feature recently in which teenagers inside a school gave some one-word descriptions to depict the narrow ideas that permeate our consciousness about Black youth. There would be no need here to reinforce those concepts by repeating the various negative descriptions.


The feature interviewed two teachers who had taken it upon themselves to design a program of study in African history for teenaged students. During the interview, one teacher tearfully recounted the negative reactions and threats directed at her anonymously because of her efforts to bring this information to students. She said she had even received a death threat.


Several generations ago, it was against the law to teach Black people how to read and write. These days a person of African descent having knowledge of his or her history is a threat to the status quo. The decades-long fight against the establishment of just one public alternative school in Toronto with an Africentric focus stands as just one episode in how such knowledge is viewed as a threat.


At the core of the CBC report was the paucity of material available to students allowing them a window into the full dimensions of the history of peoples of African descent.


What kind of world are we giving to our youth when they so uniformly express surprise at the grand legacy of African peoples as it extends into millennia before this time?


If there is a way to efficiently break the spirit of a generation, then that would be by denying them information about all that has preceded them as it concerns who they are.


We live in a social environment that is permeated with the narrative of White supremacy. The only stories that are allowed to be included regarding other groups of people generally fit into a very narrow, very limited set of narratives.


The dominant group is represented in daily life through myriad media as having full lives. The members are variously seen in all the broad aspects of life. The stories they tell us about themselves have range and texture.


Given access to historical knowledge about African peoples, the students who attended the course, who were of a range of ethnicities, came away with a new perspective and a newfound respect.


One hopes that the introduction they received will create in them a desire to further that knowledge. The fact is that there are quite a number of community groups who have as their mandate the tutoring of African Canadian youth in their history, but that kind of focus is not replicated in public schools.


During the troubled era when the Progressive Conservatives in Ontario ran the provincial government in the mid-1990s on into the early part of this new millennium, that political group made it a mission to dismantle a number of key policies that would ensure equity both for workers and for students. Regarding workers, the government led by Mike Harris demolished rules on employment equity and, in schools, did away with non-White cultural and race relations education programs.


We would not have to wonder too much then about why the dropout rate is so significant among Black high school aged youth.


It takes a tremendous effort to maintain a consistent message to our youth that “Black lives matter”. Black History Month, African History Month, African Liberation Month provides a focus for this important mission. For posterity, our young people must be given the means to engage in awareness of the full magnitude of their legacy.


A note on the sorrow and the pity…

It would be hard to know what voice a three-year-old would hear that would carry him off into a deadly freezing cold night. It would be hard to find the words to comfort a grieving family at the loss of an innocent child, taken from them under frightful circumstances. It has been a reassuring act to witness the empathy with which people of this city have extended themselves following the loss of little Elijah Marsh. Little children very often do not understand the consequences of their actions. Sometimes, the consequences mean tragic loss.


Pat Watson is the author of the e-book, In Through a Coloured Lens. Twitter@patprose.

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