By BARRINGTON A. MORRISON
“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”
Ralph Ellison, renowned African-American author.
“The most potent weapon in the hands of oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
Steve Biko, Pan-Africanist, South African leader.
In the 1930s, African-American scholar, Carter G. Woodson, elaborated on those points in his discourse of inequality in his seminal book, The Miseducation of the Negro: “I believe that education was, and always will be one of the determinant factors in socio-economic power and mobility, and the disenfranchised will always be at a distinct disadvantage in its dispensation.”
In this discourse I will premise my argument that there have always been political implications of who would be allowed accessibility to quality education at all levels in the post-slavery era. Knowledge has the potential for power and knowledge comes through formal and informal education. Therefore the controllers of power always determine who gets what type of education.
There is always a potential for conflict and tension in the politics of education, and nowhere was this more evident than in the public school systems, during the middle of the 19th century of Upper Canada (Ontario). The controversial religious, political and racial issues surrounding the establishment of separate schools for Protestants, Africans and Roman Catholics were very challenging during pre-Confederation years, particularly for the African people who experienced intense discrimination and were denied access to public schools because of the intersections of race, colour, culture, ethnicity and racist Eurocentric dogma.
In order to fully comprehend the plight of escaped slaves in Upper Canada (Ontario) during the middle of the 19th century, it is essential to revisit well-documented history as a painted backdrop to the stage upon which the drama of families and individuals were played out. The omission of historical fact in the school curriculum, and other publications, will surprise many people when they are presented with information and documentation which shows that Africans lived in Canada from the very beginning of European settlement. It may even be more shocking to many when they learn that Africans arrived on the North American continent long before the revered European heroes, including Columbus, Cabot, Cartier, Frobisher, Davis, Hudson and Champlain. These facts are carefully researched and documented in Ivan Van Sertema’s book, African Presence in Early America, (1987).
From the 1520s to the 1860s, an estimated 11 to 12 million African men, women and children were forcibly manacled and embarked on European boats for a life of slavery in the “so-called New World” western hemisphere. It is estimated that 9 to 10 million Africans survived the Trans-Atlantic crossing to be purchased by planters and traders in the “New World”, where they worked principally as slave labourers in plantation economies. Slavery appeared in many forms throughout its long history. Slaves served in many capacities as diverse as warriors, concubines, servants, craftsmen and victims of ritual sacrifice.
However, in the “New World” (the Americas), slavery emerged as a system of forced labour designed to facilitate the production of staple crops, which helped to expand and developed the economies of Europe and Europeans and diminished and underdeveloped the economies of Africa and Africans. Depending on the location, the production and marketing these crops included coffee, sugar, cotton and tobacco. The most important of these staples were cotton, tobacco and sugar.
As a part of this historical discourse it is most important to note that Europeans had to justify their barbaric behaviour during this epoch. Hence, they found it necessary to depict the Africans as less than humans, and far inferior to Europeans. Therefore in order to justify the perpetration of chattel slavery, there was a widely held unproven Eurocentric dogma that continues into the 21st century that Africans were uncivilized and incapable of having contributed to world civilization or anything in their dark and distant past that could be dignified by the designation of history. Such ideas are implausible and are contradicted by the fact that many who were brought here in the filthy holds of slave ships were doctors, lawyers, professors, musicians, artists, wealthy land owners and members of royal families. The essential factor here is to retrace the history of these brilliant Black individuals to their ancestral lineage, and to expose the Eurocentric myth and the misinformation that the Africans were savages, illiterate, slovenly, rough and uncivilized.
For example, we know that the Africans placed a high premium on the value of education. According to (Huffman, 2006) “the first university (Sankore) was built on the African continent in the fourteenth century at Timbuktu in Mali and attracted students from throughout Africa and the Middle East.
This happened long before Europeans emerged from the lethargy of the Middle Ages and began to extend themselves into the broader world of Africa and Asia during the 15th and 16th centuries, where they went on to colonize the world of scholarship, mainly the writing of history. History was then written or rewritten to show or imply that Europeans were not only the “master race”, but the only creators of what could be called a “civilization”.
The African proverb described this self-indulgent fantasy with awesome clarity: “Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”