Canadian public schools demonstrate varying degrees of engagement with Black History Month, which has been celebrated in Canada since 1976. Some have assemblies with guest speakers and artistic performances, but the ubiquitous Black History Month bulletin board remains a staple means of “celebration” in our schools. The board, which is summarily replaced at the end of the month in favour of a new event, features achievements by prominent Black Canadians – but they’re often the same ones displayed annually.
This misguided pedagogical approach reinforces the idea that Black history is peripheral to the school curriculum. An African-centred approach to teaching Black History would help students critically challenge dominant narratives about the history of Black Canadians, in a transformative way that extends beyond the 28 days in February.
What is an African-centred approach to Black History?
There are two main purposes for celebrating Black History Month, and both are related to combating anti-Black racism in our public education systems. One is to disseminate positive images of Black achievement to counter negative stereotypes about Black Canadians. The second is to counter the overwhelmingly Eurocentric curriculum that rarely includes the work of Black writers, scientists, artists or scholars. Some organizations do take this two-pronged approach, such as the Africentric Alternative School in Toronto and the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, which developed a project called the 365 Black Canadian Curriculum to celebrate Black History Month all year round. But most schools have yet to develop curricula that fully integrates the historical and scholarly contributions of Black Canadians.
Black history is too often taught from a Eurocentric perspective that valorizes individual achievement in the face of societal barriers, but fails to adequately examine how historical figures may have impacted their communities.
According to Temple University professor Molefi Asante in his 1980 book Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change, African-centred approaches require us to place the interests and concerns of people of African descent at the forefront, and to centre their stories, whether they’re in the form of books, films or visual art. In contrast to a Eurocentric model, an African-centred model emphasizes community instead of individualism. For example, Black history is too often taught from a Eurocentric perspective that valorizes individual achievement in the face of societal barriers, but fails to adequately examine how historical figures may have impacted their communities.
African-centred approaches avoid essentializing the Black experience. In her well-known TED talk, “The Danger of the Single Story,” Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie cautions against the tendency to view people of African descent from the perspective of the dominant European culture without considering the multiple dimensions of their identities. The existence of anti-Black racism in Canadian education systems speaks to the fact that many educators are still biased against Black students and hold stereotypes about them.
Asante also contends that African-centred approaches work towards social justice-oriented outcomes, which educators can foster by assigning Black history projects that involve direct actions to reduce racial inequality.
Why is an African-centred approach to the teaching of Black history valuable?
Not only does an African-centred approach to teaching Black history in Canada challenge dominant narratives about Black Canadians, it enables students to make connections between historical and current issues. Dalhousie University professor and historian Afua Cooper has argued that Canada’s history of slavery has been minimized or erased in Canadian textbooks that focus on chattel slavery as primarily an American phenomenon. Slavery was introduced in New France in the 1600s and was only abolished in 1834 with the Slavery Abolition Act.
The dominant slave narratives taught during Black History Month focus on the Underground Railroad and Canada’s history as a place of sanctuary for enslaved Africans fleeing the United States, entirely negating the 200-year history of slavery in Canada. In addition, these narratives present enslaved people of African descent as lacking agency, save for U.S. figures like abolitionist Harriet Tubman. In Cooper’s book The Hanging of Angelique, she presents both a rich history of slavery in Canada, as well as a complicated portrayal of an enslaved African woman named Marie-Joseph Angélique, whose story was one of resistance and resilience.
An African-centred approach will help students draw connections between past instances of racial discrimination and current social movements like Black Lives Matter. It will also help students understand anti-Black practices across Canadian institutions in the context of historical anti-Black practices.
How can teachers employ an African-centred approach to teaching Black History?
Educators can take an African-centered approach through inquiry-based teaching methods that draw on primary sources, cooperative learning practices and critical discussions. These methods can also be adapted to suit elementary and secondary school environments. Instead of presenting students with a list of historical Black figures, allow students to delve into the research themselves using online digital collections.
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Both Library and Archives Canada and the U.S. Library of Congress have extensive digital Black history collections. Many digital collections include the writings of enslaved people of African descent. These first-hand accounts challenge dominant slave narratives, such as the degree of literacy among enslaved Africans. Although they were forbidden to read, many learned to read and taught each other to read in secret as a means of survival. The U.S. Library of Congress also includes audio recordings of formerly enslaved people who survived into the 1920s and ‘30s. There are many books featuring first-hand accounts of slavery, as well as novels, films and visual art created by Black Canadians, that could be used to teach Black History.
African-centred approaches focus on building communities of learners. Students should learn about Black history through cooperative methods where diverse groups of students develop questions and research the answers collaboratively. Since African-centred approaches focus on social justice, students can also extend their learning to social justice projects that will benefit local Black communities.
Finally, bringing in accomplished guest speakers of African heritage will provide students with the opportunity to listen to real-life stories from their community and engage in dialogue. Educators should follow up with critical discussions in the classroom to explore a given topic in the context of historical and contemporary issues affecting Black communities.
African-centred approaches to education empower all students to develop a critical lens, so they can better understand the world around them and take action to eliminate racial injustice.
Recommended Black History resources
Library and Archives Canada: Black History in Canada
Library and Archives Canada: Under a Northern Star
The Canadian Encyclopedia: Black History
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
U.S. Library of Congress: Voices Remembering Slavery
This article is part of the Identifying the Barriers to Racial Equality in Canada special feature.