“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela
Happy (belated) Black History Month! It’s hard for me to imagine that it’s already March when it just felt like yesterday I began my first co-op term at the Centre for Teaching Excellence. I guess time flies when you’re having fun! But as my second term of studies gets closer and closer, I reflect on my life in education, and consequently powerful quotes like this one here by Nelson Mandela. At the same time, however, I try to fathom how quickly yet another Black History Month has gone by. So with these two thoughts in my head, they come together to form the big question that many people have already asked: “Why don’t we teach more black history in our education system?”
As a young man of a Jamaican background that has received his entire education in the Canadian school system, I think about this question often and how it speaks to my experience with learning about black history in school. I vividly recall a lesson in my Grade 10 history class where we read a chapter about World War II. As I flipped through the plethora of pages that described the war, I noticed that a couple of pages were dedicated to a black Canadian soldier that made notable contributions to the war effort (I wish I could remember his name). But that was it. Only two pages of black history mentioned within the entire story of World War II. Now to be fair, since that class was a while back there could have been other parts in that textbook that mentioned black history and the history of other minorities which I may have missed, or just simply don’t remember. But I think there’s something to be said to the fact that from my Grade 10 history textbook, the only memory I have of it commemorating black history in Canada was a two-page profile on one individual.
Even when I think about black history and education on a larger scale – outside of Canada – up until this past year my knowledge only went as far as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and other widely-known black historical figures that were mentioned year after year (but my deepest respect has always gone out to these individuals and their contributions to black history). My knowledge of black history didn’t really get the opportunity to truly evolve and develop.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no historian and I’m definitely not trying to undermine the same education system that has equipped me and so many others with endless opportunities to succeed (I think that’s a misconception many people have when a topic like this is brought up). But I just think that there’s so much more students deserve to learn when it comes to how black individuals have contributed to the history that has led to present day. Did you know that African-American inventor Garrett Morgan innovated the traffic light? (Check out “Garrett Morgan”) Or that the richest man in all of history is thought to be King Musa Keita I, an African man that ruled the Mali Empire in the 14th century? (Check out “King Musa”) I just found out about King Musa last week. But there’s a sense of empowerment and enlightenment that comes along with knowing that the story of black history is much larger than we think it is – a story the precedes slavery and goes beyond the big names we always hear about.
I felt this empowerment only after reading about a couple of individuals. Imagine how a whole classroom or a whole school would feel if they regularly learned about these people in a school year? Imagine the potential that would grow inside of them, the things that they would then know they can accomplish. This same empowerment translates to the history of all minorities, for all races to benefit from.
But as good as the idea sounds to incorporate more of the history of minorities into our education system, it faces the opposition which says that there simply isn’t enough resources (ie. time, money and curriculum space) to incorporate such material. Now this is a very reasonable and fair point to make. I can definitely see how it can be a challenge to introduce any new material into a curriculum that’s already trying to work with the material that’s currently being used. But at the same time I think it’s easy to say we don’t have enough of something when the task placed before us is challenging. Consider a father whose son has a championship soccer game coming up. Now the father’s weekly schedule may make him feel justified in saying that he doesn’t have enough time to go and watch the game. But because he knows the game means so much to his son, he accommodates and makes the time to go watch his soccer game. This isn’t to say that everyone has the resources to do anything and everything regardless of how limited you are, but I think we can all agree that if you are truly passionate enough to see something happen, you will make the time and generate the resources necessary to make it happen. If we all adopted a mentality like this, think of all the amazing things we would accomplish that we never thought was possible. Why did it not seem possible before? Because we convinced ourselves that we didn’t have enough resources to accomplish the task.
Check out this CBC news report called “Teaching Black History in Canada”, as they cover the benefits and challenges an Ontario teacher faces with her new black history course.
Again, I’m no expert on the school system, but I think understanding the student perspective on issues such as this is imperative towards creating a meaningful solution. This solution won’t come overnight – it may take years of trial and error to bring a feasible plan to fruition in the classroom. But it’s important to realize – especially in 2017 – that incorporating this history into our education system not only helps us understand where we are coming from, but where we are truly going.