A recent “letter to the editor” supposedly written by an East African male was published in one of the white newspapers. The writer was lamenting the fact that he did not “look black” and expressed concern that students with a similar “look” might be mistaken for white and denied admission to a “black school.” The writer of this letter used this as one of his objections to the establishment of “black schools” in Toronto. It is not surprising that this misguided soul wrote such a letter. This mental attitude is partly the result of the manner in which the white media and some others have been framing our community’s push to establish African centred schools as a means of correcting the negative effect of white, European centred education on many of our children. The framing of African centred schools as “schools based on skin colour” has caught the attention of many people, who not knowing the facts have entered the fray, condemning such “segregation.” These schools are not about “segregation” but about saving those of our children whose lives are being ruined by the gross neglect of the education system. “Segregation” was forced on Africans when they were relegated to ill equipped and underfunded schools. Our community has been advocating for African centred schools to assist in addressing the overwhelming numbers of our children who are not thriving in the present system. Over the years there have been studies done, reports written complete with recommendations that the present education system is not working for some of our children. There have been alarming statistics quoted about the amount of African Canadian youth who have left school without the education necessary even to work at entry level positions at any company. Some of these young people have been pushed out of school through the racial profiling “Safe Schools Act.” This Act gave many of the white supremacists who work in the education system carte blanche to exercise their hatred and bigotry. Many of our children have disengaged from the education system when subjected to the rabid anti-African racism that can exist in the schools.
Some of these children who have disengaged from the system are among our most intelligent and brightest minds who when not seeing themselves represented in a positive manner in the curriculum sometimes lose interest, become bored and “act out.” When white students “act out” it is usually recognized that they need support which they receive. If African Canadian students “act out” they are punished severely by different means but with the same result. Whether they are suspended or expelled, they are denied an education. White students can be sure that they will learn about the contributions, achievements and history of white people whether they are studying language, social sciences, mathematics etc. History, for instance is taught from a Eurocentric point of view, to all students in the education system. This is presented as history, not white history but white people are at the centre, it is all about their lives. White students have their sense of personhood affirmed. When our children are taught about the medieval times in Europe there is no balancing of the information with facts about African life during that period. They are given elaborate social studies units about Europe and nothing about the great African empires that thrived in West Africa during that period. Some children cannot fathom that Africans lived in well ordered, wealthy, societies with well established social welfare systems and centres of learning including the Sankore University at Timbuktu, Mali which was built in 989. Around the 12th century, the University had an attendance of 25,000 students in a city with a population of 100,000 people. The Sankore University is still standing today and there is a campaign to preserve the ancient manuscripts which includes subjects as varied as mathematics, chemistry, physics, geography, astronomy and medicine. It is hardly surprising that no provincial government has ever allocated stable, sustainable funding for the African Heritage Black Cultural Program. The thought of confident young African Canadians, knowledgeable about who they are, ready to compete in the job market seems to strike fear in the hearts of some members of this society.
Why is this such a threatening concept? Could it be that they are afraid that the spectre of the criminal with dark skin will be eroded over time? After all racial profiling has its roots in the myth that was carefully constructed after slavery as a means of controlling African bodies by criminalizing the colour of our skin. Those carefully constructed myths about who is a criminal and deserving of punishment, affect our lives to this day. A rich white woman steals trousers from a department store, when the incident is made public, her rich and powerful white husband threatens bodily harm, even death to the person he believes has made her criminal act public. The white media actually were very kind to her, framing her criminal act as the result of pressures in her life. Imagine the pressures in the life of any racialized woman living in poverty, raising children on a very limited budget and how she would have been portrayed. Compare the consequences for the criminal act of the rich white woman who stole trousers (April 1999) to that of an African man who was accused of stealing baby formula a few months later (September 1999). She was not prosecuted; the African man died after being handcuffed from behind and held face down on the sidewalk by three security guards even after he complained that he could not breathe.
In spite of the naysayers we will have African centred schools in Toronto. Harriet Tubman is credited with this quote “I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Many of us are still in that condition today. The myth must be debunked that African centred schools will be exclusively for black/African children. The myth must be debunked that all African/black children will be forced to attend these schools. Students regardless of their “look” will have an opportunity if that is their parents’ choice, to attend an African centred school because these schools will be public schools.
As a community we will need to be vigilant about the issue of sabotage. We have waited patiently for too long to allow anyone to sabotage these schools and set them up for failure. In the 1990s the school board established an “alternative” African centred program housed in a room at a Toronto secondary school. The program was taught by a brilliant, energetic and enthusiastic young African Canadian and an equally enthusiastic and qualified assistant (Child and Youth Worker) who were not given the support to make this program a success. Students who needed remedial reading and mathematics support were routinely sent to the program which was not a remedial program, not a program for students who needed help with behavioural issues. It was a program that was supposed to give students a grounding in their history and culture at an academic level that would afford them an opportunity to access post secondary education if that was their ambition. Spending much time dealing with needy students who had been failed by the education system and in some cases could not work to the level expected for them to achieve success in the program took its toll and the teacher moved on. Successive teachers shared the same fate, until frustrated they eventually moved on also and the program was transferred to another school in a different area of the city where its fate is uncertain. We need to be vigilant to prevent a similar fate to the much anticipated African centred schools. When our children need help with reading, writing, mathematics etc. we must demand that those services/supports are provided and not allow that to detract from our goal of providing safe, nurturing, supportive, African centred environments for those of our children who attend African centred schools.
Written in November 2007