'All N----s must die,' and 'N----s go back to Africa' were some of the hateful words that defaced the doors of the home of the York University Black Student Alliance (YUBSA.) The words, scrawled across the doorway are a stark reminder of the anti-black/anti-African hate and racism that is rife in this culture. This happened just a few hours after we celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and it is felt that the recognition of Dr. King triggered the racist venom. As many of us know only too well overt and covert racism is also a reality for African people in our workplaces. There is the very recent example of guards at the Don jail being targeted and racially harassed. The cowardly vandals who slithered out from under their white sheets to scrawl their pathetic hate messages and death threats obviously need to learn about the history of Africans in Canada. We have been here for more than four hundred years, contributing to the wealth and growth of this country and we are not leaving to go anywhere. Yes, we are very proud of our African ancestry, but the blood, sweat, tears and unpaid labour of our ancestors contributed to making this country one of the wealthiest in the world. Enslaved Africans were traded back and forth between North, South, Central America, the Caribbean and Europe, so our collective ancestors contributed to the wealth and privilege that white people enjoy today. Our permanence in this country is captured in the title of a book written by a group of African Canadian women; "we're rooted here and they can't pull us up."
The history of Africans is sadly neglected in the education system and that has to be corrected. As we head into the second month of the year which is also the month we celebrate and recognize the history, culture and contributions of Africans we must recognize that the racism at York is a manifestation of internalized white dominance. YUBSA is obviously seen as a challenge to the dearly held stereotypes of how Africans should behave and who we are. There on York University’s campus is this group of African people who have a sense of pride in their “blackness” and know that they belong in an institution of higher learning. They are not seen as the norm of who should be attending such an institution, who even when they do succeed are still viewed as “ghetto dudes” by the dominant white society and all those who subscribe to a white supremacist mindset. It is this same mindset that drives the resistance to African centred schools. The internalized white dominance and the colonized minds following blindly cannot fathom a school where the culture and history of Africans will be central in a curriculum.
Many people living in this country who have even been educated here do not know that Africans have been a part of this country’s history since 1603. Matthew DaCosta is recognized as the first African in Canada. He was part of the Champlain expedition and worked as an interpreter for the French with the Mi'kmaq people. Even though the Mathieu Da Costa Awards Program was established since February 13, 1996, most educators ignore the program. Since the call for African centred schools has gathered steam in Toronto, there has been a concerted effort by the white media to derail the establishment of these schools. There has been much talk about tinkering with the curriculum to make it more relevant to African students. Making the curriculum inclusive is important and an issue we will continue to pursue. However, the fact that the Mathieu Da Costa Awards Program was established since 1996 and has been shamefully ignored by the majority of teachers across this country is evidence that trying to make the curriculum inclusive will not solve the problems that lead to our children being pushed out of school. The Mathieu Da Costa Awards Program was established after a motion by Member of Parliament Jean Augustine was made in 1995 to officially designate February as Black History Month. Students between the ages of 9 and 18 are eligible to participate in the Mathieu Da Costa Award Program by submitting an original piece of writing in English or French, or artwork celebrating the contributions made by Canadians of Aboriginal, African or other cultural, racial or ethnic backgrounds to the building of Canada. Beginning with the documentation of Mathieu Da Costa’s presence in Canada, Africans have contributed to every area of Canadian life, as enslaved and as free people. This history is not taught in our schools except for those few African Heritage Black Culture Programs that continue to exist in very precarious positions in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB.) No provincial government has ever provided sustainable funding for this very important program since its inception in 1977. If we needed proof of the contempt in which this society holds us, our children and our striving to safeguard the future of our community we do not have to look further than this.
We need African centred schools to repair the damage that four hundred years of oppression has wrought on the psyche of many in our community. In Dr. King’s letter to a group of white clergymen who admonished him and the African American community for wanting change he wrote: “Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” The culture and history of Europe and Europeans that is taught in the schools is seen as the norm while every one else’s culture and history is an add-on, other, exotic. Our children attend these schools that are Eurocentric and remarkably many of them are successful. We are demanding that those of our children who are not experiencing success in these Eurocentric schools have an opportunity to be educated in African centred schools. We will not give up this struggle. Some of us will become tired and others will pick up and continue the struggle. The actions of the students at York University who refused to quietly accept that racist words should be scrawled on their office or anywhere on the campus is proof that the struggle will continue until there is no more need to struggle.
As we begin the celebration of African Heritage Month 2008 there are many opportunities to become educated about the history and culture of Africans. The African Theatre Ensemble’s production of "Have You Seen Zandile?" a play set in apartheid South Africa and featuring Toronto actress d'bi young in the title role is an opportunity to experience African culture and learn some of the history that was stolen from us. This is an excellent play with talented actors and it is suitable for school groups (grades 4 to 12). Let us make this African Heritage Month a time to educate and be educated. For more information about “Have You Seen Zandile?” visit www.africantheatre.org or call 416-364-7313.
Written in February 2008