If schools care about African-Canadian students, they need to prove it

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A Black student's hands drawing in a notebook with a ruler and pencil. Image: StockSnap/Pixabay

This is the third instalment of a three-part series highlighting the importance of Africentric education. Read part one here and part two here

Want to know if educational and political leaders care about African-Canadian students? Just check their budgets.

Unlike pretty speeches packed with buzzwords, budgets prove what leaders actually value, right down to the penny. So, how much do educational leaders (and the politicians and voters behind them) care about African students in Canadian classrooms?

Because I went to school in the 1970s and 80s, my own (miserable) experience in public schools isn't particularly relevant on its own. But I also taught in public schools during the 1990s to the 2000s, and in Africentric community leadership programs over the last 15 years. I've spoken with many young people about how principals and teachers treated them.

For African kids in Canadian classrooms, there's been almost no improvement. I faced the same types of dismissal and exclusion they experienced.

After grade two, I hated school. I had a few excellent teachers, but very few who inspired me, most who never challenged me, and some who were openly hostile. But I can say definitively that even the excellent ones never taught me anything about 5,000 years of African civilizations and geniuses. Anything they did show me about any Africans anywhere was degrading, depressing, or false.

The budgeting of time shows how curricula, principals, and teachers directly state not only what matters to them, but what should matter to everyone else. Our settler-focused Eurocentric curriculum is an extremely powerful tool for creating devotion to global European cultural-political values and aesthetics.

That's not automatically bad, unless such focus excludes discussing European genocide and giga-kleptocracy to finance its planetary empire, while imposing a strangling silence about the brilliance of every other civilization in the world.

Such silence (a zero expenditure in the budget of time and attention) implies to every student that the Original World doesn't matter, that it achieved nothing of value, and by extension, that its peoples have no value. That silence, combined with the thunder of racist stereotypes and mythology, ensures that gatekeepers in employment, investment, policing, medicine, electoral politics, media and more will continue their unofficial policies of apartheid. And for most African students, the silence and the thunder will ruin their perception of themselves.

Here in Edmonton, I asked a few African-Canadians of various ages about the images and information that schools gave them about 5,000 years of African civilizations. How did that content affect their perceptions of themselves and other Africans?

Shermarke Mohamed, now in his mid-20s and studying in Egypt, "never learned much about African culture in school."

But, he did bear witness to the discrimination African students -- including himself and his friends -- came up against in school. Then, there was the discrimination found in the curriculum itself.

"The content they presented to me about Africa and Africans made me feel lower than the rest of the world's cultures, and feel like Africa is just a lot of open space for safaris, animals, and a huge amount of poverty."

Kyla Shellan, a community organizer and agriculturalist in her late 20s, said she "knew nothing of Africa in [her] youth."

"I can't recall learning anything about Africa. I did do a project on the underground railway which I think spoke a bit about Africa by way of slavery... Very little was discussed in relation to Africa/Black history."

Beth, now in her late thirties, attended one of Edmonton's most prestigious academic high schools , earned a Master's Degree in Public Health, and is now a successful entrepreneur.

"I can honestly say I do not recall any content from school being delivered regarding Africans or the African continent," she said. (I've omitted Beth's last name to protect her privacy).

Haruun Ali, an 18-year-old now running for city council, explained schools gave him nothing about Africa except images of child malnutrition and poverty.

"I also remember distinctly the correlation of wild animals in Africa and potential death. We didn't see much content of happy people that live in good homes; in fact, we saw the exact opposite." The continual repetition of such notions over years made him feel ashamed of his background, he said.

If that's how our toxic educational system makes African students feel about themselves, then imagine the limiting-beliefs it inspires in non-Africans -- that is, the people who will one day choose whether to hire us, recruit us,  promote us, lend to us, invest with us, medically treat us, publish and review our works, vote for us, profile us, falsely arrest us, unfairly judge us, or disproportionately sentence us?

You might be thinking, "That's a successful group of people who did not suffer from racism." But Shermarke, Kyla, Beth, and Haruun also encountered people and experiences giving them inspiring and aspirational information about African civilizations and geniuses (which is no substitute for proper public education on such topics). The real questions should be: If they'd had an education that uplifted instead of degraded them, how much farther could they have run? How many more African students would have succeeded and shared their talents and productivity with society?

The Nova Scotia study BLAC Report on Education: Redressing Inequity -- Empowering Black Learners summarized this situation:

"African-Canadian culture is often relegated to an inferior status by schools… [which causes] low self-esteem… Ignorance and disrespect for African-Canadian history and culture breed low expectations and unhealthy educator assessments of African Nova Scotian students, personalities, and potential."

As I discussed in parts one and two of this series on the need for Africentric education, a disproportionate number of African-Canadian students drop out of high school (at one point 40 per cent in the Toronto District School Board) and therefore never attend post-secondary education, which limits their quality and even length of life. Among immigrant and refugee children, drop-out rates rose according to their age of arrival. Of those who arrive after age 15, almost 22 per cent fail to graduate high school, which, the American Psychological Association warns, places them "at risk for dropping out of school, being unemployed, and possibly winding up in prison."

For those who stay, education is often inferior because principals and teachers stream them into non-academic classes while never encouraging them towards high achievement in the sciences, technology, engineering, or mathematics (the fields that lead to the best-paying and more prestigious jobs).

When I spoke with Shermarke, Kyla, Beth, and Haruun, I also asked them how they came to learn about African civilizations and geniuses in various fields, and how such knowledge changed them.

Shermarke, who attended the SMAGA (Super-Mega-Awesome Global Africans) Africentric leadership program I created and taught at Edmonton's Africa Centre, said, he was amazed to learn about how rich the continent is with not only valuable resources, but history and culture.

"I realized how many things originated from Africa and how Africa contributed and helped shape the world that we live in," he said.

Not even university studies brought Kyla African-focused knowledge. so she had to teach herself.

"I like learning about African and Caribbean [agricultural methods]. Learning these things remind me that it's not just white people who grow food. Black people have been doing it (and well) for millennia."

Fortunately for Beth, university was a better experience, where she was introduced to African thought leaders, artists, and "various African civilizations and artforms" for the very first time through courses on the anthropology of race and racism and African art and culture. 

For Haruun, the expansion of Africentric knowledge came from his community and his family. Because of his miseducation, he asked his father how he'd survived the continent's alleged unrelenting wild animal attacks. His father showed him communities of joy, and explained how colonialism had inflicted the continent's greatest wounds. He credits community elders and his parents with teaching him "so much about Somali culture and African cultures that I am truly proud of my culture and heritage today."

Shermarke, Kyla, Beth, and Haruun each expressed how their lives and those of their African-Canadian peers would have unfolded differently had they received a high-quality Africentric education in school.

Shermarke said he "wouldn't have felt shy or embarrassed about Africa, and I would have participated in my school events about sharing different cultures in school." He emphasized just how much the Africa Centre's program changed his educational ambitions, saying that without it, he "probably wouldn't be [studying] in Cairo right now."

Beth explained that the absence of Africentric education at her academic high school forced upon her the "constant burden to 'represent the entire race,'" which compelled her to "show Black excellence to my teachers and peers…Being taught about the contributions African geniuses have made to a variety of fields would have lessened this burden."

Euro-Canadian students receive the incalculable socio-psychological benefit of countless images of people who look like they do achieving greatness in the ancient and modern worlds. The silence on ancient and modern African brilliance leads students -- and teachers -- of all backgrounds to conclude there is no brilliance to be examined in the first place.

Over the decades that I worked for public schools, community education programs, post-secondary institutions, and the education department of a major union, I learned plenty about what makes school in Canada so miserable for so many people, especially for African students. All I had to do was listen carefully, and sometimes ask them directly.

What all of them showed me is that making education better doesn't require billions of new dollars or massive changes to the existing structure (although both could be helpful if deployed intelligently). We just need to understand, based on plenty of evidence and studies, what helps students grow in knowledge, skills, imagination, confidence, collaboration, community, and ambition. If we work together, we can improve our educational systems so that instead of destroying morale and crushing dreams, schools can amplify students' innate energy to launch them towards whatever stars are twinkling in their imaginations.

Minister Faust is a novelist, journalist, teacher, and community organiser living in Edmonton. His column "Wakanda Visions" Africentrically explores frontiers for bettering human prospects through ingenuity and justice. Follow @WakandaVisions on Twitter.

Image: StockSnap/Pixabay

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