Online Pan-African history course offered to strengthen Black identities

Black History Month can often revolve around themes of victimization. A Calgary organization is determined to set that narrative straight. 

Instructor says Black people's exposure to their past has been limited

Prudence Iticka, left, is an organizer with Black People United Calgary. She says the teachings being offered during an eight-week program teaching Pan-African history would have made a big difference to her growing up. Obi Egbuna Jr., right, will be instructing the eight-week course. His own education started from a young age, as his father was a prominent figure in the Black Power movement in England. (Google Meet)

Black History Month can often revolve around themes of victimization. A Calgary organization is determined to set that narrative straight. 

Black People United (BPU) Calgary is offering an eight-week program teaching Pan-African history with the hope of strengthening the identities of Black children. 

"It's important that children know themselves," said Prudence Iticka, an organizer with BPU Calgary. 

"If all you know about your people is they were enslaved, they were victims of racism, you don't feel very good about that." 

She says that teaching the history of Black people, both in Africa and the diaspora, would help build young people's self-esteem. 

"Civilization was born in Africa," said Iticka. "Imagine how children could feel to hear that the first scientists, they looked like you, they came from your countries."

The virtual class is being taught in partnership with Mass Emphasis, a children's theatre and history company. 

The instructor, Obi Egbuna Jr., has been teaching Pan-African history for 32 years. 

He says Black people's exposure to their past has been limited. 

"History obligates us to rectify that, so you hear about a gender disconnect, you hear about the generational disconnect, you hear about the geographical disconnect, but all of that can be addressed when we deal with a historical disconnect," said Egbuna Jr. 

More than a learning opportunity 

The class is open to kids aged 9 to thirteen who have African roots. 

Iticka says this is purposeful, as the knowledge being shared is more than just an opportunity to learn about the continent and its people. 

"I do think it's important for people to learn about different cultures and different histories, but the African child specifically has been targeted, their history has been distorted, so we have to target the African child because they have also been targeted, right?" said Iticka. 

"We are trying to rewrite something." 

Egbuna Jr. started Mass Emphasis 11 years ago to use the arts as a vehicle to reclaim the positive attributes of African history. 

"One of the challenges that people of African ancestry, both on our mother continent and the diaspora, have, is the challenge of making our cultural and political expression synonymous." 

He focuses on the modern experience, and looks to expand knowledge beyond what he calls the antiquated understanding of Africa taught in mainstream education. 

"That propagates the notion that Africa is part of our illustrious past but has no relevance in the present and no relevance moving toward the future," he said.

"We know that once we re-grasp an appreciation for Africa, make stronger connections to Africa, play a role in the redemption of Africa, it will change our relationship to the world." 

Iticka says a class like this would have improved her own self-esteem growing up. 

"I grew up in Canada, I've lived here for almost 20 years, and it took me until I became an adult to be introduced to my real history because I had to do my own research." 

But Egbuna Jr. was fortunate to have parents who engrained his history in him from the time he was born. His father, Obi Egbuna, was a prominent activist in the United Kingdom and a pioneering figure in London's Black Power movement.

Lessons and teachings

Egbuna Jr. tries to bring the connection to his roots that his parents taught him to the forefront with his lessons. 

The course will begin by teaching kids to recite the countries in Africa alphabetically, with a formula of letters and numbers that Egbuna Jr. has created. 

"Then the next thing is to identify flags of all 55 African nations and then of course specific geopolitical information, when these countries gained their independence, what natural resources they have under their soil." 

Iticka is looking forward to the school, which starts Feb. 12 and runs for eight Saturdays.

"We hope that parents will see the importance of their children knowing these things, but also the importance of their children taking this and seeing like, wow, look at this great history I have, look at these great ancestors," she says. 

"How will I be remembered? Will they also speak about me in 100 years in these classes?" 

Registration for the classes is handled through BPU Calgary, with 40 spots open to children of African descent regardless of where they currently live.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.