Why I continue to teach Black history despite the price I pay as a Black teacher
Parents and schools boards do not make it easy, but my students deserve more Black history content
This First Person column is the experience of Stephanie Bass, an elementary school teacher in Hamilton. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
When I became a teacher, I knew I would have to defend the value of my own history and culture. After 12 years in the classroom, I can tell you that turned out to be true.
I teach grades 6 and 7 in Hamilton. When Black History Month comes along, I feel a mixture of excitement and dread. The month provides an opportunity to teach more Black history, but I am still fighting for those opportunities — during February, and any other time of the school year.
As I go over my Black History Month unit plan, I smile. I love teaching this content. Going through old newspapers and books to find interesting facts, putting them together in a way that makes sense to a middle schooler — someone who's never heard or seen anything like this before — is always satisfying.
I've taught students how to engage with difficult histories and to recognize systemic racism. I've seen how they make connections to their own lives and to things that happen today.
The benefits are many. For students of colour, I create a space where they can voice their experiences and can know that they are just as important to the story of Canada as everyone else in the history books they've read.
When students learn about historical African kingdoms like Nubia, Kush and Timbuktu and realize that they were not only wealthy and advanced societies, but also full of interesting art and technologies, it paints a different picture of Africa than what they see in today's media. They can also be inspired by stories of Canadian Black activists and scholars such as Canadian civil rights icon Hugh Burnett and historian Afua Cooper.
But barriers remain — put up by both parents and the education system itself — when it comes to teaching Canadian Black history. And with Black History Month now behind us, I'm reflecting on those barriers, so we can tear them down and learn how to better teach this material all year long.
Parents, school boards can push back
Last year, even with the challenges of teaching remotely, I wanted to give students the opportunity for some historical exploration. I spent time preparing to teach my class how to understand primary source documents by using examples of fugitive slave ads written in Canadian newspapers from the 18th century.
I had examples from Ontario and Quebec newspapers and I created a digital worksheet and online scavenger hunt for students to complete. I'm always awed by how thoughtful and reflective students can be about important issues.
Parent interactions are another thing, however, and one stands out in my memory. One of my student's parents interrupted my class by coming onto the virtual classroom the same day to tell me they disapproved of what I was teaching. Aggressive and incorrect, I was told that Canada didn't have slaves — that was America. I defended my sources and offered to share them. They would not hear it.
"Those [ads] aren't real," they said. They threatened to call the principal. They berated me in front of my students.
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But the worst part of that experience was that this voice of hatred was now injected into my classroom and all of my students had to listen to it.
As frustrating and hurtful as it was, this situation highlights a broader problem in Canadian education — avoiding teaching Black history in schools because it makes some of us uncomfortable.
And parents aren't the only ones putting up roadblocks. Systemic racism within the education system itself means there is a lack of support for Black teachers and for those attempting to advance curriculum to better reflect this history.
Why I'll continue to champion Black Canadian history
Teaching Black Canadian history shouldn't just only be expected of Black teachers, and certainly not only expected during Black History Month. It's not on Black people to convince everyone else that our history has value.
Nor can we assume that all Black educators want to take on the burden of developing lessons and teaching their students — while also educating their colleagues and superiors. Taking on that burden requires both activism and advocacy, and it's exhausting, sometimes traumatizing and potentially damaging to our careers.
I am often asked why I bother to do this work if it is so difficult. Growing up, I felt I wasn't reflected in class lessons, and I experienced racism from my peers and teachers. I never saw people with my skin in the text books that were used. I was put into speech therapy to "correct" my "African American Vernacular English" and accent. Teachers and classmates often made fun of the texture of my hair.
I worry that without incorporating Black history and valuing Black experiences, other students will continue to face what I did. That breaks my heart.
That is why I champion Black Canadian history and fight for it to be officially recognized as part of the curriculum. Black history is not some "alternate" history. It is Canadian History, and it's too important a topic to be left to individual teachers to do the research, write the lessons and lead these complicated discussions, all while unsupported.
Right now, teachers do not have to teach Black history in Ontario — not in February, or any other month. The current curriculum is open enough to include it, but it is not explicitly included in the examples that guide teacher lesson plans. In fact, no province in Canada mandates Black History curriculum.
Canadian education will only be able to really teach Black Canadian history when our educational systems produce a comprehensive curriculum that includes it as a mandatory subject.This inclusion will reflect that Black Canadian history, and by extension Black Canadians, has value.
And in the meantime, in my classroom, my students will receive these important lessons that all students in Canada deserve.
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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.