Want to be better at teaching Black history? Don't start with slavery, experts say

Evelyn Myrie, educator and president of Hamilton's Afro Canadian Caribbean Association and Rayanne Banaga, a peer support worker facilitating a program aimed at improving access to mental health support for racialized youth, talk about how the teaching of Black history needs to change.

'We have tremendous history that hasn't been taught' because focus is on slavery, Evelyn Myrie says

Would there be less racism and extremism if we were better at teaching Black history?

2 years ago
Duration 32:55
Evelyn Myrie, president of the Afro Canadian Caribbean Association, and Rayanne Banaga, a peer support facilitator of a program aimed at improving access to mental health support for racialized youth, talk about how being better at teaching Black history might lead to less racist radicalization among young people.

If the history of Black people, as it is being taught in classrooms across the province, begins with slavery, Evelyn Myrie says, then it's being taught wrong.

Myrie, the president of Hamilton's Afro Canadian Caribbean Association, and Rayanne Banaga, a peer support worker at St. Joe's Youth Wellness Centre, facilitating a program aimed at improving access to mental health support for racialized youth, spoke with the CBC's  Conrad Collaco on Feb. 10 about how the education system needs to be better at teaching the history of Black people and all racialized people.

You can read an edited and abridged transcript of that interview below or watch the full interview in the video above.

On Feb. 10 at 12:30 p.m. CBC Hamilton spoke with Evelyn Myrie (left), president of the Afro Canadian Caribbean Association, and Rayanne Banaga, a peer support facilitator of a program aimed at improving access to mental health support for racialized youth.  (Evelyn Myrie/Rayanne Banaga)

There's a really interesting story from our colleagues at CBC Kitchener/Waterloo. The Guelph Black Heritage Society, along with Waterloo region educator Lorraine Harris, have developed a new curriculum that focuses on the kings and queens of Africa, arguing that while traditional teaching focuses on slavery, it neglects other aspects of Black history. Do you think there's value in that? Is that one way where we need to change the way we teach Black history?

Evelyn Myrie: Black people don't talk about slavery. It's really a white narrative that has been imposed upon us. And we know that you don't start history from harm. You don't start with history and say, 'I'm going to start with the most painful moment in your life, in your existence.' 

No, Black history was interrupted by white supremacy ideology that came to Africa and took us over us as chattel slavery so we can build the wealth of the West and then dump us later on and say that we are less than and therefore, the pathology that follows is amazing. We need to talk about things like reparations, really. We have built this part of the world with our blood, sweat and tears and still tears. So, we can't start our history in slavery. It's not our history. It's the world history that's been imposed upon us. It's interrupted us. So, we need to change the narrative. We need to be our own storytellers.

So the Kings and Queens series has been done in the past and we continue to push forward. We don't want to romanticize our existence because we have our good and bad like anyone else. But the fact of the matter is we have contributed tremendously to humanity and that has been hidden for too long. So, we need to get it out from under the bush and tell the story. Timbuktu, first surgery in the world. Who knows that? First eye (cataract) surgery in the world, the great libraries of Mali. Amazing. We have tremendous history that hasn't been taught. But what is (taught) puts us in the position of less than, and 'let's start at slavery' — it traumatizes Black kids. 

When I go to school to talk to Black kids in the Black history class, they go under their desk. They want to roll under their desk because they fear I'm going to talk about slavery. I don't. So it certainly is a good point... We need to start history from our resilience, our power and our influence, not from the point in our history which was interrupted by enslavement. 

Rayanne Banaga: I don't need for us to necessarily have to prove that we used to do these very incredible things and that our societies are actually quite progressive going back in the day, but that even if we weren't, we still deserve humanity. I want Black youth to be able to feel like they don't have to go above and beyond in order to feel valued and to feel like they are important in this world, in the same way that everybody else is able to just exist and still has value in their life. I want Black youth to be able to rest, to not have to make all these accomplishments before they're able to then deserve praise. Us existing through racism right now is already something to celebrate. That's a huge, huge accomplishment. 

Racist radicalization

Do you see a link between the increase in radicalization and hate crimes by young white people and how the histories of people of colour, particularly Black people in and out of North America, are being taught? 

EM: I think there is a connection. It's not the whole story, surely, but the fact is that Black people have been positioned as people who are always in the seat off or as inferior based on the whole doctrine of discovery that also impacted Indigenous populations. That historical text has placed Blackness in the marginal and demonized way certainly is manifested in behaviours that we are seeing today. 

When Britain defined Black people as chattel, as property, that was an egregious act that still has a resonance today. So, yes, Black history needs to be taught. It cannot be situated in the history of enslavement because that is certainly the history of the world and not of Black people, but certainly having more knowledge of white supremacy ideology — and I maintain it has been created to maintain whiteness as superior. How that is manifesting today is a conversation that needs to be had in schools and in all aspects of our society to really deconstruct that and unpack that myth. 

That certainly puts Black people at the margins of our social, political and economic societies across the globe. It is rooted in a history of white supremacy ideology that's been transported when the settlers came, especially those who described the people as savage, as not human, such as they did with Indigenous populations. So, if you understand the context and realize how fraudulent this has been, then that's the kind of work we need to do — unpack this myth and re-educate the population. And that's what's happening now. So, yes, partly, yes. But it's much broader than just Black history. 

RB: I think that education is a tool and in trying to build this anti-racist and less violent world for Black and racialized people. Education is a powerful tool, an important tool that does have to be a part of the way that we address it. But I also think that it's not the whole tool box. We do need to really complement that with other things that actually address what is happening right now, because racism in itself is a form of violence. And so we can't say that education alone is going to stop the violence, we need to think interventions, right? And knowing that it's systemic, knowing that it appears in all of our institutions, before we can talk about how to prevent it, we need to stop it where it is right now. I don't think that we can chalk up all racism to ignorance. 

A lot of people in these far right groups and these extremist groups do know history, and it's exactly why they do what they do. And a lot of them will be able to speak to the history and will point to that as where they want to be, they want to go back to that. So, I don't think that it's as simple as just the link between education and far right groups. I think there is an element of hate that we do have to talk about. 

Black history education is 'haphazard' in school boards, Myrie says

What can we do in the way we teach Black history and the history of other marginalized communities that might stop or limit young people from heading down a path toward racist extremism? 

EM: I don't want to connote the fact that, if you know Black history therefore you are going to be less racist. It's really the ideology. It's an ideological issue. We're dealing with the myth of whiteness as the norm and it's so centralized that we have to really re-educate whiteness. When you do that, you are saying everything you've been taught, by and large, has been a myth to help hold a false reality, that you as a white race is superior to everyone else. And that's where you really want to start, because when the settlers arrived and saw the Indigenous nations and describe them as not humans or they're savage — 'we are more than, we are better than you' — it created this false dichotomy. So really, it's not about Black history. It's about the history of our society, of our community, and vetting the history of Canada's diverse population in our history is really a good start. 

We are doing Black History Month because there's an absence of. I would like for the next generation that there's no Black History Month per se, but the history of people of colour, of people of Black ancestry, of Chinese — various racialized communities become a normal part of our curriculum. That's what we're heading to. It is not to segregate South Asian History Month, which is in April, for example. We need to get away from that. But we know that because of the absence of that, we have to take some of the radical steps to say we need to insert these voices in our curriculum. 

And this is being done in a way that is very haphazard by the school boards. For example, the old Harriet Tubman, the Great White North Star, the shining star. That is, you know, that's the mythology. It's almost become a caricature. Harriet Tubman becomes a caricature of white people saying, 'we are so good. We took the Black people from the states and we saved them. And everything has been wonderful and we need to thank them for that.' So it's such a myth. So, we need to unpack those stories. Who is telling these stories? So, we need to also tell our stories, because what hasn't happened in the past is that stories have been told about us and it certainly has not been the story of victory, of resilience and of rising. 

Young people don't feel protected, Banaga says

Rayanne, in your work with many racialized young people who go through the public school system, what are you hearing from them? What are they telling you about how well that system serves them? 

RB: I think that young people are quite open about the fact that schools are not necessarily a safe place for them and that they experience a lot of harm and sometimes the most harm in schools, racial trauma, happens for a lot of people in schools. We have these situations in which the people who are doing the harm are in positions of power. 

And so you really don't have a way of being able to challenge that without sacrificing their own success. So, yeah, I mean, I think for me, I think the frustration is the fact that youth are very, very open and very happy to talk about their experiences and they're very vocal about that. And if that's not being heard, then that's because people are not making space for them to be heard because they are very much vocal about the fact that they are very unsafe in schools and they don't feel represented. They don't feel protected.

EM: That's a good point and a sad commentary. I do diversity and equity anti-racism training. Robin Menard spoke about that in her book about Black people. The Black students feel most unsafe in schools. I get the shivers just saying that.

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.

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