New locally-developed Black curriculum shifts focus from slavery to stories of kings and queens

The Guelph Black Heritage Society along with Waterloo region educator Lorraine Harris have developed My Place In This World: A Black Heritage Curriculum. Harris says it's important for educators to focus on more than just slavery when teaching Black history.

'Our story did not begin with the brutality of the slave trade,' educator Lorraine Harris says

Students are often taught about slavery and the Underground Railroad in school, but Waterloo region educator Lorraine Harris, pictured, says there are so many more positive stories about Black heritage and culture that can be taught, not just in February, but all year. (Kim Bowdring Photography)

The people behind a new curriculum that focuses on the kings and queens of Africa are hoping to shift the way educators teach Black history in schools.

The Guelph Black Heritage Society along with Waterloo region educator Lorraine Harris have developed My Place In This World: A Black Heritage Curriculum.

The society says often, schools teach about the slavery experiences of Black people, but not other aspects of Black history.

Harris, a Black educator who has more than 20 years of experience, says it's important to show the stories of Black culture that happened before slavery.

"No one wants to forget the impact of slavery because, you know what, it's had a systemic and a generation impact on Black people and culture that's been truly painful and negative," she said in an interview on CBC K-W's The Morning Edition.

But, she says, something important gets lost when that becomes the sole focus.

"So when we say, change the narrative, we're talking about going back to the beginning — to the root. There lies the true picture of the Black race and the stories we don't hear about, the stories kids aren't being told about in the classroom."

The Guelph Black Heritage Society along with Waterloo region educator Lorraine Harris have developed My Place In This World: A Black Heritage Curriculum. (Submitted by: Lorraine Harris and Guelph Black Heritage Society)

Story didn't begin with slave trade

Harris says changing the history taught to students will help create a sense of belonging for Black students and will help foster respect and admiration for the Black race and culture by non-Black peers.

"We want to change, have a shift, and have people realize that our story did not begin with the brutality of the slave trade which left us with a sense of no identity," she said.

"We want to find a place in the classroom space for that Black heritage story to unfold so all children are impacted positively by the messages and hopefully in turn, you know what will happen, we will have changed mindsets leading to change minds and will inevitably lead to change outcomes for many Black students."

The first unit of the curriculum looks at African kings and queens. The course aligns with the Ontario Ministry of Education curriculum expectations and includes placemats for Grades 1 to 3 and high school students.

The curriculum was released during Black History Month, but the society's president Denise Francis says Black history needs to be taught throughout the year.

"We hope that with the introduction of this exciting new curriculum which highlights positive aspects of Black history, Black students will be empowered," Francis said in a news release.

Richest king and warrior queen

The curriculum will focus on a number of individuals, but one that Harris says will no doubt fascinate younger learners is King Mansa Musa, considered to be the richest person to ever exist.

"I think this is a great empowerment piece and for kids to begin to ask the question 'Why? I want to know more. How did he obtain his riches?' And feel that sense of belonging and that connectedness to that greatness," she said.

There is also Queen Nefertiti of Egypt, who was pivotal in creating a religion to worship the sun god Aten, and Queen Amina of Zaria, a warrior who expanded the Hausa people's territory in the northern part of Africa.

This 3,400-year-old Nefertiti bust sits in Berlin's Neue Museum. (Herbert Knosowski/Associated Press)

"One of the wonderful things when we talk about the queens that is a real empowerment for Black females is the fact that many of these women ruled kingdoms, they were powerful, they led armies," Harris said.

"When we talk about equality and strength, I think our Black women need to know that there existed strong, Black, female queen before their time and again, that's another empowerment piece to say, hey, I'm a part of that history, my heritage goes back to Africa. These are my people. They have connectedness ... that sense of feeling powerful through your heritage."

Listen to the full interview with Lorraine Harris:

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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