Nova Scotia

Halifax student uses graduation speech to address anti-Black racism

A young Black woman at King's-Edgehill School in Windsor, N.S., used her graduation speech to address anti-Black racism and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Aaliyah Arab-Smith is first student to ever address the graduating class, who isn't a head student

Aaliyah Arab-Smith graduated from King's-Edgehill School on June 12. (Submitted by Aaliyah Arab-Smith)

"Hear us, see us and respect us."

That's what 18-year-old Aaliyah Arab-Smith wanted people to understand in her special address to the graduating class at King's-Edgehill School in Windsor, N.S., on Friday.

Arab-Smith is a young Black woman from Halifax. She is first student in the history of King's-Edgehill School to address the graduating class, who isn't one of the head students.

She was asked by the head of the school to perform a speech about the Black Lives Matter movement four days before graduation on June 12. She immediately got to work.

"It was something that people needed to hear and I wanted to contrast the beauty that we see in our people but the negative image that is perceived in the media," Arab-Smith said in a phone interview with CBC News. 

"I just want to ... try to promote change and help others understand how they can fight with us."

Arab-Smith said Black people are unfairly disadvantaged based on the colour of their skin, something she has experienced.

"With a system designed against us, I just feel like my Black graduates need a big shout out ... I'm just I'm proud of you," she said. "We've come a long way and we persevered through anything."

Rodney Small, one of Arab-Smith's basketball coaches and a Halifax-based Black activist, said she has done just that. 

In September, Arab-Smith will be attending Dalhousie University for a Bachelor of Science in medical sciences and will also be playing university basketball.

Rodney Small, a Halifax activist, has been coaching Arab-Smith for four years. (CBC)

Small has been coaching Arab-Smith since she was 14. He said she has grown into a strong, talented Black woman.

"Both me and her dad were very big on Black pride and being proud to be Black, knowing that we were up against so many different obstacles ... so these are things that we teach our kids — that you have to be resilient, you have to be able to get through them and you have to be proud," Small said. 

"You have to be proud because at the end of the day you can't change the colour of your skin."

Small said he was blown away by Arab-Smith's graduation speech.

"I realized that, you know, it's about time we start passing these torches down because our young generation are just on a whole other level," he said.

Arab-Smith said she has been to some of the protests in Nova Scotia and it was powerful to see the number of people coming out to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

"It was something that meant so much to me and not only seeing the Black faces in the crowd but those of other ethnicities and races joining us in fighting for the same cause," she said. "That just meant so much to me. It just shows that there's a lot of people behind us and that change is definitely possible."

She said she hopes the international protests will bring actual change, specifically on how Black people are treated by police and how Black history is taught.

She said in all her years of school, she wasn't taught anything about Black history except for slavery. 

"But our history goes beyond that," she said. "And I feel that the curriculum, even though every day we're making history and we're told we're making history, it seems that our curriculum never changes. [It's] the same as my parents and those before us and that needs to change."

Arab-Smith said her advice to young Black people is to use their voices and speak out against anti-Black racism, whether it's through public speaking, sharing information on social media, writing essays, or teaching others.

"There's different ways that we can definitely get this message across and make change," she said. 

"But whatever you do, don't sit silent. Do something."