In Black Focus

The crisis in Canada’s classrooms

With some interest, I followed the debate over black-focused schools and “Afrocentric” curricula in Toronto this past winter. Passionate opposing narratives were spun — on the one hand, by those demanding necessary affirmative action for the nearly 40 percent of black students who drop out of high school, putatively lost in the “Eurocentric” wilderness; on the other, by those seeing only segregation, and the end of Canadian-style multiculturalism, in schools tailored specifically to the needs of black kids. Fast on the heels of Ontario voters slamming John Tory’s Progressive Conservatives for suggesting (during the Ontario election) that public dollars be spent on religious schools, the Toronto District School Board voted 11–9 in favour of one new black-focused school, plus three enhanced black studies programs. Race trumps religion; it’s more inclusive, I suppose.

Of indeterminate size and catering to an as-yet-unspecified age group, the school would be open to all, the tdsb was at pains to point out. Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty—knowing that many hues enrolling was as likely as Jews or Sikhs or even Somalis attending black Seventh-day Adventist churches — was not placated. He offered no extra cash for the initiative, and said that should any other jurisdiction attempt such folly he would “intervene.” (To be sure, the odd “reverse Oreo” will enrol, but his or her identity problems might well be exacerbated by dissertations on the significance of ancient African civilizations — Malian, Songhai, Egyptian, Aksumite, etc. — or the contributions made to black empowerment by Spike Lee’s production company, 40 Acres & A Mule.) In the meantime, with the school scheduled to open in September 2009, McGuinty urged Toronto voters to reject the move, and is hoping the richer Jewish or Sikh or Hong Kong communities just sit tight. Still, Toronto will likely have its black school: “What the hell,” many say, “nothing else has worked.”

All of this was entertaining but only of some interest, because for decades the essential debate has not budged, and even now the interlocutors remain careful not to tread in subtextual waters. In painfully inclusive language, the 1995 Ontario Royal Commission report on education recommended that “in jurisdictions with large numbers of black students, school boards, academic authorities, faculties of education, and representatives of the black community collaborate to establish demonstration schools . . . ” What it failed to emphasize is that by the mid-1990s Toronto’s “black community” existed in name only. The needs and interests of immigrants from Brazil, Ethiopia, the Caribbean, and New York, “double laps” from England, and long-time black Canadians, were as different as those of melanin-deficient citizens from Serbia, Missouri, Rome, and Belleville, Ontario. In the 1980s, recommendations from the Consultative Committee on the Education of Black Students in Toronto Schools followed a similar refrain. And in the 1970s, as West Indian immigration picked up real steam and the sense of dislocation and need became more pronounced, from the ramparts came criticisms about The Mis-Education of the Negro in the public system.

I got to thinking about Carter G. Woodson’s 1933 essay, Mis-Education, after making numerous phone calls to black educators. By the time Woodson — the son of former slaves and the founder of Negro History Week (1926) — was urging black Americans to read their own history and to reclaim their own glorious and inglorious past, Canada’s black community was threatened with extinction. From a population estimated at 80,000 in the 1850s, push and pull factors — fighting for the Union side during the American Civil War, taking advantage of Reconstruction opportunities, sodbusting on the Plains, blacks edging into politics, the Harlem Renaissance, and the migration to northern US cities (1910–1930) — had left black Canadians huddled around Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street in Toronto, in Little Burgundy in Montreal, and in small settlements in Nova Scotia and out west. By 1920, Canada’s black population had dropped to perhaps 20,000. Virtually invisible, except to Jews in Toronto and Montreal, who were good to them, most blacks in Canada were driven south not so much by the cold weather as the chilly social reception and subtle but pernicious forms of segregation.

The people I called, it should be acknowledged, know me or know of me — a weird white guy who wrote a book on black history (now out of print) and started a course in black history (long ago discontinued), and who otherwise hangs out with sisters and brothers. They didn’t seem to know much about pre-1960 Canadian black history, but we did discuss the differences between big islands and small in the Caribbean; agreed that colour-line politics in Trinidad and Guyana are virulent because of the influx of East Indian and Chinese indentured servants to those redoubts; and acknowledged that some islands and islanders — Barbados and Bajans, for instance — cleave to the motherland, while others do not. Such candid discussions aside, the trustees, vice-principals, and teachers I spoke with — all black and all proud — chose not to be quoted or, in the cases of two, were prohibited from doing so. Some were shy, others rule-following, others just loath to criticize their brethren. But I sensed another reservation: blacks in Canada would rather not air dirty laundry in public, and though they’re now a population approaching critical mass, keeping a low profile still has advantages.

In the US, Negro History Week — since transformed into the longer, more colourful, and less studious Black History Month — had a simple message: take time out from the daily toil and turmoil of black life to sit on a hard chair, read your history, and imbibe the righteous wine of racial uplift. With slavery in the background but segregation a current menace, the souls of black folks needed to be unleashed. And for young American blacks, with their reading done and pride intact, there were rewards and places to go. In the half-century after the Civil War, dozens of black universities were opened, many in the South, and most of them community endeavours reflecting the common feelings of a relatively homogeneous population once denied the right to read. It is axiomatic in education circles that if a special project is launched and sustained, it will produce good results, and these places of higher learning — over 100 black colleges and universities — are very much part of the American black experience. Given this, the opposition to (and upset about) one black school in Toronto seems, well, a bit pale.

But Canadians are a cautious people, always in search of the noble compromise, and slow on the uptake. In the mid-1950s, it took a Herculean effort on the part of Toronto’s “indigenous” black community to get The Story of Little Black Sambo banned from the curriculum. Fuelled by the scolding words of the US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) — “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” — the same group then lobbied hard to overturn Ontario’s school-segregation laws. By 1964, they finally got their wish, and the following year the last black school shut its doors.

And so we have come full circle. The tdsb move is just, proponents argue, because the facts on the ground now require “separate educational facilities.” For too long, too many young blacks have wasted away in the current system; for too long, young black males in particular have needed teachers who act in loco parentis. These truths are self-evident, but I would be more sanguine if the debate had struck another note: unlike their US counterparts, blacks in Canada remain on the margins, hail from countries far and wide, and will never speak with one voice. As a result, this black-focused school has not just rattled non-blacks; it has made many in the “community” nervous, too. At last — a cultural moment we can share.

Ken Alexander