February is Black History Month. Last year, the Government of Canada officially recognized the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent, which is being observed from 2015-2024.
As a student, I rarely learned about black history. I recall the rare occasions that black people were presented in learning materials, what my high school bestie called the transition paragraph. In English class, we studied Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where Africans were depicted as savages and uncivilized. Other classes studied To Kill a Mockingbird, where black people were depicted as criminals. In senior year English Lit, when we had an opportunity to select books we wanted to read, I would devour the writings of Richard Wright and James Baldwin. I LOVED literature and wanted to read about characters who looked like me, who had experienced the same struggles as me, but who also led everyday lives like me.
Black History Month can be an opportunity for students, parents and educators to explore the rich history and identity of black people. Too often, we think black history is about teaching slavery or the civil rights movement, but the experiences, identities and cultures of people of African descent is so much more than the transatlantic slave trade. While it is important for us to honour the legacy of slavery, apartheid and the struggles of black people, it is also important for us to celebrate their great accomplishments to Canada and to the global community.
There are so many ways in which we can celebrate and honour the messages, images and history of black people, not just in February, but throughout the year.
Parents for Diversity has put together a breadth of information about events, lessons plans, books, and other learning materials to celebrate people of African descent.
Have I mentioned that I LOVE books? For a long time, I struggled with finding children’s books that depict the everyday lives of black people. Many of the books I came across were about the struggles black people face, and not books about everyday people and situations. One of my favourite children’s stories is Peter’s Chair by Ezra Jack Keats, about a little boy who doesn’t want to give up his beloved chair to his new baby sister. It’s a book about an ordinary black boy in a loving family. Children benefit from reading books in which they see themselves represented. It is particularly challenging finding books that address intersectionality, where a black trans kid or a black child on the autism spectrum are protagonists.
I also love books that explores the history of black people. I’m a huge fan of Kadir Nelson’s book, Nelson Mandela. He weaves together the life of Mandela and the struggle of apartheid with such beautiful images and a powerful narrative that will resonate with young readers. We read this book at home all the time.
In honour of Black History Month, we have compiled a list of books about people of African descent on our diversity library. We want to celebrate Canadian authors and publishers, so we’ve also included books with Canadian content. We also have books with stories from Africa, and books about Black History Month. Last year, CBC put together a list of 8 must-read Canadian books for children and young adults during Black History Month. Books about black history are often about American history, which is great (A Mighty Girl has compiled a list of Black History Month books by age group). But we need some Canadian content!!! Black Canadians have done a lot and we need to acknowledge and celebrate their contributions.
There are so many online teaching materials on black Canadian history. We have included links to lesson plans, workshops and other learning materials on black Canadian history, and as much as possible, we have tried to provide these resources in both official languages. Akilah Newton and Tami Gabay have co-authored Big Dreamers (2018). The Canadian Black History Activity Book for Kids Volume 1 (Bright Confetti Media Inc.) is an activity book for children about black history not found in conventional text books.
Natasha Henry, is an educator, historian, and curriculum consultant, and the president of the Ontario Black History Society. She develops learning materials that focus on the African Diasporic experience. She has also put together black history workshops for students and teachers. Henry also shares lesson plans, videos, books and other resources for teaching black history in Canada.
Historica Canada has published a Black History in Canada Education Guide and Le guide pédagogique L’histoire des Noirs au Canada to enhance students’ critical awareness and appreciation of the Black Canadian experience, grounded in Lawrence Hill’s award-winning historical fiction, The Book of Negroes (my favourite Canadian book). Historica Canada also has profiled famous Black Canadians and provides a timeline of when black people first arrived in Canada (in both French and English).
The Department of Canadian Heritage has tons of information and videos in honour of Black History Month in French and English, including biographies of notable black Canadians, a list of black history organizations and educational resources across Canada. If you want to learn about Portia White, Dorothy Williams, or William Edward Hall check out these biographies in English and French. I really like Rollcall, a poem by Canadian poet and playwright George Elliot Clarke. The poem would make for a great project for students who can research the contributions black people have made to Canadian history.
The Government of Ontario also has lesson plans and workshops on Black Canadian History both in English and in French.
If you want to teach or learn about black Canadians in sport, Shantelle Browning-Morgan, a secondary school teacher in Ontario developed learning materials about Wilfred “Boomer” Harding & the Chatham Coloured All-Stars (1932-1939).
For history buffs who want to learn about the role of black Canadian Soldiers, there are great online resources for all ages. CBC Kids has shared The story of Canada’s WWI all-black military battalion, and for older readers, CBC has published online articles about Canada’s black battalion soldiers. Natasha Henry also worked on We Stand on Guard for Thee: Teaching and Learning the African Canadian Experience in the War of 1812. While a lot of the links don’t seem to work, there is lots of information available in English and in French.
The 365 Black Canadian Curriculum is an online project by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), and is designed for primary, junior and intermediate educators to teach about the lived experiences of black Canadians from the past and present, 365 days a year. Students have an opportunity to learn about black Canadian scientists, medical professionals and inventors, black Canadian community leaders and political leaders. The curriculum includes a calendar; primary, junior and intermediate lesson plans in English and French; a workshop for staff; and a poster for educators.
The BBC published Black in Canada: 10 stories, ten portraits and stories about the black experience in Canada, with incredible images by photojournalist Jalani Morgan. The Canadian Race Relations Foundation has a webinar, The Black Experience Project, a research study that examines the lived experiences of individuals who self-identify as black and/or of African heritage living in the Greater Toronto Area.
For those of you who want an in-class experience, Ottawa’s very own ONYXSTASIA African Diaspora Productions promotes culturally relevant curriculum in schools, and trains teachers about the importance of incorporating African-centred lesson plans.
There are events happening across Canada and CBC has put together Your 2019 guide to Black History Month arts and culture. Within the National Capital Region, there are so many events taking place throughout Black History Month. Black History Ottawa, has put together a number of learning and fun activities throughout February. This year’s Black History Ottawa theme is “Nothing about us Without us”.
If you love photography then check out North is Freedom, a photographic essay by Canadian photographer, Yuri Dojc, that explores the northern end of the “Underground Railroad”. You can see these incredible images at Ottawa City Hall until February 15, 2019.
“They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada” by Cecil Foster is a historical work that chronicles the little-known stories of Black railway porters—the so-called “Pullmen” of the Canadian rail lines. The book launch will take place on February 19, 2019 at 7:30pm at Library and Archives Canada, Pellan Room.
Posters and Calendars
Visual images around the classrooms and school hallways that acknowledge and celebrate Black History Month can also complement lessons and other learning materials.
Artist Robert Small has created Black History Month LEGACY posters which include amazing images of Black Canadians and black visionaries in both French and English.
Canadian Heritage has designed Black History Month Posters that are available for download in English and French. The 2019 African Heritage Month Poster is available, but it seems only in English. As part of the its 365 Black Canadian Curriculum, the ETFO has published a Black Canadian Calendar to celebrate and acknowledge the contribution of black people to Canadian society. An individual is identified for each day of the year.
We hope you find these resources useful! Please share your thoughts and stories about teaching black history and people of African descent.