“When are we going to do something about Black history?” ten-year-old Mazin asked impatiently. His expectant tone was spurred by a recently completed major class project on Indigenous history and the legacy of colonization in Canada. Recognizing students as critical thinkers, I make sure that my social studies programming responds to their inquiries with meaningful action. Mazin could see clearly that the injustices that face both Indigenous and Black peoples in Canada are due to colonization. In response to his question, I began working to develop an emergent curriculum challenging anti-Black racism. Working collaboratively with community members, we embarked on a year-long journey to produce a class play entitled “Itah’s Marvelous Bookshop,” celebrating Black history in Canada. More accurately, the play is a docu-drama, a theatrical co-creation/ re-telling of the local, real-life stories within the Black Canadian diaspora that made a big impression on my class.
Anti-Black racism persists in the school system. According to research by the Ontario Association of Black School Educators, TDSB students of African heritage are more than twice as likely to be suspended from school than white students. Only 65 percent of Black students graduate high school, a fact that Black Lives Matter – Toronto (BLM-TO) attributes to disengagement, suspension and discipline. This is a documented social dynamic known as ‘push out.’ In Toronto, a young Black man is 17 times more likely than a white person to be stopped by police without reason and asked to provide personal information. These statistics highlight the urgency for educators to challenge anti-Black racism in schools by affirming Black identity, history and achievements in Canada.
Disrupting the Narrative
“The only Black history I learned in school was about slavery. It was heavy. I didn’t learn anything about Black history in elementary school,” my colleague, Ikoro Huggins-Warner, informs me. This is a refrain I hear from Black friends in all walks of life; in school, Black history curriculum is often limited in scope. School resources for Black history also tend to be U.S.-based and/or dated.
LeRoi Newbold, co-founder of BLM-TO and teacher at the TDSB’s Africentric Alternative School, affirms that a majority of students’ exposure to Black history begins with enslavement and ends with a token nod to American civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. I had a similar experience of invisibility and misrepresentation as a Chinese- Canadian student growing up in Toronto. Now, I take the opportunity to flip the narrative of this outdated status quo. Grace Lee Boggs, Asian American activist and scholar, affirms that “History is not the past. It is the stories that we tell about the past. How we tell these stories – triumphantly or self-critically, metaphysically or dialectally – has a lot to do with whether we cut short or advance our evolution as human beings.”
“Every time there was oppression, there was resistance,” LeRoi stated in a workshop with my class on Black Freedom Fighters in Canada and abroad. Our unit began in the fall with a video made by Black high school students in Toronto about notable local Black leaders in history. We read articles compiled in the recently published Sankofa book series, saw videos from BLM-TO and watched interviews with activist-journalist Desmond Cole and CBC’s documentaries on Black history. Using contemporary multimedia resources, my ambition was to convey the complex layers of story, strength and triumph in the Black Canadian community from past and present.
Early in our studies, an art exhibit entitled ‘Welcome to Blackhurst’ opened at a local gallery. It honoured the rich Black Canadian activism, artistry and entrepreneurship in Toronto’s Bathurst and Bloor neighbourhood, near our school. The timing of this field trip was perfect: it brought home the stories we were beginning to learn.
We started with a delicious lunch of roti and doubles at Roti Palace, a popular West Indian restaurant. Then, some students went next door to check out A Different Booklist, a bookstore specializing in the African and Caribbean diaspora, co-owned by Itah Sadu, celebrated author and storyteller. Everyone was captivated by Itah who later joined us for an introduction to the exhibit. Little did we know that this spontaneous visit would lead to a long-term relationship between Itah and our school.
“Let’s make history today. There’s one word you say more than anyone else in the world. It’s your name. When you speak your name, you’re making history,” began Itah, encouraging each student to introduce themselves. Veteran U.S. educator Louise Derman- Sparks asserts that confronting prejudice means beginning with exploring your own identity and history as a stepping stone to connecting with others and understanding the context for social injustices. This longstanding pedagogy helps students remain critical thinkers and become knowledgeable and accepting of their identities.
Echoing Derman-Sparks’ methodology, I watched Itah guide our class to engage with the exhibit within an anti-bias framework. Affirming the importance of each student’s name, Itah then engaged them to remember all of the names we would come to know that day: Deborah Brown, Stan “My name is not George” Grizzle, Austin Clarke, Royson James, as well as business names – Mascoll’s Beauty Supplies, Too Black Guys and Contrast newspaper.
Itah proudly described the neighbourhood as the Grand Central Station of the Black community. Students looked through the archival treasures and artwork, read local newspapers and books, typed on vintage typewriters and wrote favourite memories of their experience on a local map at the art exhibit. They had a blast. “This place is so awesome to teach kids all about Black history and I LOVE it!,” wrote 12-year-old Olive.
Black History of Resistance in Canada
Contextualizing African societies as rich and vibrant prior to colonization and the transatlantic slave trade celebrates Blackness and resists prejudice. LeRoi’s lesson on Black Freedom Fighters included people such as Marie-Joseph Angelique, the slave woman accused of starting a fire in Montreal as an act of protest in 1734. Her little-known story spotlights 200 years of slavery of African peoples in Canada and disrupts the heroic myth of Canada as a sanctuary of the Underground Railroad. LeRoi presents historical and contemporary Black rebels with such love and pride that when LeRoi asked students to define a freedom fighter, they collectively responded by saying, “You’re a Freedom Fighter!”
Over several months, I listened to the students’ discussions and found their connections to a handful of historical Black Canadians both playful and meaningful. The stories of Viola Desmond in Nova Scotia, Toronto civil rights activist Harry Gairey Sr., Toronto musician Faith Nolan and her song about Africville, Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman and National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Fergie Jenkins deeply resonated with my class during our studies.
Students who were fashion conscious loved Viola Desmond’s tenacity as a business woman and hair stylist. Her act of civil disobedience, sitting in a whites-only section of a movie theatre, pre-dated that of Rosa Parks. A number of baseball players in my class were impressed that Fergie Jenkins, descendant of enslaved ancestors, is the only Canadian professional athlete mentioned in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Harriet Tubman’s life story shows that we really can be anything; she was an abolitionist, spy, nurse and activist for women’s right to vote. My class was excited to learn the history behind Harry Gairey Skating Rink, where we skate weekly. The rink is named in honour of Mr. Gairey for his fight against racial discrimination in Toronto. In 1945, his son was not permitted in a skating arena because he was Black. Harry Gairey Sr. urged city council to institute a human rights policy for the city’s recreational facilities. We jammed on our ukuleles to Toronto activist and musician Faith Nolan’s song, ‘Africville’ as we learned about descendants from this early Black settlement in Nova Scotia. These five stories felt poignant to my class, braiding the long-view of ancient African civilizations and resistance with responsive curriculum about local and national history. But I was still unsure on how to proceed in generating a big project.
Creating "Itah's Marvelous Bookshop": A Collective Process
“Can we please do a class play?” 11-year-old Dalila pleaded. Her dream was to launch a school production of a Broadway musical. Yet, her idea planted a seed with the class: how about creating a play about Canada’s Black history? Intimidated by the scriptwriting process, I talked with my colleagues and community members about how to begin. Ideas swirled in my mind, but I had trouble coming up with a coherent framework that could work on stage. Finally, my colleague Ikoro introduced me to Audrey Dwyer, an accomplished Toronto theatre artist.
Audrey is a skilled, deep listener; together, we brainstormed the structure, or bones, for a script. Teachers can tend to feel alone in our classrooms so collaborating with educators and community leaders such as Audrey, Itah and LeRoi fuels our creativity, draws on broad experiences and grounds us in authenticity and accountability.
When she met the class, Audrey helped me to decide on the setting of a bookstore: “I could see it in the children’s eyes – they really love that bookshop!” We structured the play to evoke the sense of magic that Itah cultivates with storytelling. In the script, children enter the bookstore and meet Itah, who gives them a book to convey each story. While the children read, the story comes alive on stage. Dalila thoughtfully crafted her role as Itah by adding an expression of Itah’s that she recalled when she met her: “Plenty, plenty, plenty love.” Co-constructing the play with students had a huge impact on the production. It meant they were not merely memorizing lines, but relating to their roles deeply and personally. Acting also helped students contextualize the legacy of injustices towards Black people through storytelling.
The students’ energy resonated with their admiration of Itah’s storytelling mastery and lively spirit. We performed at nearby Ogden Public School and a local library as well as for our school community. Itah and her daughter, Sojourner, came to our very first public performance. Everyone was giddy. At the end, Itah thrilled the group with an invitation to perform at her store. On the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, our dream came true. We performed at A Different Booklist bookstore for community elders.
Teaching Authentically for Social Justice
In my social justice framework for teaching, it’s vital that I listen to students’ big questions, provide space for them to challenge ideas on their own terms and respond with meaningful, hands-on curriculum. I work hard to develop connections outside the classroom and collaborate with local community members to nurture students’ personal relationships and spark deep learning. To this day, Itah and A Different Booklist bring smiles to my students when they visit or participate in one of the bookstore’s events. BLM-TO returned to my school recently for a Black Freedom Fighters workshop for a different class. Several of my students joined in again because of their fond memories of LeRoi’s visit from the year before. These relationships speak to a deep understanding and celebration of Blackness that flips the narrative. Challenging bias in curriculum about the history of Black peoples in Canada not only confronts dominant norms of racial privilege, it goes further by dismantling this legacy of colonization. This serves in the interest of both white students and students of colour; everyone gains when we broaden the lens through which we see ourselves. Such knowing and learning naturally, grounded in meaningful relationships, move us beyond the classroom. As poet, educator and activist Audre Lorde put it: “Without community, there is no liberation.”
Many thanks to Tamara Berger, Diane Hamilton and Debbie O’Rourke for their editing support. Thanks also to Audrey Dwyer, Carmen Farrell, Zio Hersh, Derek Horn, Ikoro Huggins-Warner, LeRoi Newbold, Itah Sadu, Maryem Tollar and Jody Warner for their contributions to “Itah’s Marvelous Bookshop.”
Emily Chan is a member of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto.
Feel free to get in touch for a copy of the script of “Itah’s Marvelous Bookshop.”
Black History Month: Teacher Guide, Classroom Connection, Toronto Star
Sankofa book series Rubicon Publishing
Underground Railroad, Historica Canada
Black Enslavement, Canadian Encyclopedia
Teaching the Book of Negroes
Teaching Black History in Canada, CBC The National
The Black Community in Canada: A Rich History, National Film Board of Canada
Black History in Canada: a live interactive roundtable, CBC
5 Canadian Stations of the Underground Railroad
When Bathurst was Blackhurst: the Black history of Mirvish Village, TVO
Welcome to Blackhurst Street at Markham House
Black Lives Matter - Toronto
A Different Booklist Bookstore