Student group at Woburn C.I. moves black history month from the margins to centre stage

Stereotypes of black people as only good at sports, drama, and music weighs heavily on the minds of some students at Woburn C.I.

Shauntel Parkinson, a 17-year-old student at Woburn is determined to change that stereotype that is detrimental to the self-esteem of black youths. With the support of staff, the Caribbean African Student Association (CASA) is producing an African heritage assembly to honour black history month. This is the first time in four years a student group has taken the initiative to give black history month any prominence in the school, said Parkinson, president and co-creator of CASA. The assembly will highlight the achievements and hardships in black culture through dance, music, theatre and will include a guest speaker.

“Some people don’t know it’s black history month. We want to bring more awareness,” said Renee Campbell, CASA vice president.

But the marginalization of Canadian black history made it difficult to find information on black Canadians, Campbell said.

The lack of black history is also reflected in the curriculum. Jason Monteith teaches African studies at Woburn and has to scour university libraries for literature because there is no textbook. The course is ambitious and expansive in scope, covering prehistoric Africa to Barack Obama.

Monteith found that his students were knowledgeable in the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, but knew little about their own history. African Canadians have been in this country for more than 400 years, but little has been said about their settlement and contributions in mainstream discourse. In Ontario and Nova Scotia, entire black communities have been displaced and buried by new settlements. Only recently buildings in Ontario were overturned to reveal cemeteries that belonged to the black community. It’s something his students didn’t know about because it isn’t included in the Eurocentric curriculum.

“A lot of Canadian black history is washed aside, but it’s being brought out now. There’s an urgent need for it,” Monteith said.

Black students are a minority at the school, said Janet Allen, a guidance counsellor. But the demographic is changing and the school must meet the challenge. It’s important that people are proud of where they come from, she said.

“People say, ‘I’m Jamaican’ or ‘I’m African,’ but they don’t know what it means because they don’t know their history,” said CASA member Tyrel McKenzie.

With Obama as president, the students hope that black people will start to find their own identities rather than live up to the narrow ideas that have been imposed on them by society.

“It’s very empowering to see yourself represented. We have come so far,” Parkinson said.

And they hope to go ever further.

McKenzie plans on going to George Brown College for dance or business, while Parkinson and Campbell both hope to study life sciences at the University of Toronto.