15 February 2008

Why not an Afrocentric school?

As the Toronto District School Board prepares to set up an Afrocentric school, the question of the day becomes, Is it justified? Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty doesn't think so. Nor do the people of Ontario. According to an Angus Reid poll, 79 per cent of Ontarians oppose the school, 85 per cent in the Greater Toronto Area. And our liberal instincts are quick to support the naysayers. Certainly mine do.

I instinctively oppose the segregation of any ethnic or religious group on any basis. However, my instincts may be ignoring something of very great importance about black people in North America. Their experience is unique. Of course every ethnic group's experience is unique, but the black experience is unique on a level well beyond the rest of us. They are the only group that didn't come to this continent voluntarily. They alone were coerced -- and with almost unimaginable cruelty.

Furthermore, all other groups were allowed to retain critical elements of their culture to sustain them in their new life -- their religious beliefs, their family relationships, etc. Not so with the immigrants from Africa. Their culture was obliterated. About all they were able to retain was their music and even that was suppressed -- drumming, for example, integral to African music, was often forbidden to prevent slaves from communicating and thus initiating a rebellion. Not only were these people enslaved, they were subjected to a particularly vicious form of slavery.

We often hear about the absence of fathers in black communities, about the disproportionate number of women who are raising families alone. Where are the men, we ask? Well, the answer may lie in that unique experience. Under slavery, men were often considered less as fully sexual beings, i.e. as lovers, husbands and fathers, and more as studs. Like farm animals, their responsibility as males was to produce more slaves. They could at any time be sold away from their women and children.

And when slavery ended, segregation began. Under this system, men were subject to constant humiliation in front of their families. Grey-haired old grandfathers were called boys, and treated as boys, and didn't dare object on pain of serious retribution. Unlike other family men, blacks could not aspire to anything but the more menial roles in society. While men of other ethnic groups could expect to see family commitment rewarded by their children reaching higher levels of society than they did, black men could see nothing for their children but the same drudgery and humiliation they endured. After centuries of slavery followed by a century of segregation, it would be surprising indeed if black men had not had their connection to conventional family life thoroughly fractured.

History is long with us. It doesn't vanish at the stroke of a pen. Modern Canadian law and custom may now guarantee black people equality, but the unique inequalities they have suffered in the past will disadvantage them for a long time to come.

It may be the case then that blacks, like no other ethnic group except the Native peoples, require two educations, one conventional, the other to rebuild a shattered identity. Perhaps this can be done within the present school system, perhaps not. Justice demands we try. But if that fails, it doesn't seem unreasonable to set up just one special school to ensure we have an alternative available.

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