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'We started at slavery and ended at Martin Luther King': Why don't we don't learn black history in school?

DeRico Symonds is a Halifax-based community advocate, who Tweeted last week about the lack of African Nova Scotian history he learned growing up
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DeRico Symonds is a Halifax-based community advocate, who Tweeted last week about the African Nova Scotian history he learned growing up, or the lack thereof.

"Black people were kings and queens and rulers and emperors, but all I learned in school was we started at slavery and then we ended at Martin Luther King," Symonds tells NEWS 95.7's The Sheldon MacLeod Show.

Symonds says he was prompted to dig deeper only recently, when he learned that a black person invented things like the steam boat and the traffic light.

"I was just like wow, I didn't learn this in school," he says. "So, that sort of prompted this Tweet and I'd been doing a lot more research over the years as I got older and sort of out of high school."

The activist says that because stories are told from the lens of the white colonialist, important information isn't passed along.

"It's told by the white man and at the time those folks were conquerors and going and stealing land and taking things, and the history that we're taught in the schools is told from that lens," he says. "You can imagine if you flip the history on its head and actually if it was told from the narrative of a black person, we would know all of the history around the kings and queens."

Aside from the history or slavery, Symonds says it can make a difference in the modern day, like in the case of the CN rail blockades in solidarity with Wet'suwet'en First Nation.

"If you think about five, ten years from now, somebody will tell that story and if it's told from a colonial lens or if it's told from a white person who felt inconvenienced, they're going to get the story of 'there were some Indigenous people who were upset and they decided to create a blockade and inconvenience the entire country,'" Symonds explains. "But if we actually flip it on its head we get a bit more of a positive spin, we get more perspective and we get more of a collective history, a shared history."

Symonds says learning about slavery and the conquering of African Americans and African Canadians can have the effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy for black students.

"You're told something so many times you eventually kind of maybe start to believe it a little bit," he says.

Even for teachers who are trying to break out of the confines of the teaching system, Symonds says it can be challenging.

"The actual education system is structurally racist," he says. "[But] there's a lot of amazing teachers who I know who are doing a lot of exceptional things within the classroom and with what they have."

But Symonds says the change needs to be at the structural level, not just bottom-up.

"I'm not saying get rid of the history in school that's taught about slavery, because as gruesome as it was it's something that did happen," he explains. "However there's much more to black history than just slavery, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X."

Symonds hopes the education system will change to allow more coverage of local Nova Scotian history.

"Some of these things and some of these amazing people were actually in your backyard," he says. "It would make the education much more relevant. A lot of times we do resort to United States education and history that has happened there, but we have a rich history here in Nova Scotia."

He also hopes that eventually black students in the classroom will feel less like an other, and more accepted into the fabric of Canadian history.

"I mean, have history class and then we have African Canadian Studies. In my opinion it's an othering," says Symonds. "You can take history or you can take the "other" history, when in fact it's all just history."


Victoria  Walton

About the Author: Victoria Walton

Victoria is's weekend editor and a Halifax-based freelancer. She is originally from Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley.
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