Changing the Narrative workshop combats Black exclusion in B.C. history
February 18, 2021
When Adam Rudder, then 20, first picked up a copy of Crawford Kilian’s Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia, the moment was almost surreal.
“It was a mix of being astonished, but also a really deep sense of betrayal,” said Rudder, now a professor of humanities at Vancouver’s Fairleigh Dickinson University. “I was a little angry, having gone through my entire education process, elementary and high school not hearing anything about Black history in the province.”
On Friday, Rudder will be participating in a workshop, called Changing the Narrative, aimed at changing that. The two-hour workshop, hosted by the Vancouver Maritime Museum and the National Congress of Black Women Foundation, is aimed at teachers, but open to the public. It will be a chance to have a dialogue, and challenge that history of silence around Black history in B.C.
Growing up in the Lower Mainland, Salmon Arm, Kelowna and Merritt, Rudder said he had a rough time in an education system that ignored Black history. He experienced exclusion and racism that wasn’t always overt, but was often “devastating.”
He recalls being singled out by a teacher on the first day of an advanced placement class in Grade 8: “The teacher asked me if I knew this was an AP class and it was one of the classic moments — they didn’t ask anyone else,” said Rudder. He was the only Black student in the class.
The most damaging part of an education system that ignored Black history, said Rudder, was “not really knowing what Black people were capable of because the dominant message was that we were only musicians or athletes — there was nothing in my education system that would prove to me that Black people had ever contributed anything of value.”
Kilian’s book, passed on by a friend, was a starting point. He did his masters’ thesis on the history of Hogan’s Alley, and became a founding member of the Hogan’s Alley Society. Hogan’s Alley, a neighbourhood in Strathcona, and a largely Black and immigrant enclave, was torn down when the Georgia Street viaduct was built.
Rudder wants to see the exclusion of Black history and experience from B.C.’s school curriculum changed. That can only begin, he said, through “conversation.”
The panel discussion will be moderated by Shelley-Anne Vidal, vice-chairwoman of the foundation. Vidal grew up in Surrey and the Fraser Valley, the daughter of Caribbean immigrants who instilled in her the value of a good education. And yet, the only lessons she received about Black history were learned at home.
“My parents made sure we learned about Black youth and Black culture, and built community,” said Vidal. “We didn’t learn about the presence of the Black community in our schools. There wasn’t any mention of it.”
Another misconception she hears often is that “there aren’t many Black people in B.C.”
“There are Black people, we are here, and we are visible,” said Vidal. But education is vital to reversing the history of erasure. “When you don’t see yourself in the schoolbooks, in the history books as a community that was here, where are you?”
Vidal said she hopes to help educators understand how to integrate the Black experience into their classrooms.
“I think back to my experience having to read Tom Sawyer, being the only Black child in the classroom in fourth grade when the teacher was reading it out loud,” said Vidal. “When she said the N-word, all the eyes were on me.”
“The teacher had not thought about how that would impact me or thought maybe I could choose a different text, or use a critical lens.”
Other issues include a lack of understanding of how diverse the Black community is, and how layered its experience: “Race is just one piece of it,” said Vidal.
“Students that aren’t Black are missing out just as much as students that are Black — we are all missing out,” she said.
For more information about Changing the Narrative, visit the event page at the Vancouver Maritime Museum or visit vanmaritime.com.