Review: Schooling the System

Aladejebi, Funké. Schooling the System: A History of Black Women Teachers. Rethinking Canada in the World 8. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021. 304pp. $37.95. Pbk.

Funké Aladejebi’s Schooling the System: A History of Black Women Teachers offers much-needed insight into the world of black female educators in Canada from 1940-80. Aladejebi addresses a gap within not only African Canadian historiography, but the history of education in Canada as well. Schooling the System also provides a striking example of a thorough and thoughtful approach to oral history. By practicing what she describes as “historical listening,” Aladejebi captures the complexities of black female educators’ experiences and the ways in which gender, race, and class informed their stories (11). She also applies a spatial analysis “to understand how black geographic subjects produce space within the context of domination and objectification” (8).

Each chapter begins with an oral history that frames the collective experiences explored in each historical period. Referring to the interviews as “oral herstories,” Aladejebi considers the interviewees as “engaged knowledge producers who made deliberate and conscious choices about the stories they described during the interview process” (9). Her approach to oral history as “insider-outsider” is commendable; rather than assume shared knowledge or experiences as a black female educator herself, Aladejebi built working relationships with each of her twenty-six participants before, during, and after the interview process, meaning that the stories told in Schooling the System centres these women’s agency as they “made deliberate choices to reclaim their dignity and selfhood” (13). 

In chapter one, Aladejebi reviews the period between 1940 and 1960, offering one of the best summaries I have read to date of the history of black education in Canada. Aladejebi’s attentive history lays a foundation in this chapter that is essential to understanding how the education system created and reinforced racial segregation. These early historical experiences “created a system of subordination” that kept blacks in the margins “and continued to characterize their lived experiences into the twentieth century” (20). 

Chapter two explores a period when many black immigrants from the Caribbean arrived in Ontario from 1960-80. Aladejebi asserts, “The forms of racism that faced the black populations beginning in the seventeenth century were simply transformed into twentieth-century state programs that continued to treat African descended peoples as occupying spaces outside of the Canadian nation” (54). This chapter traces the ways in which inherited British and French ideals surrounding blackness meant that black women educators often taught in predominately black areas due to their foreign appearance and “othered” status.  For the same reason, these women were also approached by white school administrators to teach in certain geographic areas because they “believed that because they were nonwhite they could better understand racially diverse student populations, some of whom were black” (54).

Chapter three shows how “othered” experiences placed black women educators as “outsiders-within” the educational system. One interviewee named Meyers pointed out that she lacked black role models, stating, “I was never taught by a black teacher. My whole teaching career. Never. I mean my whole schooling, I was never taught by a black person” (81). Aladejebi notes that the inclusion of black educators only “to satisfy minority mandates reflected a limited and ineffective form of institutional inclusion” (81). Still, black women educators preserved and tried to be the role models they never had. They used their unique place in the educational system to create “distinctive pedagogical approaches that were often reflective of their positions as outsiders-within” (84). One such example of this pedagogy is in interviewee Archer’s story. Archer organized multicultural events, encouraged students to bring traditional items to the classroom, and advocated for black content in the curriculum. As Aladejebi writes, “Archer used her pedagogy to transplant cultural and community knowledge,” which “blurred the lines between her professional occupation and community work.” (105). Aladejebi asserts that the efforts of black women educators to find “ways to combat historical erasures within the curriculum” was a deeply meaningful part of their professional practice (84). 

One interviee named Meyers pointed out that she lacked black role models, stating, “I was never taught by a black teacher. My whole teaching career. Never. I mean my whole schooling, I was never taught by a black person.”

The final two chapters look more deeply into the lives of black women educators through their activism and community involvement. Chapter four examines the lives of black women educators beyond the walls of the classroom. As black militancy grew in the United States, black Canadians began to question their place in Canadian identity. Black activism “shared ideas, organizations, and people” across the border but also demonstrated a distinctively black Canadian political consciousness (114). As Aladejebi writes, “Feeling a sense of alienation from traditional concepts of Canadian identity, black Canadians increased their political activism affirming a heightened consciousness about the black of black bodies in Canadian citizenry” (114). Here, Aladejebi’s contribution makes a big impact in a highly underrepresented historical period. The influences of the US civil rights movement in Canada have not been well-documented, and Schooling the System begins to fill the historiographical gap. 

Continuing the discussion of activism, Chapter five follows black women’s involvement in Canada’s women’s liberation movement in the 1970s and 1980s. In this chapter, Aladejebi “describes the ways in which black women understood themselves as occupying in-between spaces where they built alliances, borrowed discourses, and strengthened identities unique to their personal experiences” (146). This excerpt in particular reiterates the importance of Aladejebi’s contributions; through a spatial lens, she illuminates how both race and gender placed black women in an “in-between” space, and how their occupation of this space “disrupted national narratives of European citizenship and nationhood” (7). Ultimately, black women educators contributed greatly to transforming the education system into a more inclusive space for all.

Within Ontario’s school systems, black female educators “schooled the system” by teaching Africentric content and creating inclusive and equitable policies so that education was accessible to all. As activists, they fought to change historically entrenched ideas around what it meant to be Canadian. In placing black female educators’ voices at the forefront of the narrative, Aladejebi unravels a compelling and crucial history of not only black education in Ontario, but of the broader Canadian historical context as well. This work is a timely intervention into a stale historiography and should quickly find its place as a critical, if not canonical, contribution to African Canadian history.

Stefanie R. Slaunwhite, University of New Brunswick

Stefanie R. Slaunwhite holds a B.A. and an M.A. in Atlantic Canada Studies from Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. She is currently a PhD student in History at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton under the supervision of Dr. Sasha Mullally. 

You can find more information about Schooling the System on the McGill-Queen’s University Press website. For more on Dr. Funké Aladejebi, you can visit her website.