Funké Aladejebi’s seminal manuscript, Schooling the System, is a critical racial and gendered intervention in Canadian history that demonstrates how the oral narratives of Black women challenged the colonial legacy of state-building policies in postwar Ontarian education systems and radically contested the post-racial misconception of benign whiteness in Canada. Through twenty-six oral interviews with Black Canadian and Caribbean women, Aladejebi highlights the influence and challenges of Black female teachers who were integrated into the postwar Canadian educational system. She supplements her oral narratives with documented archival research including legislative acts, government and school board reports, and conference proceedings. The term “schooling the system” expresses the ways in which Black women engaged in community-oriented activism through educational initiatives to create meaningful systemic change and racial awakening in Canadian society.
The strength of Schooling the System lies in its ability to craft a compelling history of Canada that focuses on oral narratives from Black women teachers and renders “their lived experiences as legitimate forms of historical analyses” (11). Within the emerging field of Black Canadian history, oral histories allow the reader to better understand the racial and gendered climate of the Canadian educational system. Through these gendered and racialized forms of orality, Aladejebi centers Black voices in Canadian history, giving collective and individual agency to Black women who challenged systemic racism in Canadian educational systems and promoted racial uplift through Black feminist pedagogies. Aladejebi coins the term “historical listening” as a method of illuminating the material realities of Black women. As described by Aladejebi, historical listening creates a space for readers to interpret Black women’s choices differently and “view [their] stories as deliberate attempts to reframe their lives as professional working women” (11). This methodology also allows Black women to reshape how they remembered their personal and professional lives. By giving a voice to the racism, class-consciousness, and the gendered realities of working-class Black women, the author allows them to “reclaim their dignity and selfhood” (13) from Eurocentric methodologies that silence the realities of racialized peoples. Relying solely on government and legislative sources would otherwise suppress the agency of racialized people in the making of history because these “postcolonial” archives often entrench notions of Black subordination and white hegemony. By accompanying archival sources with oral history, Aladejebi weaves a story that contests the coloniality and Eurocentricity of Canadian archives.
Schooling the System successfully captures the zeitgeist of postwar Canada. The growing racial and social unrest of the counterculture era coupled with the rising numbers of Black Canadians and West Indian immigrants in Ontario fostered political discourses on racialized citizenship that were highly present in Canadian society. The Canadian government and legal system were fixated on defining national identity by consolidating schooling practices and educational curricula that “reinscribed broader ideals of citizenship and belonging” (55), which accommodated European immigrants but marginalized various Black communities. Black women were subsequently integrated into the teaching workforce as cultural mediators who were supposed to bridge the gap between white Canadian educators and Black Canadian and West Indian children. Aladejebi provides a strong and persuasive argument that Canadian education was closely intertwined with nation-building and discourses on racialized citizenship as demonstrated by the national policy to link multiculturalism within the framework of bilingualism. Aladejebi’s argument reveals the ways in which government and legislative policies on the language and culture of Canada’s two founding empires reinforced white-settler hegemony and privileged Europeans with full citizenship rights. The political and legal attitudes towards education distinctly reflect the legacies of imperial nation-building. Aladejebi’s book therefore questions if Canada can be considered as a postcolonial and post-racial nation given its recent history of Indigenous assimilation and Black subordination through state education policies.
What goes largely unnoticed by most Canadian scholars is Aladejebi’s transnational approach to chronicling Black migration and radical resistance. These paradigms are rarely explored in Canadian history due to a lack of critical racial awareness in mainstream Canadian scholarship as well as the construction of benign whiteness in Canadian society. Aladejebi’s manuscript highlights Black Canadian women’s significant contribution to the Black radical tradition that emerged during the civil rights and Black power movements. The role of Black Canadian women as educators and civil activists contributed to a broader global paradigm of radical opposition to racial oppression that linked Afrodiasporic communities across the Atlantic. This transnational paradigm is highlighted in her first chapter; she highlights the migration of Black Caribbean peoples to Toronto who “adopted a more radical and pan-Africanist stance to combat issues of prejudice and discrimination in housing, employment, and education” (114-5). She further exhibits Canadian contributions to Black radical politics through the Sir George William protests and the 1968 Montreal Congress of Black Writers. Both movements contested ideas about racial harmony in Canada and created a momentous shift in Black Canadian consciousness. The Congress of Black Writers conference connected Black radical intellectuals from around the world including C.R.L. James, Walter Rodney, and Stokely Carmichael. Aladejebi successfully demonstrates that Canada was at the forefront of an “international nationalism or a vision of Black nationality” that transcended geographic boundaries (121).
Aladejebi situates Black Canadian women within this broader conversation about Black resistance to racial oppression in the Atlantic world. She demonstrates how Black women rejected racist provincial curriculums that adhered to notions of Black subordination, choosing instead to replace them with pedagogies that promoted Afrocentric histories, Black solidarity, and racial pride. Furthermore, Aladejebi focuses on intersectionality and its role in demonstrating how white feminist discourses diverged from the Black feminist experience. Black Canadian women were unable to separate the politics of gender and race, unlike universal women’s movements that privileged white middle class womanhood and ignored the distinct experiences of racialized women. Aladejebi situates Schooling the System within the broader framework of Black internationalism and resistance to white supremacy. Her manuscript becomes a critical method of contesting dominant and mainstream Eurocentric narratives that have obscured Black women’s contributions to radical tradition of Black resistance and ignored Canada’s importance in the transnational study of the African diaspora.