Big Dreamers is a two volume collection of images and stories from Canada’s black history compiled into artistic and powerful children’s activity books.
We spoke with the author and creator Akilah Newton.
Let’s talk about Big Dreamers. Tell me about the project.
The project started in October 2018 and that’s when the first book was officially released. The reason why the book was written is because for my day job I run a non-profit organization called Overture with the Arts, and we make the arts accessible for youth in the area. And a lot of what we do as well is arts for social change. So during Black History Month, we tour elementary, high school and universities and promote Canadian black history. Through this tour, I noticed that there was a lack of resources or educational resources specific to Canadian black history. And there were a lot of books that were about the regular civil rights movement in the states or Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, but very little about Viola Desmond or Stanley Grizzle. So I really want to create a resource that would educate kids, and I guess parents as well, and educators about Canadian black history.
I’m a big fan of anything that strives to empower kids to create a positive change. With all the anxiety and current affairs throughout North America, this seems to have come at a great time.
Yes, black history has always been such a big part of my life. Since I was a little kid in the eighties, my parents always had books about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad around. So, I mean, for me, it was always a part of my life. So yes, it is necessary now. But when I came out with the book in 2018, it’s just because there weren’t any resources out there. So I guess now more than ever, because of the global uprising that we’re seeing supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, people are really hungry for change and they want to learn about the different communities that make up Canada and the states as well, but specifically to Canada. We have people that are now more open to learn about these inspirational black Canadians that helped shape the country.
You must have lot of passion for Canada’s black history.
I do, absolutely. It’s just something that I wasn’t taught in school. Although I did get an education at home, when I was a high school student in the nineties when Black History Month was first recognized and acknowledged in Canada, my teachers did very little. I mean, we read To Kill a Mockingbird and again, that’s about the states and they focused on the civil rights movement, but there was nothing done about Canada. We didn’t learn about any local heroes and that really frustrated me. So now that I’m an aunt, I have a niece and nephew, I want my niece and nephew to be able to learn about these incredible black Canadians.
I grew up in Saskatchewan and going through the book, which I love you do it by province, and it’s like, wow, I didn’t know anything about this in Saskatchewan. I wish I learned this in school.
Yes and because I’m from Montreal, obviously, I could do a lot of research about all of the additional provinces, but yeah, it’s crazy. Nothing is taught in school. And even today in 2020, it’s not mandatory to have black history as part of the curriculum. There are some Ethics teachers that are teaching black history, but for the history curriculum, it’s not mandatory.
Two years ago I was blessed to be able to attend a concert for Freedom Singer and there was so much emotion, tears and hope in the air. It must be difficult at times to work through some of these stories.
It definitely isn’t easy at times. It does get very exhausting. But unless we share these stories and talk about the sacrifices that these people made, then we’re never going to be able to move forward and ensure that this doesn’t happen again, because history is cyclical. We don’t want anything like this to happen again and we could see that in 2020. Unfortunately, although there have been changes, a lot actually hasn’t changed.
What are some of the ways the activity books encourage change in children?
We’re providing a different narrative because in Quebec specifically, what we learned in history classes is about Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain. We’re not learning about any of the 76 people in my two books. So I guess it’s just teaching kids that whatever cultural background you come from, you could achieve greatness and it’s just sharing stories that are often left untold.
On the other side, although there is lots of encouragement and incredible examples, there’s also a darker side. It’s essential to pass along the negatives, but with children that can be a bit harder. What are some of the hurdles and precautions of telling those stories to children?
Well, slavery is a big part of black history and we did want to touch upon it, but we didn’t want to tackle that subject because it is a really heavy subject and slavery wasn’t a choice. People were enslaved and we also don’t want to give kids nightmares. So what we do is we talk about how although there was slavery, there was also a wonderful network of people that created the Underground Railroad and we just try and highlight the positives. So it’s like, although there was this really dark period in time, there were incredible people that really helped change these systems that were in place.
When I opened the book and I was like, “Oh, there’s stickers. Who doesn’t like stickers?” That’s actually just part of this. It’s a well thought out full creative activity book. Was it important that this is more than just your basic coloring book?
I really wanted kids to stay engaged while they were learning because through the coloring elements within the book, while the kids are coloring the pages, oftentimes they’re speaking to their friends or classmates or parents about the person that they’re coloring in and then they’re sharing that story. So we really wanted it to be fun, so kids want to actually pick up the book and learn about black history.
Canada’s black history is filled with so many incredible people and you’ve only touched the tip with the 2 volumes of activity books. Are you planning more?
It’s so funny because volume two just came out on November 14th and obviously quite a few people have asked me that question and yes, absolutely. I’m already thinking about what volume three will look like and who knows? This is the type of series that could probably go up to volume 10.
I can’t guarantee that that’s going to happen, but I know that we’ll definitely have a volume three.
What is your personal favorite Canadian black history moment?
So for me, I love the story of Rufus Rockhead. So as a Montrealer, I just have so much pride sharing the story. So Rufus Rockhead immigrated from Jamaica to Canada when he was in his early twenties and always dreamed of owning a nightclub and he was able to actually achieve that dream when he was 30 years old. And he opened a nightclub in Little Burgundy, which is a predominantly black area in Montreal, and it was one of the most popular clubs in Montreal. It was called Rockhead Paradise. And he brought in so many legendary artists from the states including Sammy Davis, Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and then he also gave platforms local heroes like Oscar Peterson and Dr. Oliver Jones.
So I just love the fact that as a black man in the 1930s when his club was open, he was able to do that because that in itself is a huge accomplishment. And the fact that it was such a successful business venture for many decades, it brings a sense of pride to me. I just don’t understand why his story is not shared more because his club was so popular that Montreal was actually called the Harlem of the North. So many people don’t know about stories like this and there are just so many more incredible stories about other Canadians that I just love sharing.
Last question, there is still a lot that needs to be changed. What are some of the things that you’d like to see happen in the near future?
Well first and foremost, I would like to see it be mandatory that black history is taught in school. I’m just sick of the fact that it’s always left out because black history is Canadian history, end of discussion. Therefore, it should be included in the curriculum and kids should be learning about it.