Not to be contrary but I have always wondered about the validity of Black History Month and frankly it’s effectiveness. When I first decided to do a major event in the city of Toronto the popular thought was to do it during black history month because that is when most people (black folk included) were seemingly amenable to acknowledging the existence of black people.
Having grown up in the Caribbean the concept of a month (One month) dedicated to black history was foreign and seemingly ineffective to me when I first immigrated to Canada. What did that mean exactly? Did I put my blackness aside for the remainder of the 11 months of the year, or were the innumerable stories and contributions of my ancestors and those who are alive today non-existent or irrelevant for the remaining 337(8) days? I was a little unclear, again coming from a place where my blackness was not a daily thought because it did not define me, I found it slightly challenging to understand why there was 1 month dedicated specifically to black history and the whole city seemed to go into a frenzy to acknowledge the black presence. Eventually It made sense however when I understood that Black History as it were was not part of the universal curriculum of Canadian History. That Black presence and Black History shall we say is omitted from the history books of the nation, not unlike that in the main stream United States, where Black History is relegated to a few well known heroes like Martin Luther King Jnr and Rosa Parks to name a few. I understood finally that given the psychological and emotional damage wielded by the institution of slavery, the negro mind needed something of a jump-start to try to begin to repair the massive damage inflicted. It made sense on some level for Black People to create a series of events and celebrations to highlight, and showcase if you will, their presence in a land that would rather erase them even after 500 years of toil under horrific and brutal conditions.
And what of Canadian History (or rather Canadian Black History), for a long while when I first got here, Canadian Black history seemed to be completely wrapped up in American History. I really was unaware of the African experience in Canada; except interestingly enough, I was familiar with the stories of the Jamaican Maroons who landed in Nova Scotia and of the free black man Mathieu Da Costa also from Nova Scotia (information I learned in my history classes at home in the Caribbean). Eventually my knowledge also grew to include the underground railroad and so for a long time I really believed that good ‘Oh Canada’ was only a land of freedom for slaves running away from the oppression in the US. It’s now been 15 years since I got here and I can honestly say that things have greatly improved in terms of my own personal knowledge and the visibility and clarity in defining the black Canadian experience. More images, stories and names have emerged, including the fact that there is a very strong history of slavery and discrimination in Canada. Stories like those of Marie Josef Angelique (Slave Woman who was tortured and hanged for allegedly burning down half of Montreal) and Viola Desmond ( a black woman who was arrested in Halifax for sitting in the “White’s Only” Section of the Glasgow theatre- she is sometimes referred to as the Canadian Rosa Parks) are finally being told.
I will gladly admit that this increased knowledge is highly due to Black History month in Canada. I can admit that I also have developed a heightened sense of historical awareness during February in large part due to the fact that I have been hired to create Black History Month events for clients in the past. For the increased knowledge on the Canadian Black experience I am very much thankful however my beef with black history month as a concept comes from the flaw of its benefits to those for whom it was created. During this one month we are practically brow beaten into learning about the collective black story in this country and North America –there is a black history event happening seemingly every second in the month of February– we (or our ancestors at least) are lauded, praised, acknowledged and highlighted; we even wish each other Happy Black History month. All very good for the month of February, but then what? My argument stems from my previous lack of understanding of the concept…what does it really do at the end of the day. So yes for one month black youth may finally get a glimpse of their history in their classrooms. They learn that their ancestors did remarkable things within very adverse conditions, that they were beaten enslaved and destroyed psychologically; the effects of which are still very evident in our communities today. However how does the celebration of black history month deal with racial profiling and police brutality against black men, during the other 11 months of the year? How does it deal with the inequality of delivery of social services to predominantly black neighborhoods? How does it deal with the ongoing social ills which plague black communities? These are not questions raised to the corporate sponsors or city officials and politicians who get on the Black History Month band wagon, who make very big noises of solidarity during the month of February and then go silent when approached to make real change during the remaining 337(8) days of the year.
No, the reflections are for those of us in the black community who may also fall into the trap of trying to effect change through an event or a plaque ceremony during the shortest month of the year. Who then disappear, leaving a passionate few to do the real work to try to alleviate the economic and social challenges facing our communities. I argue for a more economic relevance of black history month, one that takes a longer view towards stemming the tide of violence and other social challenges in our community. Where our leaders demand that the corporate sponsors and politicians who wish to show their corporate responsibility on the backs of black folk not only do so by sponsoring Black History Month events but also come on board to make deeper, meaningful change and help build stronger black communities through out the year. An ongoing sponsorship of after school programs would go much further, than just sponsoring a one time event happening in February. Invest funds to build facilities and black cultural spaces in black neighborhoods (without taking away their housing), invest in micro loan and small business programs geared towards blacks, ongoing arts programs in under-served communities, capacity building and economic and legacy investments in black owned enterprises and endeavors etc. etc. the list can go on. It is all well and good to acknowledge our contributions and historical legacy through events in one month of the year, but I argue that investing and helping us build stronger economic and social foundations would go a longer way in really acknowledging the contributions of Blacks to Canadian society, a just reward I would say for the unpaid slave hours that our celebrated ancestors have given to this land. Finally we ought to insist that our stories be written into the annals of Canadian history and taught throughout the year. After-all what use is it to call yourself a multicultural society when you exclude the stories of those who help create the mosaic of that multi-culture.
I am yours as always
A Traveling Black Chick
P.S all that being said the Traveling Black Chicks do intend to take in a few engaging black history month events!..see below for a few of our top picks.