Why Celebrate Black History Month?
I have a hope that one day we will not have to celebrate Black History Month, that our society, discourse and school curricula will be redolent with the contributions and experiences of Black Canadians, that Black students in our schools will be proud of who they are, that they will see their history and culture in the ecology of their school experiences, and that they will not suffer the legacy of prejudice and racism as their previous generation had. This is certainly not the case right now, but we must remain ever optimistic that this will be evident in the not-too-distant future.
Until then, we celebrate Black History Month with good reason.
Canadian History: Black History Month is about honouring the enormous and oft-forgotten contributions that Black people have made, and continue to make, in all sectors of society. While it is true that Black History Month was first celebrated in the United States, it also has its own historical trajectory in Canada. The month-long observance has been celebrated in Ontario and Nova Scotia since the late 1970’s and was formally recognized in our House of Commons in 1995. It was a long overdue and welcomed recognition that people of African ancestry played a key role in the formation of Canada.
One of my favourite Martin Luther King quotes is, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Some of us are aware of the rest of this quote: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” The point here is that we all share a common humanity and are intricately connected in this network of mutuality. Put another way, our histories are intertwined. Black history IS Canadian history. So, while we may aspire to have little Black students see their heritage as a valued part of the body politic, we also want ALL children to see this as being valuable. This is how we help to create a stronger and more knowledgeable and inclusive society.
Remembrance: As political activist Marcus Garvey once said, “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” I would expand his sentiment by saying that the most important thing that we can do to honour our histories is to remember the contributions and sacrifices of those who came before us. Remembrance brings their legacy to life and validates their struggles. Black history in Canada has not always been celebrated as part of the Canadian experience. For example, there is little mention in historical texts that some of the Loyalists who came here after the American Revolution and settled in the Atlantic Provinces were people of African descent. Little is known about the many sacrifices made in wartime by Black soldiers in the World Wars or as far back as the War of 1812. Many Canadians are not aware of the fact that Black people were once enslaved in the territory that is now Canada or how those who fought enslavement ultimately helped to pave the way for the diverse society we now share. Only recently have we come to understand the significance of the early Black Settlements in Canada such as Amber Valley in Alberta. These are important parts of the Canadian story that deserve remembrance.
Beyond Dr. J & Dr. Dre: The month-long spotlight during February every year is also an opportunity for us to go beyond discussions of oppression, racism, and slavery, and to deeply engage with the many contributions of Black leaders from a variety of spheres. This recognition should go beyond the traditional and more prominent accomplishments of Black athletes and musicians. The NFL and NBA are rife with athletes who have accomplished tremendous things, as is the music field, be it in jazz, rap, or pop music. These are admittedly wonderful accomplishments, but it should not stop at Dr. J and Dr. Dre. If part of the reason we celebrate Black History Month is to recognize the varied contributions of Black people to making Canada the diverse and prosperous country it is today then we ought look beyond sports and music and also celebrate Black contributions in politics, medicine, business, science, education and so on. You might be surprised.
Identity and Belonging: Many Black Canadians from my generation will tell you that going to school and growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s was markedly different than it is now. Few of the books we read had Black people in them, and even fewer portrayed Black people in positive ways. The very limited curricular content did not capture the imagination of children to emulate Black scientists, doctors, and lawyers. Rather, when it was covered it framed Blackness primarily in the context of slavery, poverty, oppression, and the civil rights movement.
While the fight for equity and justice are important parts of this history, it was incomplete, and consequently limited the ability of many Black students to “see it so they could be it.” What is worse, this skewed perspective also fed the stereotypes of non-Black students about what it meant to be Black. As parents, my wife and I worked hard to counteract this narrative with our kids by purposefully creating experiences for them to build their positive cultural identity. We sought out books where the main characters were of African ancestry and encouraged them to educate their friends about what they were learning to help de-stigmatize their existence. Kids need to know that they belong, and their classroom experiences play a critical role in that regard. Black History Month is an opportunity to punctuate positive personal and cultural identity for Black children (and their peers) across the country.
A Way Forward: Since the declaration in the House in 1995, we have come a long way. And there is much more to be done. I am encouraged to see the rich and varied collections in our libraries and classrooms and delighted to see textbooks that depict Black history and experience in interesting ways. It is wonderful that so many teachers now leverage the cultural backgrounds of their students to deepen learning and unite their school communities. As poet Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." As we learn more in our school system about the power of culturally sustaining practices, I hope that Black history will be more embedded throughout the curricula and will be evident in school experiences of all students beyond February each year. This is ultimately how we will sow the seeds of inclusion, justice, and friendship to help us all realize the possibilities of a better Canada.