Why I am Skipping Black History Month: Womanist Musings

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Maysie Maysie's picture
Why I am Skipping Black History Month: Womanist Musings


Today is the first day of Black history month.  Schools throughout North America are going to spend the next month educating students on the history of the people of the African Diaspora.  Teachers will pat themselves on the back for having inclusive pedagogy and many students of colour will only feel further 'othered'.  White supremacts will spend the month whining about the fact that a Black history month exists, and will therefore call it racist and exclusionary.


Not only do many falsely believe that slavery did not happen in Canada, far too many are unaware that Jim Crow laws existed here as well.  In 1946, Viola Desmond was arrested for daring to sit in the White section of a movie house.  She was dragged out of the theater by two men, injuring her knee in the process.  To further shame Desmond, after her arrest, she was held in a male cell block.  Eventually, she was charged with tax evasion because of the difference in price between White seats and Blacks seats.  It was a difference of one cent.


Growing up and attending Canadian schools, I never learned a single word about Desmond and I believe that this was to continue the indoctrination that Canada is a tolerant, racially just society.  I did not learn about the porters strike.  I most certainly did not learn about the destruction of Africville.  As a child, it forced me to look southward to find examples of people of the African diaspora to function as role models, rather than in my own country.  I would continue to live in ignorance, had I not made a great effort to look beyond the lack of education I had been given in schools.   

Black history month was intended to be inclusive, and teach about the sacrifices of people of the African Diaspora and instead, in my education, it served to further White supremacy -- because specific events were chosen to frame Canada as a nation of tolerance. If we factor in that Black history month creates Black history as an additive, because it is not deemed important enough to focus on throughout the year, with the fact that it is often structured in such a manner that places importance on reducing the effect of White supremacy, the very existence of the month is problematic.  

 At the end of 28 days, Whiteness walks away from this with a false confidence that comes from believing that one has confronted all racial privileges and that the world really is equal.   Black history month soothes the senses, because it is easy and over quickly, thus allowing Whiteness to continue to fixate on the project of colonizing people of colour.  Instead of settling for this false mission, I suggest that it is time that we demand that Black history become something that is part of the daily agenda.  There is no reason to believe that we deserve any less, and I absolutely refuse to settle for being part of a side show.  

Full blog here.

Issues Pages: 
Le T Le T's picture

Really great writing on the racism of Multiculturalist curriculum/pedagogy. Thanks for posting, Maysie.

I am always inspired to confront the many ways that "Canada" uses the better-than-the-USA narrative to obscure systemic, colonial racism. It's similar to the way that history is often used to do the same, i.e. "back in the Middle-Ages..." or "before the abolishment of slavery...", etc.



An interesting topic.  I work in a highly diverse setting, and we celebrate Black history month. A couple of days ago I attended the kickoff, which featured a showing of the NFB film Speakers For the Dead.    

This is a film about a town NW of Toronto initially settled by black settlers from the US, and taken by whites who have pretty much eradicated the memory of the initial settlers.  Now growing up not too far from this town as a white kid I didn't know anything about the issue 'til the early 90s.  I knew a bit about Africville, but had never heard about Viola Desmond.  Certainly growing up I didn't know there had been slavery in Canada.

Ok, so now I guess thanks to Black History Month, I know a bit more.  The real issue is of course, why the hell wasn't this part of my education as a kid growing up?  Well, I guess we all know the answer to that. 

So it was left to the Black History Month Committee here at my work to educate me, and I want to thank them taking on the extra work.  BTW, the kickoff to which I refer took the form of a lunch-and-learn.  We had Chinese food.  The Black History Month Committee isn't even all black.  I actually see this as a good thing.

After, I was sitting back in my office which I share with a Somali woman, and we were talking about it, later joined by the event organizer who's from Ghana.  I asked them what Black History Month meant for someone not born in North America, and the conversation got fairly wide ranging.  Means different things for different people, and not much personally for the woman from Somalia on any kind of a personal level, but she found it interesting.  Like me, she feels the more she knows about other people's experiences the better a worker she'll be.

FWIW my Afghan colleage says she's come to dislike our cultural lunch-and-learns which she finds othering.  Other colleagues from other places get a kick out of them.


The person who does this diversity training and outreach once approached me to do an "ethnic" lunch-and-learn about being a quintessential middle class white kid growing up in the Lawrence Park area of Toronto.  We seriously kicked the idea around, but decided it might be more fun as part of our racism and anti-oppression training than a lunch-and-learn.



George Victor

she finds "othering"

Trying to get a firm handle on that one, OG. Help please. 

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

It's kind of a complex term, George, but I'm glad you asked. At its most general, it means the act of exclusion--emphasizing how certain folk "don't fit in" with society. In our western liberal democracy, for example, the news is full of tidbits which "other" anyone not white and middle-class. In the context oldgoat mentioned, I assume his Afghan colleague finds the lunches highlight the ways she does not fit in with mainstream Canadian culture, instead of working to overcome them.

As white dudes, we like the status quo just fine because we (and our ancestors) have constructed society to reflect our desires. We see this society as "natural" and familiar, but those for whom this society was not constructed, see its fabrication in a way we do not. Does a fish know it swims in salt water?


Here's more than you probably want to know George. 


Actually, I guess "othering'  "being othered"  "the other" could almost be seen as coming under the heading of technical jargon, and those of us who use the word should bear that in mind.  If you are taking sociology for instance, the word will just be such common currency that it's easy to forget that the technical usage is not so much a part of the global vocabulary.  Likewise if you have any involvement with anti-racism and oppression work.  These are areas which have certain concepts which have evolved and become accepted as foundational, and a particular working language has evolved along with this.  Regrettably, this can be excluding for general audiences.


The term "othering" and "the other" however is just so useful in capturing the attendant concept that it's difficult not to use.  I will see it as a sign of progress when it comes into more general usage.  Like Toronto Sun headlines f'rinstance.  example:  FORD CRASHES MENSA GATHERING: FEELS 'OTHERED'



make one feel like 'the other'.

By now Viola Desmond's story is pretty well known in Nova Scotia. It comes up every year. For schoolkids, you have to be one of the kids who takes nothing in to not know her story. And come to think of it, kids I know that are generally like that, do tend to know Viola Desmond's strory.

This year there has been a lot of emphasis on publishing pioneer Carrie Best.

I understand what womanist is saying, but as thin gruel as Black Heritage Month is, it has eductated a lot of people. And without it, a lot of black kids [many of whom are now adults of course] would feel less connected and not as validated.


Wow, three answers.  Helpful bunch aren't we.


I never thought of this before, and this is tentative... but Black History Month, and raised awareness of African-Canadian history in general, may have a little more purchase in a place like Nova Scotia where there are usually at least some black public figures to make it tangible.

George Victor

Thanks for the input, folks.  That was one very interesting linkage, OG, and not really " more technical" than I wanted, thanks to anthropology and a bit of social psych.



Maysie Maysie's picture

Can the subaltern speak?

Essay by Guyatri Chakravorty Spivak (1988)

Spivak talks about the Subject and the Other. The first link might be wonky, or it might open into a pdf. Worth a read, but very heavy on the po-mo lingo.

Spivak's piece addresses both George's question and the issue that Womanist Musings makes in her blog in the OP. That is, when the Other is spoken for and by the Subject. Spivak also refers to the marginalized other as "the silent, silenced center".

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Geez, we almost had him Maysie, and then you have to go and whip out the Spivak. "How to send a century of undergraduates running in the opposite direction," by Maysie

(The answer, in case anyone is wondering, before or after having read the article, is "no.")


George Victor

Who is "him", Catch? And how was he almost "had?"

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Just a light-hearted comment, George. The essay Maysie links to is a brilliant, wonderful and seminal five pages written by Indian postcolonial literary critic Gayatri Spivak, who also translated Derrida's Of Grammatology for English-speaking audiences. As can be expected from such a pedigree, her work is also famously difficult to penetrate--but this has not stopped it from being assigned to undergraduate classes everywhere (who, even after "reading" the five pages of the essay, still need to be told if the subaltern can speak or not!)

So was just making a wise-crack that "we" had almost snagged "you" for the Church of Latter-Day Postmoderns (a possibility, you will agree, to be comically unlikely).

Maysie Maysie's picture

Sorry. Spivak was hot when I was in grad school 15 years ago, Catchfire. That was one of the few pieces by her I understood. lolz.

Tongue out

George Victor

Well, I was beginning to feel like an old carnivore at a vegetarian convention...."othered" if you will.

But I said to myself...naw, they must internalize something of what they offer up for intellectual inspection. They must just be having "fun"...as understood by an ahistorical, relativistic, group of postmoderns who find an old believer in the bearpit.

I worked very hard at Spivak, Maysie, and for a while began to feel as  I did when entering into graduate studies at the U. of T. in the autumn of '74.  Completely intimidated.  And then, as people around me opened their mouths, people from Australia and Europe and the Orient (how's that for an oldtimer), I began to understand that we all came from places of ignorance, our professors had not prepared us for the intellectual leap - largely because they were not able to.  And I thought back to their desperate demonstrations of bullshit from the pulpit...their plagiarism. I am also reading a lot of Saul Bellow, lately, his letters and his take on the intellectual movement that drove his friend to write The Closing of the American Mind, and I was reassured.

And  I was also reminded in my undergraduate studies that mystification would be employed.  My wife, a feminist to the core and an activist who made her political mark, would not have understood, and neither will the concepts put forward by this subaltern be understood or employed in any meaningful fashion.Take it from this old, white male, who's been 'round the horn.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

I'm sorry you had that reaction, George. In fact, Gayatri Spivak (first female University Professor at Columbia University) has inspired countless people worldwide and helped them understand the deep, contradictory power dynamics at play in oppression politics. There's no need to be intimidated, of course--Spivak is simply arguing that it is very difficult for the most oppressed among us to speak because the mode of communication we use is controlled by those with power--so as soon as anyone marginalized gains the currency to be able to participate in that arena, they are no longer really in the arena of the marginalized. They remain, as it were, perpetually othered. Spivak spends and has spent her career working at ways to beat that intractable conundrum And Maysie, she never goes out of style. <3

She's also not strictly a postmodernist--she's Marxist, feminist, and Indian. And, incidentally, neither am I. You shouldn't be so scared of the word, George. Like a household infected with bedbugs, fear of late 20th-century critical theory encourages you to see its trace in everything.

George Victor

That is just the brand of non-threatening Marxist thought that Columbia could embrace.  My major influence in sociology in undergraduate years was Pradeep Bandayopadhyay (you can google him or go to Facebook) was yet another Marxist out of India, who, in the early 70s, was completely caught up in the mathematical interpretation of Marxist economic thought.   You will see that today he has gone over to the sociology of religion. Just as the radical who led the sit-in at the U of T president's offices went from radical Marxism to somewhere on the right wing of the New Democratic Party by the ime  he finished teaching at Trent (Pradeep's hangout still, I believe...at lest it was one year ago when I contacted him regarding the "insurgencies" among India's aboriginal population and the Catholic connection).

What I "fear" is that institutions of higher learning are just training grounds for irrelevancy.  These are all very, very intelligent people who seem capable of taking abstraction to any level.

But in their old age, they are also very obviously not challenging the power structures that are going to bury our grandkids in the pathology of consumerism. They are house Marxists in an increasingly relativistic universe of  not strictly anything that one can put one's finger on.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

It's a shame, George, that you won't give one of the most esteemed, distinguished and brilliant thinkers of the late twentieth century the time of day because of what you suspect her predjudices are. And I thought you were a reader! Well, Spivak is one of the best you'll ever see.

At any rate, let's get back to the thread topic. No more white guys taking up space with our preening and self-pleasuring. This thread is about Black History month.

George Victor

I gave Spivak a fair reading, but I could not find it in any way seriously challenged the power structure of her native India or of Columbia's place in the American melting pot.

As to this thread, it came to be  all about othering.  Thanks for the vivid demonstration of the concept's application in yet another context, that of late 20th century elitist academic discourse. 

And I've found I've Got a Home in Glory Land to be a corrective to many pre-conceived notions about the place of slavery in Canada and the state of CAnadian law at the time of the Underground Railroad.

Maysie Maysie's picture

Malcolm X and Anarchism: For Black History Month


One weekend in the 70s, during a demonstration in New York’s Central Park, I sat at a literature table for my radical group (then the Revolutionary Socialist League). A fellow with a picture of Mao pinned to his cap came to the table and glanced at a pamphlet we were selling (written by me, actually), titled, “Malcolm X: Revolution Knows No Compromise.” He sneered, “That’s anarchist!” and stalked off.

Malcolm X was not an anarchist. He wanted a revolution to break up the U.S. government in order to create an independent Black nation, but he was not anti-statist. In a general sense, he became anti-capitalist and pro-socialist, but was not for libertarian socialism. Yet that Maoist had a point! Like revolutionary anarchists, Malcolm X advocated Black Liberation-from-below. He did not advocate that African-Americans become part of the establishment and the power elite. He advocated armed-self-defense rather than love of those who assaulted or killed African-Americans. He called for self-organization and self-reliance for African-Americans, rather than reliance on White people or on the U.S. state. 


Malcolm X made a class distinction in the African-American community. He distinguished between the “house Negro” who, in the time of slavery, identified with the White master, living in the master’s mansion, eating scraps from the master’s table, and the “field Negro,” who was forced to work in the fields, was beaten by the overseers, and had little love for the masters. Today, this meant a split between the middle class “black bourgeoisie,” with its integrationist goals and nonviolent methods, and the militant, alienated, poorer, working class Blacks. Malcolm X claimed to be one with the “field Negroes” of his day.


Malcolm X came to reject his opinion of European-Americans as a solid racist bloc which could not be split apart. This change is often ascribed to Malcolm X’s visit to Mecca and his learning orthodox (Sunni) Islam. This view is presented in The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), edited by the moderate Alex Haley. No doubt there is truth in this view. But Malcolm also ascribed his abandonment of racial thinking to his international contacts with revolutionaries (not Muslim theologicans). These influenced him to abandon Black Nationalism altogether as a political philosophy.


He could see that revolutionaries everywhere identified with socialism. He also could see how difficult it was to label oneself a socialist in the U.S.A. Plus he was aware of how little he knew yet about socialist ideas. For such reasons he did not make a point about calling himself a “socialist.” Anarchists can see that those who influenced him in a socialist direction were all state socialists (advocates of developing a new society through the use of the state). This is a program which can only lead, in practice, to state capitalism, with the state as the new national capitalist exploiter.

Maysie Maysie's picture


The Ryerson Students' Union and Tri-Mentoring Presents:

Queering Black History Month!

Please join the Ryerson Community as we celebrate Queer and Trans African, Black, and Caribbean People in Canada. On Monday February 28th, 2011 we will re-insert the lives, experiences and amazing achievements of Queer and Trans people into the discussions of black history month.

Get ready for an incredibly engaging panel discussion, a beautiful Art reception by talented community artists and enjoy delicious hors d'oeuvres at the inaugural QUEERING BLACK HISTORY MONTH at Ryerson University.

What: Panel Discussion and Celebratory Art Reception
Why: Queer and Trans bodies have always been involved in creating history. Let's Celebrate it and Queer up Black History Month
When: Monday February 28th, 2011
Where: Atrium - 3rd floor of Engineering Building. 245 Church Street.

The space is wheelchair accessible. If you require ASL interpretation, please contact Rodney Diverlus, the RSU's Vice-President Equity at vp.equity@rsuonline.ca

Our incredible panelists are:

- Syrus Ware; Program Coordinator, Art Gallery of Ontario

- Courtnay McFarlane; Manager, Youth Services Davenport-Perth Community Health Centre

- Notisha Massaquoi; Executive Director, Women's Health in Women's Hands Community Health Centre

- Rinaldo Walcott; Associate Professor & Chair, Department of Sociology and Equity Studies


Angela Robertson; Director of Equity and Community Engagement, Women's College Hospital

For more information, contact organizers Rodney Diverlus, the RSU's Vice-President Equity at vp.equity@rsuonline.ca or Lali Mohamed, TMP's FG Engagement Ambassador at lali.moham@gmail.com

This event is supported by Deviant Productions, the United Black Students at Ryerson, Black History Awareness Committee, Positive Space Ryerson, and Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Services.

Many thanks to XTRA! for their generous media sponsorship and Christopher Cushman for the graphics.


Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Fascinating link about Malcolm X, Maysie. Thanks!

Here's what Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and Flight to Canada (1976) novelist Ishmael Reed says about Black History Month:

There would be no American history without blacks in it, so Black History Month should be all year 'round. I can't think of an American history without African Americans. I think it's token, sort of like a way of avoiding treating African-American culture as the mainstream culture that it is.

Maysie Maysie's picture

Combahee River Collective

The Combahee River Collective was a Black feminist Lesbian organization active in Boston from 1974 to 1980. They are perhaps best known for developing the Combahee River Collective Statement, a key document in the history of contemporary Black feminism and the development of the concepts of identity as used among political organizers and social theorists.


Combahee River Collective Statement

Interlocking oppressions
The statement describes "the most general statement of our politics at the present time" as "we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual and class oppression" and describe their particular task as the "development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking." They then conclude that "the synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives."

Importance of Black women's liberation
The CRC also emphasised that they held the fundamental and shared belief that "black women are inherently valuable, that...(their) liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else's but because of (their own) need as human persons for autonomy...." and expressed a particularly commitment to "working on those struggles in which race, sex, and class are simultaneous factors in oppression....


Maysie Maysie's picture

Slumberjack, racist bullshit doesn't belong in this thread, this forum or, arguably, babble. If you understand what being an ally is, then you will delete it from this thread.


Story and link removed upon request.


I don't understand your position, but I'll remove it at your request without further argument.  I respect Linn Washingtion Jr's take on Black History Month all the same.


Due to some subsequent PM's, my time here has become untenable, and so I have decided to join the 'anti-semite' Cueball somewhere out there in trouble making land.


Pardon my intrusion, but what the hell is going on here? What was "racist bullshit" about the story that SJ linked to? And why are we trying to piss each other off?

I think I'll just restore SJ's link so people can judge for themselves. If a moderator wants it gone (for reasons I can't begin to fathom), I will of course remove it:

[url=http://www.thiscantbehappening.net/node/477]Surprisingly, Some Bigots Back (Sort of) Black History Month Observance[/url]


Maysie Maysie's picture

I apologize to Slumberjack and will be taking a break from babble myself.


I had a hunch you would do that Maysie.

I'm sure a break is a good idea, for yourself. But dont take the mistake to heart.


This doesn't look good at all...What the hell's going on?


Maysie wants a break. I'll make an educated guess, and she can correct it if she wants. But I think people should respect that she wants a break, and not talk about her. Just like you dont diss people who are suspended.

I suspect she jumped to conclusions about the content of the site. If so, thats not good. But its still just a mistake.

And the climate here makes it all too easy to be inclined to jump quick. Good time for a break.

There is always the topic itself.