Why we need to rethink Black History Month

| February 21, 2014
Photo: wikimedia commons

I am frustrated with Black History Month (Mois de l'histoire des Noirs) this year. I feel overwhelmed by the newspaper features, TV specials, artworks and concerts in "celebration" of black history. And, as a black woman of Jamaican parentage, and a scholar of Canadian history, I find myself questioning the direction Black History Month is going. Even though it is recognized on a national level, it has remained a series of local events and remembrances, and I'm wondering, how did we get here and is it time to rethink Black History Month?

Black History Month as we know it today first began as Negro History Week in 1926 when Carter G. Woodson initiated the week-long celebration to commemorate the lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (both of whom were born in February), who were instrumental in the approval of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery in 1865. In 1976, in conjunction with America's bicentennial, Black History Month was expanded into a national celebration.

In Canada, Black History celebrations first began in 1950 when the Canadian Negro Women's Association organized events but it was not until 1978 when, in large part due to the efforts of the Ontario Black History Society led by Rosemary Sadler and others, that Toronto first recognized February as Black History Month. In 1995 Black History Month became a national celebration when the Honourable Jean Augustine brought the motion before Parliament. The aim of Black History Month at the time was to raise awareness of black history in Canada, which had been virtually ignored in school curriculum and in the media up until then.

So, why is Black History Month still largely community-based? Do we still need a national Black History Month?

There are those who argue that we need the month so that people of African descent feel affirmed and are aware of their contributions to Canada. There are also those who feel that because Canada continues to ignore its slave-owning past, preferring instead to celebrate the myth of Canada as the "Promised Land," Black History Month ensures that slavery is not romanticized or ignored. There is also the argument that if black students and history were affirmed and made an integral part of the curriculum, books and media culture in Canada we wouldn't need a Black History Month in the first place.

The critics of Black History Month argue that given the various multiracial and multiethnic communities in Canada, does it still make sense to single out one racialized group? Further, if we continue to limit black history to one month, are we further marginalizing its importance?

While these points of view are valid, the real question is not about the need for Black History Month, it's about how we commemorate Black History Month and its exclusions.

The national media has scarcely even noticed that it's Black History Month. Outside of the CBC Newsworld program "Being Black in Canada" produced and hosted by Asha Tomlinson, and a few articles here and there in nationally circulated newspapers, if you don't live in central Canada, it could be very easy to forget that it's Black History Month. And when we are presented with black history it's as though all of a sudden there's an acute focus on not forgetting Canada's slave-owning past, the Underground Railroad, and occasionally you'll hear about Africville, the black community in Halifax that was demolished and its black residents ordered to be relocated. My intention is not to trivialize these histories, because they are important, but it seems to me that Black History Month has become emblematic of the problem of localizing blackness.

If we are to rethink Black History Month it does not mean discontinuing it. But it might involve changing its name.

Renaming has been a part of the black experience since the first slave ships landed on the shores of what is now North America in the seventeenth century. Slaves were forced to adopt the names of their slave owners in an attempt to remove them from their African lineages. Thus, the ability to adapt to new names, transforming into a bricolage that retains a past while embracing an unknown is part of the black narrative.

A Black Literacy Month would shift the focus from racism and struggle to a depth of understanding about the black experience, our socioeconomic contributions, and the similarities between blacks and other racialized communities. It would ask us to consider the varied experiences of African, Hispanic and multi-generation African Canadians. It would challenge us to contemplate what it means to be multi-generational black Canadian living in Western Canada. It would require us to have a real discussion about what it means to be Francophone and black in Canada, not just in Quebec but in other provinces, too. As it stands now, these kinds of questions consistently fail to enter the national Black History Month discourse, and when it does, it comes on fast and furious then fades just as quickly.

National black literacy projects hold the potential to shift the rigid binary between oppression and struggle on the one hand, and celebrating the exemplar on the other. It would encourage Canadians to question what they know about the black narrative, while acquiring the pedagogical tools to engage with difference. Because literacy is about knowledge and retention, this shift would, in my opinion, make a stronger case for why Black History Month is a time for all Canadians not just those of African descent.

A focus on literacy would transform the remembering black oppression/celebrate black achievement dichotomy to a year-round project that culminates in February but does not start and end there.

As the old adage goes, when you buy a person a fish they eat for a day (in this case 28 days) when you teach that person to fish, they eat for a lifetime. Before an entire generation of Canadians grow tired or apathetic towards a month that so many people fought for, it's time to rethink Black History Month.

 

Cheryl Thompson is a PhD Candidate and Course Lecturer in the Department of Art History & Communication Studies, McGill University. Her dissertation, a historical examination of Canada's beauty culture industry, race, and the transnational flow of products and images, will be defended at McGill University in 2014. Born and raised in Toronto, she currently resides in Montreal.

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