Angry White Person: “Why isn’t there a White History Month???”
Me: “Because that’s ‘history class’.”
If you ask those who believe we live in a post-racial world, things look a little like this:
Racism is over. Everyone’s equal. We know the evils that men do and teach our children not to become them. We’re in a respect-first culture with everybody dedicated to the cause—segregation, ostracisation and blaxploitation are things of the past. Blackface is extinct, Black people can be anything, and we have the same fighting chance that everybody does, so the day for a Black History Month’s long behind us.
Which would be nice if it were the case, but if you’ve chatted with a Black person for five minutes or more, you’ll know that the reality we see paints a very different picture.
The Bother with Black History Month
Now—Black History Month is a tricky subject for a group of people whose histories come from wildly different directions. Black people who’ve been here for centuries, the descendants of slaves both freed and not. Those who made their way here as legal discrimination slowly dissolved in the decades following World War II. As metropolitan Canada became more diverse, our Black identity did, too, and now we find ourselves with a history that’s not so easy to distil down to just one thing.
But despite the fluidity found in Black culture and how much the very idea of Blackness can differ from person to person, there’s a shared narrative that we’re trying to share with everyone else…. if only they’re willing to hear it.
Experiences show us otherwise, though, with teenagers making racist jokes just outside of our nation’s capital and schools trying to replace Black History Month with “Diversity Month” as if all members of the BIPOC community are the same. (BIPOC = Black/Indigenous/People of Colour.)
As a Black person, it can often feel like your history and your very identity is regularly stepped on, and Black History Month is that one month in the year where everyone finally stops to listen, so we need to make the biggest impact we can.
But it’s not that simple.
It’s Black History Month, but WHICH Blacks and Whose HISTORY?
As I said before, with a community made up of over two hundred different ethnic and cultural origins, things aren’t cut and dry. And just as our Blackness shouldn’t be just one thing for those from the outside looking in, it also means we’re not always on the same page within the community, either.
The sentiment of Black History Month is nice, but some feel it can be lacking in execution, with some alternative approaches to our twenty-five-year-old tradition that might make it better.
So—which way do we go? Do we stick with the Black History Month we already know and work to make it better, or do we fight for an approach that could transform it into something else entirely?
That, my friends, is what we’re looking to figure out in Live from the 3.5 #2: Do We Even Need a Black History Month?
The Case for Black History Month—Those Who Don’t KNOW Their History Are Doomed to REPEAT It.
We’re a community of 1.2 million Black Canadians with 1.2 million tales, each one telling a different part of our story. Black History Month gives us a chance to shine a spotlight on some of these stories, showing the world parts of our culture that might never get shared otherwise. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg because it’s about so much more than just our collective histories—it’s about tomorrow’s history that we’re living today, and what we’re doing to make it the history we want it to be.
Let’s dive a little deeper into what makes Black History Month work.
1) It teaches today’s Black children the REAL history of where they come from since they likely won’t learn it from SCHOOL.
While our ancestors fought hard to help build a world where Blacks could pursue whatever opportunities they wanted, what’s marketed to today’s Black youth isn’t quite that.
Their role models are rappers who live well beyond their means, no one in their lives teaching them how to be more responsible with their money. The athletes who put so much work to get into the pros, but rarely have the right people around them to keep them there. So many of our Black youth now think of success in very narrow and specific ways, failing to imagine themselves in roles beyond what society says they can be.
But Black History Month allows our youth to do exactly that—dream bigger than career paths with infinitesimally small chances of success as they see themselves as things traditionally denied to them because others were brave enough to break the mould and challenge what society had to offer them. These days, we can be lawyers. Doctors. Ministers of Parliament and Chief Executive Officers. We speak of sacrifice and ask our youth to do more with what we’ve given them than we could in the past, but we need to remember to use our stories to empower them to do so.
2) Because Black people aren’t Indian people. Or Chinese people. Or whichever group of visible minorities you want to lump us with.
More and more people say that they don’t see colour, but what that can often mean is that they also treat Black people just like they do everyone else, ignoring the culture, experiences and narratives that make us who we are.
Personally, I don’t think we should be okay with that.
In an era where law enforcement openly murders Black people; where we hear that Black lives definitely matter (but perhaps not as much as everyone else’s); and the shock of Blackface growing weaker and weaker no matter how wrong we know it is, the Black Canadian narrative has its own unique issues and struggles that can’t be whisked away because they’re inconvenient.
So what Black History Month does is let us explain why our culture’s so distinct, and the more we do it, the stronger we’ll stand.
3) Because it lets us share the stories that we usually keep to OURSELVES.
Part of the reason why many don’t know what life can be like as a Black Canadian is because we learned to keep things close to the chest, most of our stories staying in the community, for the community.
But our community isn’t the only one around us. As 3.5% of the population, with 97% of us living in the urban parts of Canada, it means we constantly have all sorts of other people around us who we need to interact with on a daily basis. And if we don’t define the rules of engagement and show the other 96.5% of the country the right ways to work with us through our stories and experiences, someone else will do it for us.
And that’s always a dangerous thing.
So as tempting as it might be to keep Black History Month to ourselves, we need to see it as an opportunity. An opportunity to educate everyone else on the Black Canadian Experience and what it really means to be a Black Canadian—not just the version they’ve been fed for all these years.
That said, Black History Month isn’t perfect. Despite the twenty-five Black History Months we’ve had so far, racism still rears its ugly head with regularity. There’s still plenty of hatred and phobia we’ve yet to overcome, and some believe that a few changes to the Black History Month we know today could make for a better one tomorrow.
Let’s take a look at some of what’s up on the other side of the coin.
The Case Against Black History Month—We’ve Made it THIS Far, But We COULD do BETTER.
1) It’s in the shortest—and the COLDEST—month of the year, making it hard to hold events and motivate others.
Okay, so the length of the month isn’t a big deal—what’s a few days, really?—the cold Canada deals with each February is brutal. Even in Toronto, near the southernmost part of the country, it still hits -35°C (-31°F) when the weather’s feeling spiteful enough. And that cold keeps people from travelling around, huddling up for warmth in the comfort of their homes since no number of layers ever seems to make the temperatures worth it.
Bee Quammie asked it best—why don’t we align it with things like Afrofest in July or Caribana in early August where people are more likely to come out and support? We may have introduced Black History Month as a way to get Black history in classroom curriculums, but we have plenty of adults who don’t have a clue about where all this Black culture came from… what’s stopping us from improving things?
There’s nothing stopping us from celebrating our Blackness in June. Or October. Or every day of the year.
We just need to keep pushing until we get there.
2) It faces too much in the wrong direction.
It’s good to examine our history, but some worry that it’s all we think about each February, so focused on the past that we fail to see what’s around us today, much less what could be in the future. We may be a ways from what life as a Black Canadian was like in decades past, but we’d be fools to believe our work is anywhere close to done.
There’s still a lot to do.
On the flipside of Black History Month is Black Futures Month, a month dedicated to the future we dream of having once we overcome all the obstacles.
And we’re slowly getting there. We’re seeing more Blacks represented at every level of society. The racial divides are gradually blurring, with the mixed-race demographic growing by the year. Perhaps, one day, we might not need a Black History Month at all.
But we need direction. We need leaders: our modern Malcolm Xes, Nelson Mandelas and Martin Luther King Jrs. We need to pay more attention to the people who’re passionate about our causes and rally behind them for some much-needed change if we ever expect anything to happen.
Because if we don’t start working on our futures today, what will the future have to say about us?
3) Putting a “Black” before ANYTHING diminishes EVERYTHING.
And finally, there are those who don’t want to be categorised by their Blackness, seeing it more as an aspect of who they are instead of something that defines them.
And it could be for good reason—”Black” is used too often to label things expected primarily for Black consumption, and there’s the worry that Black History Month might become just another one of these.
But just as Canadian history is something for all Canadians to learn and Indigenous history is one we need to appreciate, Black history isn’t something we can keep to ourselves. While it’s a different history from the one we so often hear, it is no lesser or no more exclusive than what’s in our history textbooks. The stories might be about 3.5% of the nation, but 100% needs to stop and take notice. We’re not about to go away, so it’s about time everyone learns to live with us.
Seemingly Simple Questions Often Have COMPLICATED Answers.
So do we need a Black History Month?
It’s hard to say.
While it’s great to have all eyes on us and the freedom to share as many—or as few—of our stories as we choose, just because we’ve done something one way for a while doesn’t mean we need to do so forever.
In 2020, Black Canadians trace their lineage all over the world, and our rich histories weave through communities all over the map. There are enough of us to share a million stories any month of the year—we need to get up, get out and tell them.
But agree with Black History Month or not, we’re in it right now, and we’d be foolish to not seize the opportunity when it’s right before us.
That’s enough looking back, though—let’s catch up to the present. There’s plenty to figure out when it comes to our Blackness in 2020, but maybe we should start with what that Blackness is.
So stay tuned for the next entry in this year’s Live from the 3.5—there’s a lot more we’ve yet to unpack!
Thanks for reading, and until the next, I remain,
Want more from Live from the 3.5? Check out the other posts here!