Black history is Canadian history, says Toronto writer Bee Quammie. She makes the case for expanding how we think about Black History Month
For those of us who are passionate about Black history, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. During Black History Month, social and academic calendars are chock full of events, lectures, and shows celebrating the past, present, and future of Black people in our country.
But my thoughts on this annual celebration are complicated.
Growing up in London, Ont., I was generally the only Black student in my class, and one of the few in the entire school. When Black History Month rolled around each February, I’d often be encouraged to complete a “special presentation” for my classmates, but I eventually realized that I was educating my teachers just as much as my fellow students. It didn’t take long for me to see that there were serious deficits in how Black Canadian history was regarded, and I wondered then, as I do now, how we could improve.
Were it not for Carter G. Woodson in the U.S., and the Hon. Jean Augustine here in Canada, this annual celebration of Black culture may never have come to fruition—but after 20-plus years of observance in Canada (the first official Black History Month happened in 1995), I’m calling for an evolution in the way we look at these festivities, and the history of Black people in Canada as a whole.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Black History Month. It’s a time to revel in culture and to learn about our historical heroes (Mary Ann Shadd, the first Black woman to publish a newspaper in North America! Robert Sutherland, Canada’s first Black lawyer! Elijah McCoy, noted railroad machinery inventor!), but it always seems that there’s a mad dash to fit as much enlightenment and entertainment as possible into the shortest month of the year. Once March arrives, Black history gets packed back into a figurative box, not to be dusted off and taken out again until the following February.
What tangible benefit do we get from this? What does it do for Black folks who feel like there’s a time limit on highlighting their history in this country? And what does it do for non-Black folk who consciously or subconsciously feel that they only need to acknowledge Black history in February?
Canada celebrates its 150th birthday this year, but Black people have been documented in this country since the early 1600s, when Mathieu Da Costa assisted Samuel de Champlain as he navigated the land. I learned about Da Costa a few years ago after stumbling upon his story in a Google search, and wondered why his name wasn’t included in the education I received at school. Speaking of school—I learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and America’s history of enslavement, but never learned about Viola Desmond, The Black Mecca of Chatham, or Canada’s own role in the enslavement of people of African descent.
When not done right, Black History Month is complicit in the erasure of the contributions of Black people in this country, and aids in the undeserved sanitization of Canada’s history. By focusing so heavily on the histories of famous Black people outside of Canada, it’s easy to feel like Black people don’t belong, or haven’t made any impact here—which couldn’t be further from the truth.
While Black History Month provides a special salve for Black people across the country, the celebration and inclusion of Black history in our national narrative is crucial to all Canadians. It’s vital to realize that Black history is Canadian history. It helps to tell us the truth about ourselves—and without the truth, we have no foundation for understanding, progression, or living harmoniously.
So, here’s how we can make sure Black History Month, and the teaching of Black Canadian history in general, is done right. Most importantly, let’s prioritize Black voices. People in the Black Canadian community have been doing great work to bring about a more authentic telling of our stories. Artists like Naomi Moyer and Camille Turner have created works that taught me things about Black Canadian history that I never knew. Sites like ByBlacks.com use their social media streams to share daily Black history posts, with the hashtag #BlackHistory365.
But, while these folks and others are doing their individual due diligence to share Black history, there is much more work that needs to be done on a systemic level. For one, school curricula must highlight Black Canadians during Black History Month and teach us the history that has long gone unrecognized. Secondly, our educational systems need to reimagine their historical plans altogether, embedding the stories and diverse experiences of Black Canadians within the tapestry of their lessons year-round. I urge more media outlets to diversify in front of and behind the scenes—since Black Canadians are making history every day, we can and should speak on a range of issues, including but not limited to those that solely affect us as Black people.
And what of Black History Month itself? What are the possibilities of doing something new with the way we celebrate? In a recent appearance on CBC News: The National, I imagined a Black History Month that moved from February to July or August. A bit tongue-in-cheek, a bit serious—but my mission was to get us thinking differently about ways we can make Black History Month in Canada our own.
Black history happens year-round and should be explored as such, so while February (or some other month) can definitely be a celebration of our presence, contributions, and progress, it should not be the only time we speak of them. Listen, learn, and find ways to leverage opportunities to continue the enlightenment, and let’s help Black Canadian history and Black History Month to finally evolve.