It’s that time of the year again, when teachers pull out their favourite Martin Luther King quote and Black history references populate your timeline.
This February’s Black History Month once again encourages the nation to cherish black bodies by recognizing their ancestry and celebrating their strength. Over the past few years, however; Black History Month has been viewed with twice as much negativity, or apathy, as positivity. There still remain countless stories of schools refusing to fund Black History Month activities.
People are questioning why we still have Black History Month in 2020 because, in their simplistic views, racism is over. Black people are expected to be grateful because, well, we aren’t slaves anymore. And yet people fail to recognize that we have Black History Month because people still hold the aforementioned ideologies.
Some blame the American people who elected Trump for the acceptance of racial vilification in America. Donald Trump is known for being openly vocal of his many discriminatory and racist beliefs.
When NFL player Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during the national anthem in protest of police brutality against blacks in America in 2017 Trump commented, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when someone disrespects our flag to say, ‘get that son of a bitch off the field right now’.”
Or when, back in the 1980s, in the case of the Central Park Five, there was strong evidence to suggest that five Black and Latino teenagers were coerced into admitting to rape. Yet Trump made a point to buy out a page in the New York Daily News to demand the death penalty of these 14 to 16-year-olds. After years in jail, these boys were later found innocent.
If Trump represents the people, then Americans are to be held responsible for the apathy towards valuing Black stories, and Canada is so closely linked to the States that it is important to recognize how we, too, are affected by the views of the American population.
However, contrary to popular belief, Trump was not elected into presidency by the majority vote of the people. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton held 48.2 per cent of the popular vote compared to Donald Trump’s 46.1 per cent. 2.87 million more people voted for Clinton than Trump. Trump won because he received the majority in the Electoral College, with 306 votes compared to Clinton’s 232.
It is also worth noting, however; that the United States government’s intelligence agencies published a document in January 2017 titled “Background to ‘Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections’: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution” which highlights how the Russian government interfered with the 2016 elections and aided Trump’s election. This all goes to show that America holds out some hope. That Trump’s ideologies are not nationally shared. So why is it that Black History Month still does not get the recognition it deserves?
Perhaps because many people have never actually celebrated Black history. Many of our institutions here in Canada expose students to a small part of what Black history really is. That part is often limited to portrayal of slavery in the States, the naming of successful African Americans, and the Underground Railroad that led to Canada.
The Land of Freedom. How are Canadians meant to celebrate something they are unfamiliar with? For 250 years, slavery was a crucial part of the economy for the colonies that became Canada, yet that is not the history we are exposed to in class.
From the early 1600s to 1834, Canada participated in the transatlantic slave trade. Slave owners included disbanded soldiers, millers, priests, and nuns. Of the enslaved population, two-thirds were indigenous and one third African — who were twice the price and symbolised status.
Legal contracts were written to correctly describe buying, selling, and maintaining ownership of enslaved persons, as well as how they were to be passed onto future generations.
Many fled to the United States looking for regions that abolished slavery in the very late 1770s, including New York, Vermont, and parts of Ohio and Michigan. Afua Cooper, author of The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal and celebrated historian commented that “Slavery was the dominant condition of life for black people in this country for well over 200 years, so we have been enslaved for longer than we have been free.” Canadian institutions undermine the goal of Black History Month by neglecting the fact that Black history is entwined with Canadian history.
Furthermore, let us reach past educating our children on slavery as the sole focus of Black history. Our story began before the slave trade, before colonialism. Let’s talk about how Africa is the second largest continent in the world yet for nearly 500 years we have allowed our institutions to use the Mercator map designed to facilitate sailor navigation along colonial trade routes, to populate classrooms.
In this map, Africa looks similar in size to Greenland when it is about 14 times larger. This scale is accurately represented in the Gall-Peters map, as well as true position and size of all the continents, which should be used in schools instead.
Let’s introduce Black literature to our syllabi with Black authors such as Ernest J. Gaines, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston. The black characters shown to me in high school were OTHELLO from Shakespeare and those in Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. The syllabus held minimal exposure to Black characters and no Black authors, which does little to encourage Black literacy.
Let’s talk about the Reconstruction era, from 1869 to 1877 (after the Civil War), which intended to allow Black people to get citizenship and vote, but was quickly subverted by legal loopholes, violence, and Jim Crow Laws.
Let’s talk about how this led to higher rates of Black unemployment, lower rates of wealth, higher rates of incarceration and state laws disproportionately affecting black voters till this day. Let’s discuss Black history as a whole, even if it takes decolonizing the curriculum to be comfortable enough doing so.
For many of us, growing up Black in Canada meant dreading the first of February in each of those early years. Sitting on the slightly dusty floor of elementary school gymnasiums with necks craned forward, looking up at the large screen onto which the projector would spill an hour long documentary on slavery.
Different years would bring different portrayals of the same theme. Different settings but the same awkward glances, some filled with pity but most filled with curiosity. Friends suddenly became very aware of our blackness, uneasy with the fact that in another time at another place we would have been worlds apart.
We did not feel celebrated, we felt self-conscious and embarrassed. The many of us who immigrated here struggled with being put in a box with those that understood a struggle different than that of our own ancestors.
Still we sympathised as one with our African American peers, as the detrimental oppression of Black bodies is universal. It is difficult to think about, but perhaps we aren’t inclined to celebrate Black history because we are all too familiar with the story. So much so that it makes us uncomfortable. To that I say we must come to terms with our past, embrace it and honour it, before asking others to do the same.