This year’s Black History Month (BHM) has officially ended as of this week. This was ÉZÈ Studio‘s first year putting on an annual event and I’m proud to say BLT Winnipeg was a huge success. I know I have told every person a thousand times but I want to thank each one of you that attended and that was involved. This past month came and it went so quickly; it’s only because of every one of you that this was possible. February has been an incredible month of Winnipeg’s black community coming together in new exciting ways – one that combines our talents and skills to create our own unique spaces.
Each week, Black Space held a screening a Forth featuring some of the best in black American film. This included well-known films such as The Color Purple and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, followed up with a double-screening at Cinemateque of I Am Not Your Negro by Raoul Peck. QPOC Winnipeg held the amazing Pink + White dance party at The Good Will Social Club. But that was not before an inspiring evening of the Open Mic Night – a live show for members of the QTPOC community to share their stories and spoken word. Black History Month Winnipeg had a calendar full of exciting events and activities. From luncheons and basketball games to Bob Marley music tributes. Truly, there was no reason to have stayed home this month.
Now, as we come into March, a common question throughout February is what does it mean to have a BHM? I came across some interesting perspectives on the very notion of there being a black history month at all. More specifically, that black history in Canada was dedicated to the shortest month out of the year…
As Founder of Black Space, Alexa Potashnik, put it, “It is not ‘Black History Month,’ it is ‘Black History 28-days.'” In some way, holding BHM in February is quite symbolic of the level of recognition black history has normally received in the context of western civilization. Even when our history and people are recognized, it’s often done decades later and to the smallest extent possible.
During February, there tends to be far less of anyone other than people of colour (POC) who attend BHM events unless they were with a partner or a family member. However, there is often a more diverse embrace of Canada’s history across most demographics during other Canadian celebrations like Festivale du Voyageur – also in February. Despite Canada being seen as a multi-cultural society, Canada’s BHM continues to fall short of receiving a similar universal embrace by all Canadians. Why is that? Why is it that Alberta, who has the third largest black population, has only now chosen to celebrate Black History Month in the year 2017?
Even when our history and people are recognized, it’s often done decades later and to the smallest extent possible.
From what I can tell, the story of black people in North America is, as the late James Baldwin put it, “…not a pretty story.” It is a history filled with oppression, violence, and injustice that spans multiple generations. That’s not something most white Canadians are going leave their homes to go celebrate as quickly as winter festivals or summer concerts. But this has created a disconnect from not just Canada’s perception of black history but its general perception of the present status of black Canadians.
For the first time last summer, a vigil initiated by Black Space was put together at the Manitoba Legislative Building to peacefully show solidarity for the recent police shootings of black men in the US. This vigil was meant to be a peaceful time for Winnipeg’s black community to come together for one another and strengthen the bonds of our community in Winnipeg.
Each year there is significant turnout and support for other black and Afrocentric cultural events like Folkarama or Reggae Fest. However, when we held space for Winnipeg’s first vigil for black victims, it was openly mocked by some Manitoban’s online:
…This is “Friendly Manitoba,” right?
Look, I love both Canada and Winnipeg’s multiculturalism. Despite racism becoming a much more relevant topic, many Canadians see little-to-no need to acknowledge Canada’s black history in February. Common arguments include the, “if there was a White History Month,” reverse scenario. Others claim it creates divide to have black history dedicated to a whole month since no other ethnicity is formally given one.
First of all, white history is presented in every form of media 24/7/365, so one’s fragility is not a valid reason to dismiss the concept of BHM. Second, other ethnicities do have their own months: Asian Heritage Month takes place in May, Indigenous Heritage Month in June, etc.) Third, in no way does having black history dedicated to February somehow make it inaccessible during the other eleven months out of the year.
One is free to study black history from March to January instead if that works best for them.
Although, there are some concerns within the black community about how effective BHM has actually been in sharing the significance of black history and the contributions of black people in Canada. Bee Quammie, of CBC Radio, feels that BHM reduces the value of black people’s contributions in context to the rest of Canadian history.
“Canada has become complacent when it comes to black history. We try to cram everything into the shortest month of the year…Black history is Canadian history. Let’s talk about it year-round.”
– Bee Quammie, CBC
Bee further states that the problem with BHM is that each year, February is jam-packed with events and programs for only 28 days. Then, by the time March 1st arrives, most school curriculums are set in place; leaving no space to include additional time to Canada’s black history.
Personally, I agree that this is a problem but it doesn’t mean BHM should be done away with. This very problem of black history not being included in Canadian studies all year is part of what started BHM in the first place. Even though this was my first year being directly involved in BHM, I really never saw February as the start-and-end points for all events and discussions about black history.
How I see it, BHM is an incredible annual time to celebrate our community’s achievements and move forward – reconnect and support one another ongoing. I wouldn’t expect our government nor our school systems to take up that mission or even know how to execute it.
Canada’s academic system ranks among the top countries in the world. However, much of its teaching of world culture and national history is often taught from a Eurocentric perspective. This leaves a challenge of how black history could be taught in the classroom in a way that is done both accurately and authentically. To teach black history year-round in an authentic way, there would need to be enough resources for specialized educators from that field of study to do so. Considering how long black history in North America has not always been proficiently taught in schools, it would seem impractical to expect our education system to be solely responsible for taking on that process.
BHM can be a sort of starting point for those to begin their journey of learning and I think the emphasis is to create the desire within our youth to continue that journey for themselves. BHM can also be the starting point for difficult conversations around race both within the community and with white Canadians. These are conversations that may not always be initiated within a classroom environment.
Recently, I did an interview on CBC Radio with Alexa. She expressed on the show how she felt that part of her mission during BHM is to start the difficult conversation around race; this meant white people getting uncomfortable in the discussion. As black people and POC, we are made uncomfortable every day and don’t have the privilege to simply leave the conversation and no longer deal with racism.
With all that being said, this isn’t to state that BHM is the best way to celebrate black history or that things can’t be done better. But BHM goes beyond teaching history lessons and making events where all Canadians can feel comfortable about this nation’s history of oppression. I just feel that February could become a time where we as POC can be ourselves, where we can and should connect with one another.
Despite not always having our history seen through the same lens the rest of Canada’s history, we have an opportunity to utilize these 28-days (29 if we’re lucky) for our own needs as black Canadians. How we each choose to do that is up to us.
Kelechi, Visual Director of ÉZÈ STUDIO
Alexa Joy Potashnik, Founder of Black Space Winnipeg – http://www.blackspacewpg.ca/speakers
Black History Month officially recognized in Alberta – http://www.edmontonsun.com/2017/01/31/black-history-month-officially-recognized-in-alberta
“Time for Black History Month to go” by Bee Quammie – http://www.cbc.ca/news/opinion/black-history-month-1.3998493