Black History Month: A plea for continuity

Photo: Canada Post

During my six years as a teaching assistant of Canadian History, I graded dozens of essays that began with phrases like, “Since the beginning of time”, or “As a species, human beings have always....”

I flagged these generalizations, reminding students in their feedback that, as historians, our task was use the past as a lens for interpreting a particular moment. This meant not only examining past trends, but also -- quite significantly -- highlighting the uniqueness of a given moment and avoid broad sweeping statement. The strongest students that I encountered in graduate school could effectively connect past and present and even, for extra credit, gesture toward the future.

When it comes to Black history in Canada, there’s still a lot of work to be done; I’m going to recommend that the Canadian government visit me during my office hours.

Many Canadians love the food, film, and music of Black History Month, but still adhere to the well-worn myth than Canada has no history of slavery and that this nation is, at its core, benevolent and hospitable. This myth is the result of a failure to situate current events in their historical context and to critically engage with the past. As Robyn Maynard observes in Policing Black Lives, “By 1865, textbooks bore little allusion to any Black presence in Canada, erased two centuries of slavery, included no mention of segregated schools (an ongoing practice at the time) and alluded to this issue of racial discord only in the United States.” More than 150 years later, many Canadians still believe that anti-Black racism is an American problem.

In reality, anti-Blackness has deep historical roots in this country. These roots have impacted the lives of Black Canadians both past and present. To see this in action, one need only look at the events of this past month.

Earlier in February, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly stated that, “it’s time we recognize that Anti-Black racism and unconscious bias exist.” While this gesture had all of the earmarks of a progressive move, it rang hollow for many Black Canadians, whose attention was set on the case Abdoul Abdi, a young man who came to Canada from Somalia as a child refugee. Abdi currently faces deportation, after the Nova Scotia Children’s Aid Society failed to apply for his citizenship while he was under their care.

“I raged inside about how Abdoul’s case represents Canada’s anti-Black racism in all systems -- child welfare, youth justice, criminal justice, education, immigration,” wrote activist, poet, and scholar El Jones.

“You can’t say you care about anti-Black racism and see Abdoul as disposable.”

February also marked the beginning of another high-profile case stemming from the vicious attack on Dafonte Miller. In December 2016, Miller was brutally beaten by officers Michael and Christian Theriault while walking home at night, ultimately losing vision in his left eye. When the case first came to light, the circumstances surrounding the altercation pointed to a clear lack of transparency and led many observers to claim that a cover-up had taken place. The trial is ongoing.

On Feb 18, in Toronto, video surfaced of a young Black man being held down by Toronto Transit Commission fare inspectors and Toronto police outside of a streetcar, for allegedly evading his fare. The young man can be heard screaming, “I didn’t do anything, though. You’re hurting me. You’re hurting me!” as police kneel on his back. He was eventually released without charge. The fare inspector involved has since been suspended, and the both the TTC and City of Toronto ombudsman are investigating the incident.

In the shortest month of the year, three glaring examples of anti-Black racism in Canada have made headlines, while countless others have undoubtedly gone unacknowledged. Black Canadians have been forced to reconcile the tributes to Viola Desmond and Lincoln Alexander with the racism we experience not just in the month of February, but every day. For many Black Canadians, the prime minister’s call to action is empty.

Generally, Black History Month is split into two parts. The first is a Top-10 list of Black heroes, with the radio broadcasting fun-facts about Black leaders and Canadian television stations airing the occasional vignettes devoted to notable and high-profile Black Canadians. Similarly, every year Canada Post issues commemorative postage stamps which remind us of important Canadian Black visionaries.

The other aspect of Black History Month is a series of local cultural events and programs led by Black communities around the country. As a Black activist and writer, I am buoyed by the programming that takes place throughout the month. I am thrilled to see so many talented Black artists sharing their work publicly. I am overwhelmed by the generosity of Black intellectuals who share their insights and analysis with the public. These things are truly gifts from some this country’s most talented and necessary voices. The programming during the month is so fulsome that many of my colleagues prepare annually for the month’s activities knowing that it represents increased visibility, interest, and compensation for their work.

And herein lies the problem: each year at the end of Black history month, Black history becomes all but forgotten by the many white Canadians. Despite all of the contributions we’ve made both past and present, on March 1st, we continually find ourselves among the ranks of discounted halloween treats on November 1st, and Boxing Day’s lapsed advent calendars. The vast resources devoted to honouring Blackness all but disappear until next year.

Token gestures lead to tokenism and a denial of our humanity. This is evidenced by the disconnect between the overwhelmingly celebratory tone of this month as represented in media and the ongoing struggles of Black people like Abdoul Abdi, like Dafonte Miller, and so many others in this country.

The Honourable Lincoln Alexander, celebrated on this year’s commemorative postage stamps alongside Kay Livingstone, was refused service at a Vancouver bar during WWII because he was Black. He was also denied access to the Stelco sales team in Hamilton because he was Black. He encountered racism while studying law at Osgoode Hall because he was Black.

While his tremendous political achievements are most certainly deserving of praise and celebration, it dishonours his legacy to discuss his achievements devoid of context. Further, lest we begin to celebrate how far we’ve come as a society, it is worth noting that Black people still remain critically underrepresented in all levels of government and often face anti-blackness when they do enter politics.

In April 2016, Hamilton City Councillor Matthew Green was carded by Hamilton police; he was intimidated, harassed, and his credibility routinely questioned. In December 2017, Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes shared an example the racism she faces as a Black woman working on Parliament Hill, recalling a woman who placed her wallet down on the bathroom counter of the office where Caesar-Chavannes works before adding “Don’t steal my wallet ok?” This racism amounts to what Caesar-Chavannes calls “a death by a thousand cuts.”

In 2015, Black Lives Matter invited artists and activists to explore February as Black Futures Month, noting “everything we are living is a result of the imaginations of those who came before us. Our daily lives --our homes, cars, mosques, DJs, ambulances, theaters, clubs, jails, etc. were all once living in the world of the imagination.”

For me, the power behind this gesture to radical imagination and to the future the is twofold: firstly, it encourages a sense of continuity between past, present, and future; and, secondly, by positing a Black future, it assumes the survival of Black people in a country so often seems intent on our destruction.

The Black History Month that I desire is not a month but instead a daily and continuous practice that, for historical reasons, is celebrated and honoured in February. It honours past accomplishments and the important groundwork that these accomplishments established for present and futures successes. It also acknowledges the intense anti-Blackness that generations of Black Canadians have confronted and continue to confront. When Canadians begin to see the connections between Black past, present and future, and when they see the moral bankruptcy in loving Black History Month but not Black people, then and only then, will I truly see cause for celebration. 

Phillip Dwight Morgan is the recipient of the first Jack Layton Journalism for Change Fellowship, supported by rabble.ca and the Institute for Change Leaders. He is a Toronto-based journalist, poet, and researcher. 

Photo: Canada Post

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