Black History Month: looking back, looking forward

This is the fourth year in which I have formally marked black history month. Even though I went to a high school with a large black population, we were taught almost nothing about black history in school. The great shame of the whole exercise is that, unless there is someone who actually cares, the existence of a month ostensibly devoted to black history becomes little more than an excuse to gloss over the details:

Black people were slaves in Africa, but then Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. sat in the back of the Underground Railroad until Abraham Lincoln emancipated them and now we have a black president so yay racism is over!

I am unsure which is actually worse: being denied any mention of black history at all, or having the rich, convoluted, deep, and fiercely interesting treasure trove that is real black history “Disney-fied” in this way. Luckily for me, I do not have to choose between these two awful alternatives. Because I have the time, motivation, and education to do so, I can do my part to scratch beyond the lacquered surface of black history and expose some of the rich truth underneath.

Black history is our history

As I tried to set out at the outset of this series, the compartmentalization of ‘black history’ is an unfortunately necessary illusion. Black history, when understood properly, is not the history of black people as an isolated alien race. Black history is and must be part of the narrative of the overall history of Canada (and, obviously, the United States). Black people have made numerous contributions to the founding and building of this nation from its very conception. Black Canadians should not be thought of as an ‘also ran’ group – people who also existed and were around while the important stuff in Canadian history was going on – they (we) were part of that history and should be recognized as such.

Black history also forces us to confront some extremely uncomfortable counterfactuals to our vision of Canada as a land of tolerance and acceptance. While it is undoubtedly true that we do it better here than many other places, we do not grade human rights on a curve. The truth is that black history is perhaps the quickest way to delve to the deepest and worst parts of our history – our deeply-ingrained attitudes of white supremacy and the lengths to which not only our citizens but our government institutions reinforced these attitudes. Racism looms large as a major social force in the story of our country, and while it may not be pleasant to think about, it does happen to be the truth.

Black history is our present

The second goal of this year’s series was to try and forge the connection between black history and our contemporary attitudes toward race and racism. My basic thesis when invoking history in general is that, while interesting as a collection of stories or an examination of the foibles of human nature, a proper understanding of the past is most valuable when it can be used for the same purpose as myth – to “justify the ways of God to men” (as it were). As a story-seeking species, we hunt out explanations for things that we see in our everyday lives, and we will do this even in the absence of reliable facts.

When confronted with the reality of racial disparities in access and achievement, we create stories that help us preserve our self-concept as good (and therefore ‘not racist’) people. These mythological and self-serving accounts actually do us a disservice, because they rob us of the insight and understanding necessary to accurately understand the world around us. They certainly work to the disadvantage of black Canadians, who have to struggle against not only the reality of discrimination, but the myriad of well-intentioned white Canadians who simply refuse to acknowledge that discrimination, so invested are they in their “colour blind” history fables.

Black history is our future

It is always the case that we are perched on the precipice of the arrival of a new and dramatically different age. It is always the case that we have to face new and unprecedented challenges to the traditions that underpin our society. It is always the case that it has never been more true than it is right now. Granting these statements, it is always the case that we need to understand our history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Canada is currently struggling with its immigration policy, and our illustrious federal government seems to be quite willing to ignore the racist history of our previous immigration policies in order to satisfy the smallest and meanest knee-jerk xenophobia that lives in the heart of this country.

If we are going to move forward in a sensible direction, we can no longer afford to beautify our history. We must face it all, the bad and the good alike. Black history has more than its fair share of ‘the bad’, and there is a great deal we can learn from it. I have certainly learned things in this past week that surprised me – these surprises have better prepared me to understand not only what I see around me, but to draw parallels between my own history (so to speak) and the challenges we face from looming crises today (Sri Lankan refugees, Somalis fleeing famine, what will undoubtedly be a flood of South Sudanese, Libyan, Syrian and Pakistani claimants looking for asylum following protracted periods of war). We can use our knowledge of what black Canadians faced to minimize the negative impact of mass immigration of non-whites, not only to those minority groups themselves but to the country as a whole.

While the numbers strongly suggest that I have not been as persuasive as I would have liked in getting you, the average reader, to believe as strongly as I do in the importance of black history (you seem to find my distaste for cats far more entertaining), I will continue to pursue this type of series every year. Insofar as this blog is written for me as much as it is by me, I have found this exploration useful and interesting, and I am looking forward to finding new ways of trying to convey my excitement and fascination about this very important topic.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!