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.

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  1. ischemgeek says

    I may not have commented in all of your Black History Month entries (partly because my thesis is eating my brain) but I’ve read every one of them and enjoyed them all immensely. Thanks for taking the time to do it – I’ve learned more this past month about black history than was even hinted at in school.

    I’m serious: They should nix high school Black History Month curricula and replace it with your blog series – it’s more entertaining, more interesting, and more informative than anything I got in school.

  2. says

    I’ve enjoyed the process, and I’m glad you have as well. A friend pointed out to me that most people aren’t terribly interested in history to begin with, and black history is an even smaller slice of the pie. It’s a shame (as far as I’m concerned) because it’s really important stuff that is worth our time and energy to understand, but even I didn’t think so until 4 years ago.

  3. Pen says

    Darn, it’s so much easier to slag off cats. So much easier than thinking of something intelligent to say in a comment box sized format about an intelligent post on a topic that calls for intelligence when you weren’t even supposed to be on the Internet in the first place. Like I was just about to try, but now I have to go. I am paying attention, however.

  4. says

    When you get stuck, you should just feel free to fill the comments sections with compliments about how smart and good-looking I am, and how you (and/or your single, adult children if the case applies) would be lucky to date someone like me.

  5. Zachariah says

    I’ve not only enjoyed your Black History piece, but I think it has actually expanded my understanding of north American history.

    I know my family history straddles the line of race relations in the U.S. (and probably what became Canada too, we’re an ‘old’ family as it goes). I know a lot about my ancestors who were Union/Confederate soldiers, who fought for abolition, who were slave traders. I know a lot less about my Black ancestors, in part because my Black ancestors married into a white family that went out of their way to hide it for obvious reasons.

    It’s useful to hear your perspective on Black history, and I’m certain others feel the same.

  6. dianne says

    Your aversion to cats is entertaining, but your posts on black history in Canada are what keep me coming back to this blog.

  7. Pen says

    I am afraid you rather fall into that kind of empty dip between the generations as far as my family is concerned. Our loss, eh…

    I’ll clear off and attempt to be intelligent below now : )

  8. Pen says

    It would be nice to see lots of other Canadians engaging with this subject, since you’re encouraging them to do so. I have more of a Franco/British/American perspective. Same thing though, I can only agree with what you said in your post. I sure hope black history is part of our future, because it blows my mind how otherwise quite tolerable-seeming people, some of them in positions of power, keep suggesting the same mistakes over and over again. But in the absence of anything more intelligent to say than that, I have some questions about the idea of black history:

    1. How do you feel about the difference between black history, white history and a common narrative? Do you feel a place called black history is the right one for a common narrative? Because ‘common narrative’ is what I get from the statement that black history is our history, whereas some black people, I think, like having a space of their own. Then again, lots of white people seem not to like to talk about their experiences of race much at all (well, at least not in public). As you mentioned, cats, yes. Race, not so much.

    2. In the UK and France large segments of the population are only informed of the fact that they live in a multi-racial society by the television. They are in this strange situation where multi-racialism is part of a larger social and political entity they have to participate in, but not part of their everyday experiences. It seems like black history might help them more than most, i.e. that one iteration of black history would be to serve and inform a non-black population. Whereas we usually think of it as serving black people. On the other hand the people I’m talking about tend to be the very ones who most resent black history as being not theirs. I was wondering if any equivalent situation exists in Canada?

  9. Enkidum says

    I feel guilty for not having read all of these – read most of them, and actually started commenting on a couple but got derailed for pretty much the entire day both times. But I for one am very glad you did this, and will be going back over the ones I missed at the end of the week, when my bloody thesis proposal is done.

  10. ischemgeek says

    I think most people are uninterested in history because of how schools teach it. “Memorize this list of things!” “Memorize this other list of things!” “Regurgitate on a test!” “Memorize more lists of things!” “Regurgitate on an essay, but if you find your own sources or make an argument other than the one I’m presenting in class, I’ll accuse you of plagiarism if it’s too compelling and/or dock marks if I disagree!” “Memorize more lists of things!” “Never ask why or how, just memorize things!” “Asking why and how is for university, so keep memorizing thing that don’t seem important because we won’t let you ask, look up or know why they’re important!”

    Repeat ad nauseum.

    It’s no wonder people get soured on the subject.

  11. ischemgeek says

    I think white people might not talk much about their experiences with it because to a large extent, they (we) are oblivious to race issues until our attention is drawn to it. Many white folks buy into the post-racial society myth hook, line and sinker… and those that don’t are often either worried that their views would be unpopular, or nervous of derailing valuable conversations.

  12. dianne says

    how you (and/or your single, adult children if the case applies) would be lucky to date someone like me.

    Awkward. If I started dating someone like you I’d have to change my nym to “Mrs Robinson”. And my kid’s only 8. But it’s probably time my niece met a nice young man like you.

  13. Pen says

    I’m not sure if we are so oblivious. I was thinking of embarking on a story about how the immigration of West Indians and Indians to Britain was the second biggest event in my grandparents lives, (after WWII) an event they regularly brought up themselves. But then I was like, nah, we may be talking about immigration a bit, but it’s definitely nothing to do with Canada and not really black history either. So yeah, derailing the conversation, maybe.

  14. ischemgeek says

    @Pen – I’ve heard people (yes, more than one. Actually, all but one of the managers at the place of work) say in direct response to someone’s allegation of racism (that was well-founded – I was there. You don’t say, “Go get that horse, boy!” to a black man who you’re training in a faux-Southern accent and get to argue that you didn’t know it had racist overtones) that racism doesn’t happen anymore. There are a lot of people who are oblivious through lack of exposure or willfully oblivious out there.

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