Black History Month is incredibly important but it’s more than a singular annual observation.
Black history doesn’t stop existing in March. It’s crucial as Canadians, as students and as humans that we acknowledge Black history as part of our Canadian and global history year-round.
Black history is something that colonialism systematically tried to wipe out in order to maintain an air of cultural, social and racial superiority.
Black history is incredibly diverse and intricate; it spans continents and centuries. It’s more than just a month to recognize the struggles and successes of Black communities around the world. It goes much deeper than that.
Black history month should focus on recognizing and understanding the achievements of countless Black activists all over the world.
In Canada, it should be about recognizing, understanding and celebrating the contributions of our own Black Canadians in making Canada a more diverse and compassionate nation. But again, Black history month goes deeper than this alone.
It’s also about recognizing, understanding and taking responsibility for the colonialist repression and ignorance of Black history all over the world.
What is Black history?
Where does this history start? Does it start with the Transatlantic Slave Trade? Does it start with the Underground Railroad? Or does it start sometime in BCE before European colonialists ever thought about exploiting resources in Africa?
Black History Month is about all these things.
It’s becoming more and more commonplace for schools to include a diverse history of the people who reside in this country. Students are being taught more often that there are multiple viewpoints in history. Learning about the violence, subjugation, enslavement and sacrifices made by people of African descent brings us one step closer to being more conscientious of the culture and traditions of others.
Canada is often described as a country with a melting pot of cultures, with access to foods and traditions found in all parts of the world. It isn’t that hard to find a Korean grocery store like JJ Korean Mart on Gottingen Street or a Japanese fusion restaurant like Minato Sushi on Queen Street, for example. Mary’s African Cuisine on Barrington Street has the best samosas in town, and the Jamdouns food truck that parks on Grafton Street will have you craving their Jamaican patties after one bite.
With so many cultures coming together in this great nation, it’s unsurprising to learn that Canada’s ties to Black history stretch as far back as the 17th century. It begins with the arrival of Mathieu Da Costa in 1604 with French explorers.
Da Costa was a multilingual interpreter that gave French explorers an invaluable link with the Mi’kmaq peoples they encountered. Later in the century, the first enslaved African was recorded in New France (Canada) in 1628.
By the early 18th century most Black Canadians were enslaved. This only changed significantly during the American War of Independence (1777-83) when the British offered freedom to those who joined them.
In the 1790s, there was legislation that freed those enslaved over the age of 25 and made it illegal to bring enslaved people into Upper Canada (now Ontario) after Chloe Cooley resisted enslavement in 1793.
The 19th century brought about the official abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and eventually the abolition of the institution of slavery itself. This, however, didn’t mean the end of the discrimination against Black Canadians or even the Black Americans who fled worse conditions in the South.
Prejudice isn’t dead
Modern-day Black Canadians have been speaking out about racism for a long time. They’re not just speaking out; they’re writing poetry, novels and working as activists to remind us that even though slavery ended in Canada, prejudice didn’t.
These developments in recognizing Black history are being seen at different educational levels, including here at Dal.
Black history is becoming a more intricate area of study that isn’t just about what happened in Africa before Europeans rocked up. Rather, it’s taking into account that Black history all around the world has its own nuances and intricacies.
To say the least, Black Canadians have been, and are still, an integral part of being Canadian. Black Canadians have been around just as long as European Canadians but are not awarded the same respect.
I think it’s important to realize that it’s not just Black Canadians who need to be supported, celebrated, and remembered. It’s the fight of repressed Black communities all around the world that needs to be respected.
Black history is deep, hard and complex. The fight for equality hasn’t ended for many Black communities.
As we observe Black history this month, keep an open mind. You don’t need intricate knowledge of the past to know someone’s history is worth respecting.