My memories of Black History Month as a child are not as celebratory as one may imagine. I grew up in Toronto, Ontario – one of, if not the most at that time, diverse cities in Canada. Yet, February was not a time when I felt celebrated. Black History Month was not something that we celebrated at home, “we’re black every day” my mother would say, “so just be proud.”
In school, however, it was a different story. Black history, in theory, was something celebrated. I recall the drawings that decorated the school halls, the announcements over the loudspeaker, or the few lessons dedicated to “black history” AKA, slavery, Harriet Tubman, and a sprinkling of Black inventors, scientists, scholars, or those that broke through barriers to achieve success.
I also remember feeling an immense amount of loneliness during those times of celebration. I remember feeling like I was under a spotlight – under the guise of celebration. While I was thankful for the acknowledgment, I didn’t feel acknowledged, personally. Where was I in this story of Black History? I was an “ordinary” Black Canadian, or so I thought. February was more of a reminder that I and my family were not the same. And from those that were my friends, peers, teachers or just allies, I felt pity, not pride.
Now as an adult, I am still that “ordinary” Black Canadian. What differentiates me from other “ordinary” Canadians – specifically people who identify as White and middle or upper class – is that I have had to work harder to achieve similar outcomes. By way of just one example – although my grade point average in high school was just below 90%, I was discouraged from pursuing a university education. My mother made sure I stayed the course and attended university. However, I wonder how many of my peers did not pursue their goals and agreed to take the path “best suited” for them. Like my mother, will I have to course correct my children against the adverse recommendations of their educators?
I cringe at the thought that my children too may experience the adverse effect of the important acknowledgment that is Black History Month, and, for that reason, I encourage and urge a conversation on how to take a different approach to the month of February. We are invited to seize the opportunity to rethink how we celebrate Black History Month.
Organizational discussions and planning about “what to do” during the month of February have, for the most part, continued to be focused on educating Canadians on the atrocities of the past and celebrating those who were able to beat the odds. But Black history is so much more than that. We are not only our trauma. Nor can all of us be superheroes – and it would be wrong to assume that we need to be. Black history must include the lives of “ordinary” Black Canadians having ordinary experiences.
Black History Month also presents us with another challenge: If we add in all the other responsibilities and priorities occupying the minds of business leaders, people managers, and decision-makers, it would be remiss of us to think that efforts related to honouring Black History Month are taking place all month long. We may celebrate for an afternoon in the lunchroom (or on Zoom) and curate some informative emails. We may even invite a speaker to share some knowledge and their personal experience. But – how are we being formed and transformed in an ongoing way by Black History Month?
One may think that I’m requesting that activities related to Black History Month stop – quite the opposite. They should continue! But we also have 337 (or 338) additional days of the year to educate ourselves regarding Black history and the Black experience in Canada today. We have these extra days to share experiences and hopes, create spaces for diverse voices, build equitable opportunities, and to commit to change with intention and funding. And we can still celebrate in February. What if, much like a fiscal review or yearly product inventory review, February was a time of reflection in order to do an inventory regarding how we are doing with respect to equity, diversity, and inclusion? What would that look like? As I sit here, the young girl inside me smiles as I imagine how different my educational and professional experiences could have been.
In essence, I am proposing that we should change the direction of the spotlight during Black History Month. Let’s spotlight “what we have done” and “what more we want to do” in our communities, institutions, and places of work with respect to equity, diversity, and inclusion. Then, we can support these dreams by making space and providing resources to get it done – while not forgetting to celebrate along the way.
I am in Elementary School. I walk into school and alongside the drawings of known People Of Colour trailblazers, I see evidence of the work we’ve done as a school community to make our space more equitable and inclusive. Of course, the trailblazers are already known to me because we would have discussed them as part of our standard curriculum. I attend our annual Black History Month assembly in the school gym where our teachers and administrators share some of the new school initiatives related to equity and how each class, student, and the surrounding communities can get involved. I’m excited about the weeks to come – there’s so much we can do.
These are the memories I wish for my children.