Theorizing the future of Black History Month

After the U.S. introduced Black History Month four decades ago, the Observer wonders how might it look like in the future

The Negro Volunteer Military Company was formed in Victoria, B.C. around 1860 to protect the British colony. The Hudson's Bay company lent the volunteers muskets Toronto Archives

When people of African descent are routinely included or affirmed through school curriculum, books and the media, there may no longer be a need for Black History Month, some black leaders say.

Black History Month was first introduced by the U.S. government 40 years ago. Since then, Canada and the U.K. have also adopted Black History Month to honour the notable people, events and movements that have influenced black identity.

The Observer sat down with two of Toronto’s leading black activists and advocates to theorize how society might honour black history in the future.

LeRoi Newbold, spokesperson for the Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter, believes that when the media, politicians and educators celebrate black voices in one month, it is limiting the scope of the black experience.

“Blackness does not go away after February,” says Newbold.

“Black discrimination is not a special issue. It’s something that can be engaged in year around. Blackness in Canada is a plurality of experiences. There tends to be a focus on our oppression rather than our resistance and creativity; the way that we have impacted and shaped cultures around the world.”

Did you know

In 1995, after a motion put forward by former MP Jean Augustine, representing the riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore, Canada’s House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month.

In 2008, former senator Donald Oliver moved to have the Senate officially recognize Black History Month, which was unanimously approved.

The Black Lives Matter movement began with the use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the shooting death of Sanford, Florida teen Trayvon Martin, who would have turned 21 on Feb. 5., 2016.

Black Lives Matter is an international activist movement dedicated to combating racial profiling, police brutality and racial inequality in justice systems. It gained attention following the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo. on Aug. 9, 2014. The teen was unarmed.

A grand jury decided not to indict Wilson, spurring  protests and civil unrest.

Black communities [should be] deciding for themselves what the education system should look like and how our children should be educated.

—LeRoi Newbold, Black Lives Matter Toronto

Newbold says black communities can shape their own story by taking ownership of the rights to their history.

Black identity will depend on “the way we choose to archive our history now — whether we document these experiences, whether we choose to mark resistance to these experiences,” she said.

So how can individuals be proactive in writing black history now?

Nikki Clarke, president of the Ontario Black History Society, wants to start from the ground up, looking at how black history and race relations have developed.

“We have made some strides on paper, yet in reality, there’s still a catch-up to do in many areas,” she said. “The foundation for that has to do with education.”

Clarke wants to push the movement not just by featuring black voices but having black voices own their identity and continue to write their own history.

“We’re going to continue to write passages in the history books with emerging black leaders,” she said.

But black history is more than just what’s on paper.

It takes a village to raise the kind of change Clarke is hoping for. Writing a comprehensive, empowering black history won’t work by only featuring the most noteworthy people.

For instance, Newbold believes that black communities should decide “for themselves what the education system should look like and how our children should be educated.”

This, she says, will spark conversation about how black communities can start “to shape their relationships to justice.”

“We have made some strides on paper, yet in reality, there’s still a catch-up to do in many areas. The foundation for that has to do with education.”

—Nikki Clarke, president of the Ontario Black History Society

Newbold and Clarke both call for education first and foremost. They both advocate for educational programs that specifically target youth engagement.  Clarke believes that “there’s going to be more proactive initiatives than reactive.”

Authoring black history will only work, Clarke says, by “having more programs available for everyone, not just the black community.”

Newbold and Clarke both want to start within the black community and work their way out to other communities.

“It really takes everybody, not only the black community,” Clarke said.

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Posted: Feb 15 2016 1:36 pm
Filed under: News