Jean Saint-Vil’s audience of 60 buckled over in laughter Thursday, during his speech “Black History Now,” the centerpiece of 2009 Black History Month at McGill, organized by Black Students Network (BSN). Provocative and frank, the Haitian-born Canadian exposed distortions of black history that remain mainstream today. He dispelled the myth that ancient Egyptians were white, reminded the audience that the fastest computer in 1989 was engineered by a black man, and tore down the association between Haiti’s 1804 Revolution and the French Revolution.
Saint-Vil argued that black people today are damaged by institutionalized white supremacy that convinces them God is white and white is Godly.
“Everybody is white: Mary, Joseph…. You have to look under the foot of St. Michael: there’s a devil there somewhere. He’s the only one who looks like you. God is supposed to look like you, but Africans don’t have that,” he said.
Challenging white scientists’ assertion that Egyptian D.N.A. is white, he argued that ancient Egyptian architecture and mythology is crucial to reconstructing black identity.
“I don’t care what anyone tells me; I have been inside the pyramids, the brothers are black…. A whole bunch of us went to the Louvre and saw the statue of Osiris and it was like a family reunion. I was like, ‘Brother, I never knew about you.’”
Urging a development policy in Africa, led by Africans rather than foreign NGOs, the International Monetary Fund, and western countries, Saint-Vil again turned to Egypt for inspiration.
“If we believe we are the people who built the pyramids, we know we can build more than missionary schools and bridges that break,” he said.
Saint-Vil pointed to the disproportionate presence of black men in jail – 6.7 per cent of detainees in Canada are black, but only 2.2 per cent of the total population is black.
“It is earth-shattering how many of these potential geniuses are being wasted in jail. If you are looking for black leadership today, you have to go to jail – that’s where the black men are, they aren’t all in the White House.”
Saint-Vil frequently returned to Obama, discussing both the symbolic triumph he represents and the potential dangers of investing too much pride in his image.
“The image of Obama is the tragedy of the black nation. All it takes is one bullet and the dream is dead. Yet, we cannot stop from celebrating that not only this black man but a black family going to a house they were supposed to build, but not inhabit.”
“Amens” from the audience answered Saint-Vil as he continued.
“Obama is walking tall today because Rosa [Parks] decided to sit.”
Jean Saint-Vil was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and immigrated to Canada in 1983. He is based in Ottawa and works as a writer, actor, film producer, and journalist. He hosts two radio talkshows, CHUO-FM’s “Bouyon-Rasin” and CKCU-FM’s “Rendez-Vous Haitien”.
BSN will continue to host a series of events, including an exhibit in the McLennan-Redpath hallway until month’s end, and Children’s Day, next Thursday from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. in the Shatner Ballroom. They’re still looking for volunteers to assist with the 100 elementary school children visiting that day. The Concordia Student Union is hosting director Spike Lee, who will give a lecture Wednesday, February 18, at 4:30 p.m. in H-110.
— compiled by Shannon Kiely