Canadian blackness doesn’t have a face: it doesn’t have a publicly acknowledged history, colour, body, culture, politics, sound, or texture. To be black in Canada is almost always challenged by what it means to be black in the United States. Surely, Canadians know more about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the poster children for not only the Civil Rights Movement, but in many ways, contemporary black consciousness in its entirety – than the Canadian black experience.
The contributions of African-Americans to not only black heritage, but overall human history, are undeniable. But what about Africville – the community outside of Halifax composed almost entirely of black families, evicted in the 1960s to make way for a suspension bridge – and the park that it has now become? What about Canada’s history of slavery? And the Coloured Hockey League in the Maritimes? These are the untold and untaught stories of Canadian black history.
Neil Donaldson, aka Logikal Ethix, is a hip-hop artist and founder of Stolen From Africa, a global Toronto-based movement with a Montreal chapter that promotes historical awareness and cultural empowerment through programs that include community outreach and alternative media. In an interview, Donaldson expressed his appreciation of how Black History Month recognizes the contributions of black Canadians, but pointed out that “often times, it’s done on the surface level.”
“We like to have this image that we’re all holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya,’ but it’s not even like that,” he explained. On the contrary, Canada has downplayed a great number of its injustices towards its black citizens. “If you look at Africville, it was a human rights violation. They were bulldozed off their land.” According to Donaldson, these types of things are ignored because of their negative connotations.
The Coloured Hockey League and the black roots of hockey, which predate the NHL, are further examples of something that has been frozen out of Canada’s shared memories; the CHL has still yet to be acknowledged by Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame. Donaldson explained the effects of this on his conception of the sport as a young child: “When I was younger I loved playing hockey but it was known as a white sport and I felt discouraged.” He affirmed that “if information like this was more documented in history textbooks, that would help with self-esteem and a sense of belonging.”
The effects of omitting black history from textbooks thus go much deeper than just distorting the historical record. What these books tell those of us that aren’t included in their narratives is that our history doesn’t matter, and consequently, that we don’t matter either.
This year’s Black History Month, now marking its twentieth anniversary in Quebec, is themed “Reclaim Our History, Reclaim Our Values,” and will feature activities ranging from discussion to plays, live music, film screenings, photography and more.
Michael Farkas, president of the Round Table on Black History Month, and a community activist who works at Little Burgundy’s Youth in Motion, stressed that the theme of this year’s month is important especially because of the artificiality and distraction that pervades our society. “It’s to remind us that we’re made by our history, we’re molded by our history and that within this history, we’ve grown as human beings with solid values that have helped us grow over the years,” Farkas said. His unapologetic use of “we,” “us,” and “our” isn’t meant to exclude. “It’s very universal,” says Farkas, “meaning, our history is your history. Your values are our values.’
How, then, do we, and how should we, acknowledge our shared histories and values each and every February? Does the designation of a single month to commemorate black Canadians further marginalize Canadian black heritage?
According to Donaldson, Black History Month is an opportunity to mobilize, connect with others and maintain those relationships for the rest of the year – not necessarily something that ends on March 1. “For me, Black History Month is every month. This is my life. This is not a trend. This is what I do.”