Last Thursday, February 1, the Black Students’ Network (BSN) collaborated with CKUT for an exceptional 12-hour radio program — Blacktalk 2018. In a series of segments that covered topics ranging from music to panel discussions to poetry, Black students on campus and beyond explored issues facing Black people today. Blacktalk was founded by BSN in 1987, but was interrupted between 1996 and 2016. Despite this, the program’s legacy and potency shone through as it introduced this year’s Black History Month and set the stage for the month’s other upcoming events. The honour of such a task was not lost on the contributors; each segment was passionate and informative, resulting in a thought-provoking listening experience.
Blacktalk 2018 was the first of many Black History Month (BHM) events at McGill, and set the stage for this year’s theme — resistance. Each segment expanded on existing issues, stereotypes, and misconceptions surrounding and projected onto Black life today, whether it be the cultural appropriation of hairstyles, the media’s portrayal of Black men as threatening or hypermasculine, or the underrepresentation of Black women in McGill advertisements. This February is only McGill’s second institutionalized Black History Month, a fact which, as Shanice Yarde, the Social Equity and Diversity Education Office (SEDE) Equity Education Advisor, put it in the first hour of the show, “speaks volumes” to McGill’s relation to Black students — especially considering that the labor of James McGill’s slaves is the main reason this institution exists in the first place, a fact still unacknowledged by the university.
This February is only McGill’s second institutionalized Black History Month, a fact which, as Shanice Yarde put it in the first hour of the show, “speaks volumes” to McGill’s relation to Black students.
Embracing identity in the face of anti-blackness
The show was organized by Torie Williams, BSN’s VP Social. “A lot of what BSN tries to do is provide those spaces where Black people and everyone, but Black students [especially], can talk about relevant issues: where we can just get together and have that sense of community,” said Williams. Blacktalk provided an environment in which the speakers seemed comfortable discussing uncomfortable topics. In one segment, the Black Women Roundtable Discussion, participants shared stories to answer the question “have you always embraced being black?” The group discussed internalized colourism: the internalised belief and the oppressive system that advantages lighter skin people over darker skin people. One woman talked about her tendencies as a teenager to wear sunscreen and avoid going to the beach to prevent tanning, which stemmed from a desire to keep her skin lighter, less black. Another talked about feeling a sense of pride, and later on, shame, as a child after being labeled as an “oreo,” because her eloquence and good school performance was perceived as white while being black. In spite of the harm these experiences caused, the conversation was lively, honest, and unafraid to pinpoint the crux of an issue and tear it apart. One woman stated that “Black female friendship to me is therapeutic,” and was met with a roar of agreement. The discussion delved into the pressures of always being the one educating in a relationship, or being the only Black person present in the face of racist remarks. The women valued being in all-Black female spaces because they can relate to each other and relax, without feeling responsible for explaining their experiences to people who do not understand. Blacktalk was composed entirely of Black folks, which, as Williams had hoped, created a sense of trust that allowed for an uninhibited flow of discussion.
Being creative and Black
Williams had a clear vision to promote the talent and hardwork of Black people: “I just wanted it to highlight Black achievements at McGill, expose McGill students to the history and prejudice towards Black people, but also connect it to the current struggle of Black people in modern day society, and then also just provide a platform for Black individuals to engage in discussion and share thoughts on relevant issues.” Blacktalk also showcased a lot of Black talent, including two Montreal artists, Maky Lavender, a rapper, and Chelsy Monie, a photographer. During the Peterson Trio segment they talked about being Black artists in Montreal. Monie observed that Black artists are often expected to make art about their blackness while white artists are free to make art about whatever they like. Similarly, Maky Lavender said that he is often assumed to be a rapper as soon as he mentions he is a musician as a result of racial stereotypes. “We impose blackness on Black artists […] so many white artists out here make work but nobody imposes their whiteness on them,” said Monie.
“We impose blackness on Black artists […] so many white artists out here make work but nobody imposes their whiteness on them.” -Chelsy Monie
Enacting Black diversity
Blacktalk also took active steps to promote diversity, and criticized the media’s lack thereof. Chloe Kemeni was the host of Bad Service, a segment which discussed issues that the panelists face as Black students at McGill. She made an effort to feature a range of perspectives on her panel, including the voices of queer people, cis men, and cis women. Kemeni affirmed that “the process was really about just making sure that it was diverse, and that whoever I was contacting, I knew they had different experiences.” Diversity was found in each of the segments, not only in terms of identity, but in terms of ideas as well. In the segment Rebranding Africa, the panelists debated the pragmatism of the continental institution, the African Union. One speaker expressed concern that although the African Union was supposed to bring African nations together, in practice it would not be so simple due to external repressing factors such as neo-colonialism and the possibility for African countries to be in relations of domination. Another speaker, however, thought that in order to cut its dependency on the west, African nations would need to cooperate by creating institutions to encourage trade amongst each other instead. All the speakers were refreshingly unafraid to voice their opinions and engage with each other’s perspectives.
Each segment of Blacktalk 2018 was hard hitting and unapologetically honest, honoring BHM’s theme of resistance. “A lot of the topics that are going to be covered, like the hypersexuality of Black women or hypermasculinity of Black men or violence against Black people, are topics that affect people and have dangerous consequences. So I think when listening to that, especially as someone who may not identify as Black, it’s very important to understand and process it and then reflect and look at what can I do or how can I be an ally or how can I help, as opposed to saying, ‘its not my fault, I’m not the one doing it’, and completely disregarding what the person is saying,” said Kemeni. However, Blacktalk was not aimed at educating non-Black people. Its primary aim was for Black folks to gather, discuss, and organize around different ideas related to Black liberation activism.
As an intellectually and artistically stimulated radio show, Blacktalk 2018 was an excellent introduction to Black History Month at McGill. After the show Williams told me, “despite the long hours spent planning, it was more than worth it and I just want to do it again.” Although Blacktalk 2018 has come to a close, you can listen to the recording at soundcloud.com/radiockut/sets/blacktalk-2018 and attend other Black History Month events throughout the remainder of February.