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Celebrating Black History in Montreal and Beyond

“When we understand our history, we understand our place in the world”

This month, Montreal has been celebrating its 33rd annual Black History Month. This year’s theme is “Many Stories, One History” (Plusieurs nuances, une histoire). As part of its programming, the city’s Round Table on Black History Month has invited twelve laureates – one for each month of the year – to share their stories of Blackness in Montreal. While each of the speakers, who include the cyclist Papa Amadou Touré for February and the mentor Kathy Roach for March, will be able to discuss their personal history, they will also have the opportunity to reflect on the shared history of Black Montrealers. In this week’s editorial, the Daily wishes to honour this shared history by highlighting some of the many organizations working to preserve Montreal’s rich Black history and to present this history to the public.

One such collective is the Afromusée, which is dedicated to preserving Black culture in current-day Montreal by pulling together historical artifacts and contemporary art pieces alike in a one-of-a-kind “living museum.” The museum hosts regular expositional and social events to promote knowledge and awareness of Afro-Canadian heritage, with the central goal of “spotlighting Africa, Africans and the Afro descendants in our communities.” 

The Afromusée collection itself is held in a database that draws items from numerous institutions across the city, such as the Redpath Museum and Université de Montréal. In addition to showcasing Black history in Montreal, Afromusée hosts regular events featuring prominent academics, artists, and cultural progenitors from the Black community. Their most recent artist-in-residence was the Afropolitan Nomad Festival, a group of musicians from across Canada as well as from Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Afromusée site also hosts a portal for visitors to submit emerging and/or underground local initiatives promoting Black culture to become part of the Afromusée cultural network.

Another organization that contributes to the documentation and preservation of Black history in Montreal is the Black Community Resource Centre (BCRC). The BCRC is a resource-based organization that aims to strengthen Montreal’s English-speaking Black communities by providing professional support to individuals and groups in need. Their recent initiatives have included a research study called Black in Quebec as well as a youth-led book project called Where They Stood: A Historical Account of the Evolution of Black-Anglo Montreal.

Between the fall of 2018 and the summer of 2019, the BCRC also put together an oral history project called “Living History: 100 Years of Black History, Culture, and Heritage.” The project consists of 15 memoryscapes, which are described as “sound walks that invite you to experience the hidden history of a place by listening to the memories of inhabitants, both historical and contemporary, as you walk through it.” Like the BCRC’s book project, Living History was written and recorded entirely by Black youth interns. The interns, recognizing that “when we understand our history, we understand our place in the world,” chose to document such important people, places, and events as the National Black Coalition of Canada, the Union United Church, and steelpan performances at Expo 67.

Additionally, the Concordia University Library fosters a wealth of historical journalism, photography, and other documentation on Canadian Black history as part of its Special Collections. Beginning with its acquisition of the Charles H. Este Cultural Centre archives in 2012, the university library has cultivated a substantial body of historical information. The Special Collections draw on archives from numerous established cultural and academic sources compiled for the better part of the last century to create an extensive database on the evolution of Black Canadian history. Incorporating special archives on the city’s English-speaking Black communities, Concordia provides an invaluable resource for students and academics studying and appreciating the Black history of our city.

Finally, the Jamaica Association of Montreal (JAM) Arts Centre has just concluded its multimedia exhibition When Big Man Talk. Organized by the Centre’s Pat Dillon-Moore, the exhibition was intended to capture “what it is like to be Black in Montreal” and to “allow our Black men to speak.” It included paintings, photography, textile creations, a virtual reality experience, and a screening of Roy T. Anderson’s African Redemption: The Life and Legacy of Marcus Garvey (2021). Garvey, the Jamaican activist at the heart of the exhibit, visited Montreal in 1917 and helped found the still-running Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1919. He was a “complex, controversial man,” Dillon-Moore told the Montreal Gazette, but he was also instrumental in organizing the Black community “here and in so many other places around the world.” More information on When Big Man Talk, as well as a detailed review by Culture Editor Eliana Freelund, is available in the Features section.

February is nearly over, but there are still plenty of Black History Month events to enjoy. Montreal’s Black History Month programming includes a host of musical, theatrical, cinematic, cultural, and athletic activities. Music lovers should catch French-Djiboutian musician Shay Lia at Le Studio TD on February 23, New York rapper Lil Tecca at MTELUS on February 27, and the Nigerian “King of Afrofusion” Burna Boy at the Bell Centre on February 28 and 29. There will be a screening of the TIFF award-winning documentary Black Ice (2022) at the Bell Centre on February 20, and you won’t want to miss the Afro-Colombian dance performance Detrás del sur: danzas para Manuel at Théâtre Maisonneuve from February 21 to 24. All McGill students, staff, and faculty members are encouraged to attend a talk by Dr. Niiyokamigaabaw Deondre Smiles on February 19, while Black students, staff, and faculty members are invited to a Black Community Gathering on February 20. Although February is drawing to a close, Montreal’s twelve laureates recognize that Black history should be discussed and celebrated every month of the year. They promise to sustain the celebration into next January – and beyond – by sharing their stories of Black Montreal.