I was born and raised in Canada. When I was a child growing up, there was no such thing as Black History Month (it was not official until December 1995, and so it’s first appearance on the Canadian calendars was February 1996- I was in Grade 6 at the time). Nor was there a place in the school curriculum where we learned black history. And there was no magical internet for any child to do an easy “Black History” search and see what came up. As far as I was aware, the only Black slaves to ever exist were the ones who ended up in the U.S., and all the black people in Canada immigrated at some point from the Caribbean, Africa, or the U.S. some time after the last documented war because otherwise, why was it that there were literally no black people in history? In fact, as far as I was aware, there was no such thing as slavery in Canada, either. That was an American thing. I got this understanding because, of the little I was able to retain about slavery from movies like Roots and books I had read, the saving grace to the slaves was the underground railroad, whose final stop was in Canada, where the slaves could be free. Therefore, Canada did not have slaves. It was quite simple to me at the time. And how very, very wrong was I?
The first thing I ever learned in school about slavery or black history, I learned from a teacher (my favourite still to this day) who often went above and beyond and around and trampled right all over the curriculum. She found ways for learning to be interactive and fun, and to teach us double the amount of information than other other grade 4 classes. And I remember her reading us the book Underground to Canada. And then having a sort of open Q & A session afterwards about each chapter or two she had read to us. She was also the one who showed us francophone cartoons like Asterix (we were in french immersion) and read us Petit Nicholas stories, to help us improve our fluency in French. And had us do soapstone carvings with bars of soap, and make French potato pancakes (she was actually from France). You know how we learned about the Middle Ages? We got to make giant replicas of castles…but they had to be to scale, and they had to be accurate representations (like, the walls had to be “stone” covered in rugs). We also took a class trip to Medieval Times And we often went outside to sing songs. Yeah. She was magnificent.
But then, I digress. I started this post because I get so damn tired of seeing posts in forums and twitter status updates that say things like “It’s not fair! If there’s a Black History Month, there should be a WHITE history month!”. Seriously? Do you not get the fact that everything from slavery to, say, the civil rights movement that involves black people is in fact part of US/Canadian history? And yet, not once did I see or hear any mention of it in any of my history classrooms or textbooks. There are places in Canada, like Nova Scotia, that have Black Settlers from hundreds of years ago, from 1782 to be exact, and while I learned about the indigenous people, and about the pioneers, I never once learned about the black settlers. Now why is that? Why is it that I’ve learned, as a Canadian, allllll about American History, because apparently it was necessary to learn about what happens in American History as a Canadian, but it’s not important to learn about the contribution to history that Black people in Canada had? You get about 12 years worth of White History. Each year, in History class, you get to learn all about White History…for 11 months. And now you want a special one dedicated to white history? Soooo you can have review tests about all that you learned on White History in the previous 11 months?
And here’s a big issue: how many people know that there’s more to Black History in North America than slavery? How many people honestly have any concept that, sometimes against all odds and under risk of death, some Black people did extraordinary things completely unrelated to, and despite the constraints of, slavery? How many scientists and inventors there were, Yale graduates and all, in the 1800’s, who managed to contribute so very much to North American society as we know it (for some more info, click here)? How many people know the critical contributions that Black folk made to some inventions that are credited solely to a white person (such as the lightbulb and the telephone)? Black History Month is not simply a time to sit and reflect and be sad about slavery, it’s a time to be educated on Black History, the stuff that never makes it into the history books, and yet was so pivotal to modern society, and life, as we know it. There is so much to be proud of in North America’s black history, and yet so few people of any decent really know that.
Now, I would like to say for the record that for me, it’s not about learning about the history of my ancestors personally. My ancestors weren’t North American Slaves, and I can trace my ancestry back through Jamaica. But I can’t imagine what it would be like to be an African American person, one who can trace their roots back into slavery 400 years or so, who have lost even the chance of an educated guess of where exactly their ancestors were sold into slavery from, and be told that the 400 years of Slavery that my ancestors went through, and everything they endured after slavery was abolished, and have the school system implicitly tell me that my history doesn’t count, never happened, and the stuff that we HAVE to acknowledge happened really only counts as a footnote. Really though? And then, to impact that slap in the face, you have ignorant, racist people, telling them they need to go back where they came from…wait, no. You can’t be serious. They should, what? Just pick a random place that happens to have black folk in it, where they know nothing of the customs or language, where every memory and they have, and every tale they’ve been told by family, revolves around the only homeland they’ve known (North America), and just… blend right in? What, they’ll feel right at home? It’s where they belong?
I don’t think people really think these things through when they say them. It’s the equivalent of telling a white Canadian person whose great, great, great, great grandparents were Canadian to just, at random, pick a place where the majority of the population is white and go live there. And don’t tell me it’s not the same. I know many a white person who can tell you they have Russian, or Ukranian, or something in their background. Ok. So go live there then. Wait, no? That would be ridiculous? Yeeahhhhh. Thought so. Sometimes, I see a “THEY are immigrants, WE are originals” kind of attitude. *guffaws* Oh. I see. So there weren’t Native Americans here when the settlers came way back when? It was just acres and acres of uninhabited land, free for the taking? Oh wait, it wasn’t. Right. Does anybody see a pattern here? The arguments against Black History month are just full of fallacious reasoning. It just doesn’t make sense. Nobody is suggesting that during Black History Month we take an in-depth look at the history of Black Cultures around the world who have immigrated to Canada/America recently. The point is to include ALL of the history of Canada/America, and all of the people and things that brought these countries to where there are now- including the Black part.
I wish I, and my peers, had known that there was actually slavery in Canada until 1819. Or the fact that Black people played a huge role in the War of 1812 (for more information on Canadian Black History, click here). And more importantly, I want my children and ALL their peers to have a very thorough understanding of the complete history of this beautiful country we live in, so that when some vile-tongue filthy prick verbally assaults my kid with racial slurs and ignorant commentary, both them and everyone they know can stand up and fight back, they won’t have to hang their heads in shame and confusion, wondering just how much of what douche-face said was right. Like I did. Sure, eventually I learned, and eventually I fought. But often times, I was fighting alone. Or fighting blind. I want the next generation to know about all the horrors and struggles our ancestors went through so that we could have the life we live today. So they can be proud and strive for all that the world has to offer, knowing how lucky they are to have those things within reach. And I want them to know that not everybody is like that horrific, small-minded bigot. Because people of all races, not just Black People, helped in the fight…it couldn’t have been done alone. I want them to know that, even when the odds seem stacked against them, they should fight for what’s right, they should never let anyone take away their rights, hurt them, desecrate them, without a fight…because it starts with one voice, but it can be joined by millions.
I’m tired of the arguments that go back and forth about having to apologize for what your ancestors did. I think if you take away the heat of the moment, that’s not what anybody really wants, or really means. I think the goal is for everybody to be aware of what happened in history, in its entirety: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The victories and the growth and the acts of bravery and determination and decency and kindness, even in the face of such ugly, ugly inhumanity. For everyone to accept that it was horrific, and inhumane, and that with advances in technology, and science, we know better now, and after all of those struggles, we can do better now. But how will we know what we’re reaching out for, how will we ever know the direction we really need to be heading, unless we truly know where we came from?
And that, my good friends, is why I feel that Black History is necessary. Until the curriculum is fully modified to completely incorporate ALL of North American History, in a balanced and fair way, treating Lewis Lattimer with as much respect as Thomas Edison, and taking time out to focus on EVERY SINGLE PERSON OF EVERY RACE who arguably changed North America as we know it, I want a month.
I agree with Mr. Freeman. It’s not enough. This stuff IS American/Canadian history, and should be incorporated and taught year round with the rest of the American/Canadian history. But it’s a start. The more opportunities our youth have to really understand the past, I think the more likely it is the won’t recreate the mistakes of the past, and soon we’ll all envision the same future.
Sorry, just had to get that off my chest.
Happy Wednesday y’all!