The first day of February marked the beginning of Black History Month, a designated time to celebrate African-Canadian successes and struggles for equality. Though some still dispute the necessity of a special time carved for recognizing black excellence, I believe it remains useful to challenge mainstream narratives that whitewash black contributions to Canada.
My issue here is not whether Black History Month is still necessary; rather, I question why, when we brand the month of February as a time to celebrate ‘black’ history, we seem to create only one narrative for an extremely diverse body of peoples. That is, we focus on resistance efforts of Afro-slave descendants but do not seek to delve deeper into the richness of their ancestral histories, independent of slavery or segregation issues.
Stories from Africville and the resistance efforts of black people like Viola Desmond surely must be celebrated. Yet, it is important to complement the specific black Canadian experience with broader pre- and post-colonial histories of people of African descent. Exploring Black History Month in this manner allows us to reclaim the richness of African history before European disruption, while still paying homage to the resistance efforts of all Africans, whether in the continent or in the diaspora.
This is particularly pertinent given that, as of 2001, about 48 per cent of black immigrants to Canada were born in Africa, while another 47 per cent were born in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. This is in contrast to foreign-born black people, who arrived in Canada before 1961, of which only one per cent were born in Africa. Toronto itself is home to nearly half of Canada’s black population, of which more than half are foreign-born.
To celebrate the entirety of black history, we should thus connect the black Canadian experience to broader narratives of black liberation. In doing so, it is possible to group together the different histories of African peoples, because there is a shared experience of imperialist oppression. European colonization has worked to dismiss African autonomy and legacies, both in the diaspora and this continent.
The displacement of West Africans during the slave trade stains the histories of Afro-descendants in the Caribbean Islands, Latin America, and North America. While creating a distinct black identity and history in this region, the slave trade is also rooted in the same racist ideology that marked Africa with scars from French, English, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Belgian, and German colonization.
On the other side of the same coin, Canadian resistance efforts towards slavery and our respective civil rights movement parallels African decolonization and liberation movements in their underlying commitment to combatting racial oppression.
On a more personal level, I am a first generation black Canadian whose parents immigrated to Toronto from Eritrea. Although my history is different from the experiences of Afro-descendants who have lived in North America for hundreds of years, my history is also marked by European colonization; I can identify with the black Canadian struggle. This is similar to the experiences of many first or second generation black people in Canada, who come from countries like Ghana, Jamaica, or Somalia.
When we observe Black History Month in Canada, then, we should strive to include more narratives that reflect the diverse reality of black identity. By linking and contextualizing the history of slavery and segregation in Canada within the broader legacy of white imperialism in Africa, we can also better appreciate what ‘black history’ means in an age of increasing globalization.
Using Black History Month as a time to celebrate general African history is not a call to overshadow or erase the history of African slave descendants in our country. We must and should continue to highlight this one angle of history. At the same time, however, we can find commonalities between these experiences and black liberation across the world, in order to foster a greater sense of solidarity and understanding as we navigate the complexities of racial identity.
Black history did not begin in Canada, and not all black people in Canada have history rooted here. Therefore, when we celebrate Black History Month, we must decolonize the narrative away from a Eurocentric angle that has stripped black Canadians from identifying with their African heritage. To do so, the first step is to acknowledge the wider black story that is comprised of many experiences and consequently embrace diversity in our narratives.
Milen Melles is a first-year student at Victoria College studying humanities.
Tags: Black History Month