“The power to change the world”: Raptors President Masai Ujiri speaks at U of T

Ujiri speaks on the power of sports in honour of Black History Month

“The power to change the world”: Raptors President Masai Ujiri speaks at U of T

U of T’s 17th annual Black History Luncheon on February 28 rounded out four weeks of Black History Month celebrations. The event commemorated Afro-Canadian culture through food and live music, culminating in the recognition of the philanthropic efforts of Masai Ujiri, President of the Toronto Raptors.

Ujiri is the first African-born General Manager in the NBA. In addition to his work with the Raptors, he is the co-founder of Giants of Africa, a non-profit organization that uses basketball as a means to improve the lives of African youth. 

In an email to The Varsity, Ujiri wrote, “Every year I am amazed by the youth of Africa. They are truly the future.”

Ujiri founded Giants of Africa soon after becoming director of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders, when he was inspired to create a basketball camp for the children of his home country, Nigeria.

As an NBA scout at the time, he was concerned with finding the next African NBA star. However, over the years, Ujiri came to the realization that few people have the skills it takes to make it to the NBA.

He said at the event, “That began to eat me inside because not everybody is going to be a talented basketball player that’s going to play in the NBA.”

Ujiri said that he may not have been the greatest basketball player, nor did he make it to the NBA, but he “used basketball as a tool” to get himself an education and to meet new people. Basketball helped him to understand the importance of traits such as teamwork and leadership and this is what he hopes to teach the children who attend his camps. 

It is also important to him that they understand that there is more to sports than being a professional basketball player. He listed sports management, psychology, law, and journalism as a few of the areas available. Ujiri discovered that this was not a common perception in Africa, and so he sought to educate children about alternative careers in sports.

The sold-out luncheon took place in Hart House’s Great Hall at UTSG on Thursday. It was also live-streamed at UTM, UTSC, and the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport. The event included guests such as Nigerian High Commissioner to Canada Adeyinka Olatokunbo Asekun, U of T President Meric Gertler, New Democratic Party MPP Jessica Bell from University—Rosedale, and students from the York Region District School Board.

In his email to The Varsity, Ujiri wrote that Africa will always be his homeland.

“I will always be proudly African. Every country in Africa has its own unique charm and beauty, but universally Africans are hardworking, good people dedicated to [bettering] themselves and those around them. Giants of Africa and basketball have shown me sides of the continent I didn’t even know. The resilience, strength of the youth, women and Africans in general is unparalleled.”

However, he added that “Toronto is an incredible, world class city that I consider to be home,” and that Toronto has “come into its own” as a “tier one sports city.”

For Ujiri, sports can teach a person valuable life lessons of “hard work, dedication, teamwork and commitment,” and because of that, sports have “the power to change the world.”

UTSU holds event on impact of anti-Black racism on mental health

Discussions centred around intersectionality, barriers in academia

UTSU holds event on impact of anti-Black racism on mental health

The University of Toronto Students’ Union held an event titled “Anti-Black Racism and Mental Health” on February 15 as part of its annual eXpression Against Oppression series, coinciding with Black History Month. Closing out a week of events directed at challenging oppression and highlighting the experiences of marginalized people, the event addressed the negative impacts of anti-Black racism and discrimination on mental health.

Rania El Mugammar, a Sudanese-Canadian writer and anti-oppression and liberation educator, hosted and led the discussion.

When asked about why it is important to address the issue of mental health and anti-Black racism in a conversation with The Varsity before the event, Mugammar replied that the dehumanizing effects of racism and the resulting hypervigilance negatively impacts mental health.

“If [it’s] not part of our understanding of [the] mental health crisis and mental health issues then how can we actually address it in a way that helps people find coping mechanisms that work, find treatment plans that work, and find sustainable ways to support themselves and their communities, and also have language to talk about it?”

Mugammar especially stressed the importance of having the language to talk about mental health in her culture.

“I remember when I was younger and all the Black women around me would say, ‘Depression is for white girls,’” Mugammar said.

“We don’t have the luxury of falling apart, right? So it’s not something that’s allowed for us. So we don’t have a language around it and I think it’s really important that we do.”

Addressing this absence through an anti-oppression framework during the event, she discussed the theory of intersectionality, how it concerns Black communities, and why it’s so important to incorporate intersectionality into mental health interventions and conversations.

According to Mugammar, approaches that do not have an intersectional lens end up saying that being a “woman is a white, cis, able-bodied experience. Everyone else is a deviation.”

Due to this belief, she talked at length about how the study of psychology is “rooted in the world of wealthy white men,” and why it’s important to break that barrier and include more people from Black communities when designing mental health supports for them.

When asked by a student how her work aids and supports important academic research in psychology, Mugammar replied that her work does not support the academic community.

Instead, she framed most of her work as “pedestalling and giving [a] platform to community-based interventions and grassroot interventions and culturally relevant interventions that don’t get access to academic spaces.”

She expressed her disdain and distrust of academia by pointing out that the very “fathers” of psychology and mental health studies are from “a very particular social location,” adding that the “roots of this tree are rotten.”

Instead, she said that she needs to know the social location from which the researcher speaks: “who the researcher is, what their purpose is, etc.”

Mugammar also addressed the issue of intergenerational trauma in Black communities as the last topic of the night.

According to Mugammar, one cannot talk about mental health in Black communities without addressing intergenerational trauma, because intergenerational trauma can seriously impact mental health.

“Trauma fucks with you,” she said.

Finding Blackness — in each other, in ourselves

Being on campus reminds us of our existence and resistance

Finding Blackness — in each other, in ourselves

The journey through university is supposedly defined by self-discovery — the process of becoming the person you were always meant to be. For some, this might seem comforting. But for me, a Black Canadian, I find it daunting.

Forming a Black Canadian identity

The conversation of what it means to be a Black Canadian is a confusing road. For one, it is very different from that of African-Americans, whose experiences are separate from our own. African-Americans have a unified racial identity — one that is deeply rooted in an ancestral experience of slavery and post-emancipation oppression.

African-Americans are attached to the US — nothing more and nothing less. The constant need to remind their fellow Americans that their country is theirs is the fire that fuels their revolution. In Canada, the Black population is not defined by a common ancestral link, but rather by its diverse immigrant background.

I have yet to meet a Black Canadian who refers to themselves as “Canadian” before they refer to themselves as either Nigerian, Jamaican, Brazilian, and so on. The commitment to multiculturalism and diversity, especially in Toronto, inhibits the identification of a singular, unified Black Canadian racial identity. If we are Somali or West Indian first, it is difficult to arrive at a conversation about common Black Canadian struggles, namely anti-Black racism, that affect all of us regardless of our ethnic or national background.

The University of Toronto, however, operates as a site of resistance to the multicultural narrative. Here, we are more aware of our Blackness because of the smaller presence of Black bodies on campus, where we should be able to organize as Black students. For example, I interviewed a first-year engineering student who expressed her difficulties in finding peers of the same race as her. A first-year social sciences student noted that there exists a feeling of alienation coupled with “the rare occurrence of running into another Black person.”

The lack of Black representation on campus is problematic. It reduces Black students’ comfort of inclusion and their capacity to organize on campus, which, in turn, allows anti-Blackness to fester and become institutionalized. We saw this when a Massey College professor and a Dalla Lana School of Public Health lecturer both made racist remarks last academic year in two separate cases of anti-Black racism.

This is the kind of behaviour from figures of authority that makes Black students feel unwelcome. It’s also the kind of environment that pushed the Black Liberation Collective (BLC) to demand the collection of race-based data for students that would allow students to identify as Black.

In turn, U of T, along with various other Canadian universities, pledged in October 2017 to provide a demographic report on its students. Such a report has yet to be provided. This prolonged silence shows that the university does not intend to take the drive for Black liberation seriously. U of T likely believes that the situation is not as bad in multicultural Canada as it is south of the border.

We saw this dismissive attitude in an anti-Black incident last year, when engineering students used racial slurs and distributed pictures depicting blackface in a group chat. In response, the Black Students’ Association (BSA), BLC, and the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) hosted a town hall and made demands to the administration, such as funding for an anti-Black racism campaign on campus, which have yet to be realized. In fact, at the time of the incident, they were told that it would take over a year for the demands to be put into action.

This echoes the current wait for the demographic report. The important steps that need to be taken in order to further heal the wounds of anti-Blackness are put on the proverbial back burner. This leaves many like me frustrated, lost, and waiting for change.

We are already talking

But Black students continue to organize. Groups like the BSA, the NSBE, the Black Public Health Students’ Collective provide a microphone for weary Black voices across campuses and create spaces for Black individuals to express ourselves. The BSA town hall, for example, was an instance of organized activism that received widespread campus attention.

Other groups explore the intersection of Blackness and womanhood. A Dialogue for Black Women was started by fifth-year student Chiderah Sunny last October. The group is described as “a space for Black women primarily… where we aim to debunk or re-imagine notions and ideologies that surround our identity and our existence.”

The idea came about when Sunny was having a conversation with a Black female friend and they realized how many of their experiences were connected yet they were disheartened by the lack of organized spaces to continuously express these experiences. So A Dialogue for Black Women was born, and now, the group has meetings moderated by and between Black women.

The space has just recently grown into a non-profit organization of a similar name, With Black Women, which is meant to provide a more inclusive environment that bridges the lack of communication between Black and non-Black individuals, while still centring around Black women. “We’ll be inviting other women of colour, white women, into the conversation but that are participants, they are allies,” Sunny explained.

Such student-led forums are not the only ones of their kind on campus. The BSA is planning for its 20th annual high school conference this year. This is an event where they invite high school students to UTSG to be mentored “by black professionals and current university and college students to help them realize that post-secondary education… is an attainable goal,” according to its website.

The high school conference works to promote a larger Black population on the university campus. This is something U of T only recently started to focus on with programs such as the Black Student Application Program for Black medical school applicants.

The NSBE also had its own high school conference just last October, which is part of an initiative known as either the NSBE Junior program or NSBE Pre-College Initiative program. The program was designed to stimulate interest in STEM programs with objectives like taking “NSBE into classrooms around the GTA.”

Student-led organizations have existed and continue to exist to lead conversations within the Black community and beyond. They actively work to create the change I have waited for.

Given the multicultural narrative, being a Black Canadian does not come naturally or with a clear-cut definition. But being on campus reinforces how small we are and compels us to demand change from our institution. We cannot wait for existing power structures to give us change; it has to start with us forming communities and engaging in conversations ourselves. Black Canadians are already talking.

What is crucial is that we support these groups and the voices and platforms they have to enact change. It can be done with basic forms of participation like attending a few meetings or promoting their events. We are making an active effort to unify ourselves. In doing so, we can succeed in finding each other and ourselves.

Nadine Waiganjo is a first-year Social Sciences student at University College.

A roundup of Black History Month at U of T

Where you can celebrate Black history on campus

A roundup of Black History Month at U of T

In honour of Black History Month, equity groups and student unions across U of T’s three campuses are organizing a series of events from panels to workshops throughout February. Here’s where you can participate and celebrate Black excellence on campus.

UTSG

Student unions, college governments, and equity collectives at UTSG have a plethora of events in celebration of Black History Month.

As part of the eXpression Against Oppression series, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) will be hosting an event on February 15 titled “Anti-black Racism and Mental Health.”

This event will take a look at mental health from an intersectional perspective while addressing the role of anti-Black racism and discrimination. The event will be moderated by Sudanese-Canadian writer Rania El Mugammar.

In collaboration with Hart House, the UTSU will also be hosting a career drop-in event, titled “Black Futures,” featuring résumé checkups and professional LinkedIn photography.

College student unions such as the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC), the Innis College Student Society (ICSS), and the Woodsworth College Students’ Association (WCSA) are hosting respective Black History Month events run by their equity commissions.

Along with the ICSS and the WCSA, the Woodsworth Racialized Students’ Collective will be hosting a panel discussion featuring three U of T graduates drawing on their experiences going through academia while Black.

VUSAC’s equity commission hosted an event on February 7, titled “A Taste of Black History,” highlighting the importance of food in Afro-Caribbean diasporas. It is also running a social media campaign highlighting the contributions of Black-Canadians to Canadian society.

The Varsity spoke with Vibhuti Kacholia, a member of VUSAC and organizer of its Black History Month programming, on the significance of commemorating Black histories in an academic environment.

“It is important for the U of T community to celebrate Black History Month because it is important for us to recognize and celebrate our Black students, faculty, and staff and provide spaces for that prioritizes them,” she said.

The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) will also be hosting various events throughout February and into March. Of note, the GSA will be presenting Black History “An Evening of Black Excellence” on February 28. This event will “showcase a variety of visual and performing artists” and those interested in presenting are encouraged to sign up.

UTSC

In collaboration with the U of T Black Students’ Association, the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) and the Olive Branch of Hope, a foundation aimed at breast cancer research, will be hosting Hoops for Hope, a tri-campus basketball tournament, on February 22.

Tickets start at $8, with the proceeds going toward cancer research.

The SCSU is also hosting the Black Joy Banquet on February 15, celebrating Afro-Caribbean culture over a three-course meal.

The UTSC Department of Student Life and International Student Centre will be hosting a Black History Month poetry slam competition on February 13 in collaboration with Hart House.

UTM

UTM will be hosting a Black History Month Luncheon on February 28, featuring Masai Ujiri, president of the Toronto Raptors and co-founder of Giants of Africa. The event is free but space is limited.

The University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union, the UTM Black Students’ Collective, and Caribbean Connections UTM have partnered to host multiple events throughout the month of February. These events centre around themes such as mental health, self care, and more. They will also be hosting a Closing Ceremony on February 27 which includes an art showcase, which students can sign up to be a part of. 

History and humanity

Reflections on Black History Month

History and humanity

William Peyton Hubbard was a baker by trade, raised near Bloor and Bathurst, long before the area was a planning site for condos. In 1894, he became the first black man to be elected to Toronto’s City Council. Despite this momentous appointment — a significant step towards social equality among the races — the City of Toronto would not institutionalize the commemoration of Black History Month until 85 years later, in 1979, roughly 44 years after Hubbard’s death.

There is some variation in the way Black History Month’s aims are articulated across locations and groups. In Toronto, for instance, Black History Month presents an opportunity for reflection and recognition of “the past and present contributions” that African Canadians make to the vibrant life of the city. U of T’s Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office wrote in their newsletter that the month of February is an “important month for anti-racism and cultural diversity in Canada,” recognizing the wealth of historical reflection that stems from not only Black History Month, but also Indigenous Education Week.

Throughout the past few weeks of February, student groups across the university’s three campuses have incorporated Black History Month into a broader conversation about black experiences. Examples include events hosted at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) this past month focussed on building community, promoting black businesses in Toronto, and resistance. “Resilience & Resistance,” a Black History Month conference including input from groups based on all three campuses, purposefully  brought the theme of black history into a conversation about pressing issues affecting black communities today.

Inherent to the reflections that inform Black History Month is the discord that exists between taking an opportunity to celebrate black communities’ diverse and abundant heritage and facing the sobering reminder that anti-black racism and social disparity persevere in Toronto and around the world. If a common thread is to be found in what Black History Month means to different people, it could be that it provokes reflection: on accomplishments, struggles, prejudices, victories, and what is yet to come. What follows is a sampling of reflections from black students, professors, and members of the community.


“I feel like the approach from the Ontario curriculum is to treat the month like a holiday as opposed to the reason WHY it’s being taught.”

“I’m curious about the way children, OUR future generation, are taught to understand Black History month. As someone with an 11 year old brother, they learn about accomplishments and but I wonder if the curriculum is sanitized to shield them from the pain and trauma that comprise the second half of each story. The unpleasantries [sic] are diluted so they can believe we’ve entered a post-racial society. How does that affect their understanding of anti-black racism? How will they react to true injustice when it inevitably reaches them?”

— Melissa Vincent, Student, University College


“I don’t know as many black people making history in Canada as I would like to. But I do hear and see stories of young artists, educators etc. doing what they can to promote blackness… so I would like to shout out and tell them to keep going because you never know who you might inspire with your work. At an event recently, I got introduced to whole bunch of black women such as D’bi Young — who is a poet — Jully Black — a singer and actress —and Traci Anderson — a play writer. They were all so amazing in their energy and in their work and I think that’s really a revolution in how we communicate and see each other. I also know a couple of students who also happen to be my friends who are starting businesses, clubs, conversation and encouraging people younger than us in a way that we never got encouraged because we never saw representations of ourselves. We are in a time where we should all be celebrating ourselves and making history so I really hope we do.

There’s always a lot of talk around whether Black History Month should be a thing or not. I think it’s good because it’s a time where we can really be celebrated from who we are and what we do. We have the whole year where we are constantly criticized, attacked and shown in negative light. Black History Month does not need to be out about that. That being said, I am also glad that a lot of black people are now celebrating black people every time they can and not just this token that was given to us. I think it’s about taking this small token and growing it and making it so big they can’t ignore us.”

— Shully Sappire, Student


“For me, a moment in Canadian Black History that stands out as historically significant is the founding of the Black Action Defence Committee in Toronto in 1988.

After multiple egregious incidents of police brutality and anti-black racism in Toronto — including the police murder of Buddy Evans in 1978 and Albert Johnson in 1979 — the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC) was formed by Caribbean Canadians Lennox Farrell, Sherona Hall, Dudley Laws and Charles Roach.

This moment is important, not only to Black people in Canada but all Canadians, for so many reasons. BADC was responsible for increased police accountability through civilian oversight. It was the organizing and protesting of BADC that led to the creation of the Special Investigations Unit. BADC can also be credited with being behind the promotion of Black police officers to senior positions.

Many of the major players involved in the creation of BADC were also instrumental in shaping Toronto and the world in so many other ways. Charles Roach became a human rights lawyer and, along with Lennox Farrell and Sherona Hall, founded Caribana. Hall was also involved in freedom struggles throughout Africa until her death in 2007 at 59. Lennox Farrell, the lone surviving member of BADC, was a teacher and also advocated for Black youth. He founded the North York Black Education Committee that kept the heat on the North York School Board on issues involving Black youth.

The formation of BADC is also significant to me because it reminds me of a time when the revolutionary spirit was alive and kicking in Toronto and also helps place me, as a first-generation Canadian born of Caribbean parents, in Canadian history.”

— Septembre Anderson, Toronto Journalist


“[Black History Month is] an opportunity to look inward and reflect on the past in the hopes of not having it repeated. However, it is also a reminder to celebrate those people that have worked to make change and impacted the world in big and small ways…[A]t this point so many people are making history. There’s a new wave of awareness and activism — not only black leaders, but everyday people have gained greater awareness of themselves and there is so much rallying and unity being promoted. All these people are making history because they are working to bring about change in different ways.”

— Fanta Diaby, Student


“Currently, Canadians are able to purchase a stamp featuring The No. 2 Construction Battalion, the “Black” Battalion mustered in Pictou, NS, in 1916, to allow African-Canadians an opportunity to serve in The Great War–or WWI. These servicemen, segregated and separated from the regular Canadian Army, were sent to the French-Swiss border to fell trees, cut logs and lumber, and construct railway ties to assist the Allies in their globe-girdling struggle with Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire.  The unit was led–in part–by Rev. Capt. William Andrew White (the first black officer in the British Army), whose job was to counsel the alienated, pray for the sick, mourn the dead, and cheer up the disgruntled. Certainly, his men — his Coloured soldiers — fell ill from infection due to mosquitoes and chills and succumbed to disaffection due to racism and elitism. So, White was called upon to show red-blooded courage when, fed up with taunts from nearby white soldiers, black soldiers assembled to wage pitched battle with their sworn comrades.

Fistfights erupted, brawls broke out, and soon a threat of all-out race riot materialized. Into the middle of the sorry melee, White surged his dark horse, forcing the two sides to separate, as he rode up and down the divided lines, exhorting, preaching, calling on the soldiers to keep the King’s peace. He succeeded, and a bloody ruction was prevented. In a career of milestones, this moment was perhaps his finest, and he returned from France, in 1918, the de facto leader of all African Canadians….”

— George Elliott Clarke, Professor of English, St. George Campus, Toronto Poet Laureate


Harlem Pamphlet (1943) 

By Langston Hughes 

That skull-faced cops feel the privilege
To Murder, as mourners allege—
To shoot down black boys, not white toughs,
But kids (wrists too skinny for handcuffs),

Warns us that pale police perceive
Emancipation as a sieve,

Setting too many Negroes free
From Dixie plantations. Cops see

Our Suppression as their Mission:
Police repeal Abolition.

Every shot dead Negro attests
To Anti-Liberty’s Success.

Every cop who kills a “nigger,”
Rapes Justice with gun-snout vigour.

[Ottawa (Ontario) 12 avril / Nisan mmxv]

—George Elliott Clarke


Harriet Tubman & Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Debate 

Stowe:                The tears of slaves hail so sorely on Heaven,
Poets straggle from sonnets to Struggle.

Tubman:             Poets clad shit in blossoms.

Stowe:                 Harriet, this Harriet—
who’s no Judas Iscariot—

feels it’s strategic
to ink visions.

Tubman:             Didn’t Moses fell soft bodies with sharp blades,
dilapidate a palace with disgusting murders—

and have Cairo bombarded with stone and fire,
clog roads with horses, chariots, Hebrew Refugees;

while the pursuing Gypsies,
in heavy gallop,
floundered in nostril-clogging water,
so dead horses piled up in sky-high mud.

Thus was the oldest Grief
Slavery
indecorously extirpated.

Stowe:                Miss Tubman, or “General Moses,”
I caution:

One who brandishes a sword
may soon prove herself its sheath.

Tubman:             Miss Stowe, or “Grandma Moses,”
I bade thee remember God’s Moses: The Divine Ten Orders—
that rustic calligraphy—
scribed scrupulously into stone—
brooked no profligate diction,
no forgiving asterisks.
The words were harsh:
Obey, repent, or perish.

Stowe:                Better it is to chequer ink cross foam-white paper,
than it is to give inklings of swords.

Tubman:             I lead ex-slaves through angry rain,
and traverse from hungry bower to hungry glade,
where winds lour
and frost numbs tongues with chill.
Exhaustion lames us,
but we limp and skulk, shadow-low,
hiding were pines hang down green boughs, sheltering behind magnolia,
while a lamp gives light, not heat,
or a small fire crumbles snow into water.
A biting feeling—and frigid—is our crouching, cringing,
like hunted beasts….
Yet, thus we suffer until we slip into Queen Victoria’s America,
abandoning households of whippings and cold ash and Rape….

Stowe:                Hew to the Christian example of Uncle Tom.

Tubman:           I hew to the Christian example of Uncle Sam.

[Cambridge (Massachusetts) 26 février mmxiv]

—George Elliott Clarke


Dark-Skinned

Fanta Diaby

my mother tells me

I was born with dark gums and black palms.

as if to say

that even as I entered this world I could not bear

to be anything but

the colour that covered her.


The Barber’s Chair

By: Jaren Kerr

I’m not one of the regulars
so when I walk in, they’re all a bit mystified
But they carry on, like they do in all shops
Sharing stories about back home
told in Patois and Drunk.
I’ve perfected my nervous laugh
They’ve perfected a home away from home
Sometimes I get my hair cut there

I wait to be picked
by one of the roster:
Shaky Hands
Heavy Breather
Always Laughing
and I hope for the best
Shaky leaves patches
Heavy is too tedious
Laughing Always goes into my hairline for $18, why complain?

Educated in a way I envy
they envy and love my “U of T”
I could be a community leader, on the cover of Share
I tell them I study Medicine
(I’m tired of explaining Bioethics to everyone I know) I do not mention poetry or philosophy
That would be insulting

They are small c
Big minds in their own right, philosophical and critical
concerned about the new world that passes them by
while they bathe in nostalgia.


 

Emmett Till ‘15

By: Jaren Kerr

On my walk home
I see a delicate rose in the distance
With soft, blonde curls, looking like sapphire. She reminds me of my love, with her own curls,
Her own gems, and pink cheeks.

What a fine day.
Innocently (since I must make it clear),
I want to share my joy and give her a smile
Until I remember
My tight black curls
My bronze exterior
My brothers on the news.
I may worry her purse, which would hug her tightly as I approach.
I may excite horrors; a product of violent fairy tales.

To be safe,
I decide to cross the street, avoid eye contact
And walk home,
To my woman
And her soft, blonde curls.


By Shully Sappire

my new coworker,

who is a funny, round, little older man
thinks i know nothing of classics.
he walks me around the store,
pointing to things that should be childhood memories,
staring at me when i say i have never watched star wars,
confused when i don’t know of the little hidden joys Canadian children here. he goes home thinking,
she’s caught up in technology.
she doesn’t remember the old, fun days.

but it’s not that.

i remember the games,
playing ludo till we were forced to bed.
playing azigo under the moonlight.
laughter always erupting
because somebody was always cheating.

i am not a lost cause,
as my new coworker
who is a funny, round, little older man thinks.

we just have different ideas of the classics.

– stories by an immigrant student II

Black History Month at U of T

A series of events commemorating black history and heritage

Black History Month at U of T

Throughout the month of February, student groups are holding events for Black History Month at U of T. The activities are designed to provide a dedicated space for the discussion of black experiences of both the past and the present. Black History Month also acts as an opportunity to support the black community.

With these aims in mind, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) organized a number of events for the first half of February.

These events included festivities such as the Black History Social, which allowed students to enjoy soul food and exchange ideas and views with their peers, and also the ‘Buy Black’ initiative. Buy Black was a two-day event to support local black-owned businesses by enabling them to promote and sell their products on campus.

The UTMSU is also collaborating with Textbooks for Change, a social enterprise that provides affordable educational material locally and abroad. The two organizations are donating 1,000 books to universities in East Africa.

In the second half of the month, the UTM Equity and Diversity Office and the UTMSU are hosting a talk by community organizer and educator Jasiri X.
UTMSU president Uranranebi Agbeyegbe did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment.

The Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) is holding a conference entitled Resilience and Resistance: Black History Month Conference. On February 27, it will include a number of workshops as well as two keynote speeches. 

The speakers are Yusra Khogali, from the Black Liberation Collective U of T, and Nompendulo Mkhatshwa and Faisha Hassan, from #WitsFeesMustFall, a student activist movement that was started last year in South Africa. The speakers will discuss the challenges of institutionalized anti-black racism within post-secondary education. 

“Resilience and Resistance is one of many spaces created by Black students at the University of Toronto,” said Jessica Kirk, SCSU vice president equity. The SCSU last organized a Black History Month conference in 2014 which involved several student groups at UTSC.

This year, the union worked with a number of associations across the university. “Rather than solely organizing Black History Month initiatives with Black Student Associations at the Scarborough Campus, we reached out to Black student organizers and organizations across all three campuses to demonstrate a true sense of unity in the Black community,” Kirk said.

“[The] SCSU is not limiting the creation and maintenance of spaces for Black students to February,” Kirk explained. “Rather, we aim to take active steps to support Black students and community members all months of the year in various ways.”

For the end of Black History Month, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Social Justice & Equity Commission has organized a spoken word showcase, Afro Speaks! set for February 29. According to the Facebook event page, “The tone of this space will welcome expressions of the radical and critical truths about Blackness/African-ness as it interacts with a white supremacist global system.”

All the events held this month aim to highlight the importance of giving a platform to minority groups. The groups behind the commemoration of Black History Month hope to “collectively create strategies to support and empower the Black community,” according to the Facebook event page.

Whose history is black history?

African liberation narratives deserve recognition in Black History Month

Whose history is black history?

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.