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—
Stowe: Miss Tubman, or “General Moses,”
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
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:
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