Monday, 2 February 2015

Black History Month

There are three things that make February a special month.

The first is that it’s the shortest month of the year, making all attempts to rhyme it with the other months and days of the year completely useless and second is that all Canadians get a nice long break to stretch their arms out and grab a good read or take off on an extended road trip during Reading Week. 
The third which is more uncommon to celebrate is Black History month in Canada and the United States. It’s been an official commemoration since 1996 but most wouldn't know that unless they reached way far back into their fuzzy high school memories and remembered that it was asked as part of a pop quiz question alongside with what was the Underground Railway?
The need for a “Black History” month is debated but more often than not it’s just ignored. I know that’s what I've done for many years but this year I wanted to try something different.
 The more I look into what makes up Black Canadian identity the more intrigued I am. The presence of Blacks in Canada pre-dates Dominion Day (1867). This then makes it quite possible to meet a non-immigrated Black Canadian much to the astonishment of those that put their faith in pigmentation over history. The reason for this is because many of Nova Scotia’s early settlers were Black Loyalists fighting for the British Monarchy during the American Revolution in exchange for their freedom. Others then came during the War of 1812, the American Civil War, and in waves from other nations in search of greater economic opportunity and the sustaining of personal rights. Due to this sectionalism of arrivals, and diversity of countries within the black community, there never was developed an “African Canadian” identity that you could juxtapose with an African American one.
This then leaves the question as to why is there a “Black” Canadian identity at all? And why has it been used to constitute the making of a Black History month?
This is when things can get personal. 
In my readings for school I come across a lot of polemics which is the art of using language to defend or harshly criticize another. This then offends my propriety making me harshly critical of them and in a downward spiral we go. Once in a while though a light-bulb moment will come and finally something I’ve known all along but couldn’t put into words finally clicks. This is what happened to me the other day and hopefully is something I can share with the same clarity that it struck me.
  To start I want to bring to the forefront the term “Recognition” which can be defined as the acknowledgment of something's existence, validity, or legality. When we’re recognized for something it can be seen as a testament of our worth. Some yearn for this validation so much that they sell themselves and in the process depreciate the value they already held. But knowing worth comes from within is only useful in as much as it has been planted there.
Charles Taylor a Canadian political philosopher writes:
 Nonrecognition or misrecognition… can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, reduced mode of being. Beyond simple lack of respect, it can inflict a grievous wound, saddling people with crippling self-hatred. Due recognition is not just a courtesy but a vital human need.1
In our World History there has been many instances of groups, peoples, and races who have intentionally been denied recognition. Think about Colonial India, Apartheid South Africa and the Chinese “century of humiliation”. It is often done by foreign powers but more often than not it’s done within a country. It’s an ingrained way of thinking that shows in our everyday interaction with others and what we consider important and of value. A category for evaluating the justice of social institutions given by Iris Young is whether or not cultural meanings enhance the self-respect and self-expression of all society’s members.2   
The history we chose to represent us as a nation should incorporate all those who helped create it. Since contributions by Black Canadian’s tend to fly under the radar there was established a Black History month to recognize their achievements. As with most events dealing with affirmative action a backlash can result in the special permission given to a specific group. If a history month was created for all ethnicities within Canada we would have a very long year to say the least. But if we understand that we’re not celebrating a foreign history counter to “our” history that contention fades into the background. In reality we should be celebrating all groups of people and races that were part of the creation and patchwork of this country. Aboriginal peoples of Canada along with Québécois are important pieces but not the entire whole. As we look to the past take a moment to research how Black Canadians have been a part of the creation and sustaining of this country. It might surprise you and most of all it might lead you to change your perception of what it means to be Black within Canada.

1.    Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition,” Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, p.25.

2.    Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011, Chapter 1.

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