It is not unusual for me to be on panels on Identity and Belonging and to be asked: Why do we have/need Black History Month? It is always a question that is tough for me to hear and respond to, in part because I also question the need. I hope for a world where Black History, including contributions to world history, doesn’t have to be spotlighted because it is common knowledge. The reality is, we are not there yet. And that is fundamentally why Black History still needs a month on the calendar.
What is it?
Black History Month is set aside to celebrate and acknowledge the contributions of Black Peoples throughout history. It originated in the US in 1970 and subsequently has been recognized in the United Kingdom, Canada and Ireland. Even though the City of Toronto started making proclamations for Black History Month since 1978 because of Black community activism, the first official Black History Month in Canada wasn’t until February 1996 – 25 years ago. This came about when the House of Commons unanimously carried a motion to recognize February as Black History Month in Canada, following a motion introduced by Dr. Jean Augustine, the first Black woman federal Cabinet minister. In addition, in February 2008, Senator Donald Oliver, the first Black man appointed to the Canadian Senate, introduced a motion that also passed unanimously to Recognize Contributions of Black Canadians and February as Black History Month.
This is certainly progress (and an example of why representation of historically marginalized groups matters at all levels). But when you peel back the layers, it shows you why we need Black History Month.
Why it matters?
The African Diaspora, defined as Black peoples of African descent living outside the continent of Africa, make up 260 million of the estimated 1.6 billion Africans globally. The United Nations has acknowledged that Peoples of African descent, on and off the continent have historically, and in the present time, been persistently discriminated against, causing lasting social and economic inequalities. As a result, they recognized the historical legacy of the slave trades as a crime against humanity and the root cause of present day anti-black racism, along with the harms caused by colonialism. To that end, 2015 – 2024 has been declared the International Decade for Peoples of African Descent. Yet…
- Only 4 countries outside Africa officially mark a month to recognize Black History that goes beyond the negative, anti-black and slavery-based story lines told from a colonial lens in history and literature. Fyi that May is Africa Day/Africa Communications Week/Africa Celebration Month, commemorating the formation of the African Union after the Independence movements that official ended European colonization in the 1960s, although neo-colonialism and economic colonialism persists.
- All who recognize Black History Month did so in very recent history, even though Black History of contributions started with the forced displacement and slavery of Black peoples to the Middle East (A trans-Saharan slave trade preceded the transatlantic one), Europe, the Americas, Latin America and Asia since as early as the 7th Century.
- In Canada, education curriculums are largely devoid of Black History beyond the lens of slavery (ask yourself: What Black history did you learn in school?). This absence of holistic Black History is known as Black erasure and is particularly of concern in Canada.
- Mainstream media portrayals continue to reinforce negative stereotypes about Black peoples which continues racism and systemic discrimination trends Black peoples.
Black History Month matters, because it is time to reverse these trends, once and for all. And I, for one, wish for a world where my daughter’s children (if she has any!) don’t have to ask me, like she just did, why her school isn’t doing anything to recognize Black History Month.
References & Resources:
- UN Fact Sheet: People of African Descent
- BCTF: Black History Month—February. Facts and Resources
- Global News Podcast: Black Erasure in Canada