William Hall, the Midwives of the African Nova Scotian Communities, Black Strathcona, the Coloured Corps, Lincoln Alexander Day, the Coloured Hockey League, Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children. Many of us have never heard or read about these events, people and places. However, these stories are deeply embedded in Canadian history and identity. Black History Month is an opportunity for all of us to learn about, honour, and celebrate the contributions people of African, Black and Caribbean descent have made. Their contributions have enriched Canadian history and the global community.
We often learn about Black history through an American perspective. Many believe that slavery was an American experience; however, slavery existed in Canada. When we think of the Civil Rights movement, we envision Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Ella Baker. However, in 1946, Viola Desmond refused to give up her segregated Whites-only section at the movie theatre in New Glasgow, N.S. She was arrested and fined for her actions. Nine years later, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a White passenger. Canada also had civil rights activists who fought against segregation and other forms of racism.
Black History Month is an opportunity for us to learn about and share our Canadian heritage. It is also an opportunity for us to reflect on what it means to live in a world with diverse identities, voices and stories. As someone who loves books books books, I know the critical role literature plays in framing our perception of ourselves and the world around us. Books are a meaningful way to celebrate Black History Month. Here are some suggestions for including Black voices and stories into our everyday lives:
1. Learn about our Canadian story
Black Canadians have shaped our society from literature, medicine, science and technology to education, law and politics. We can learn about Viola Desmond, Lincoln Alexander, Marie-Joseph Angélique and other notable Canadians. We shouldn’t limit Black history to one month, but intentionally find ways to incorporate Black history into our everyday lives.
2. Conduct a media audit
What stories are we telling, and which ones are we leaving out? Who gets to tell these stories? Black History Month is an opportunity for us to do an inventory of the media around us, and to reflect on our exposure to and awareness about diverse voices. Do the books, music, TV shows, and podcasts we enjoy represent the rich tapestry of Canada, or are the characters similar to us?
3. Black characters as everyday characters
Black people are often under-represented in books beyond books about activism, sports, or arts and entertainment. While it is wonderful to learn about Black history, we can read books that tell narratives of everyday life. Books with Black characters that depict their relationship to the environment or ecology, or as strong, influential figures are necessary for challenging stereotypes; but more importantly, they normalize experiences of Black people, e.g. Rocket Says Look Up! by Nathan Bryon, The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes or One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree by Daniel Bernstrom.
There is so much to learn about the achievements of Black Canadians, and perhaps one day Robert Sutherland, John Ware and Rosemary Brown will be household names.