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What Black History Month means to Me

As a young Black girl I recall feeling a mixture of discomfort and pride at the start of February. February marked Black History Month and it was a time when teachers would try to rally and cajole their Black students to participate in assemblies and presentations. Some students felt these events were unnecessary—the same opportunities weren’t afforded them to celebrate their cultural heritage year-round as part of the school’s curriculum. Some of us felt that our cultures were not readily embraced during every other month of the year. I vacillated between pride in showcasing my heritage and annoyance that it only seemed to be “cool” or accepted during the month of February. My participation in Black History Month activities and events varied from year to year, depending on how confident I felt or rebellious I wanted to be.

Today Black History Month represents for me the opportunity for us to participate in an ancient tradition: the tradition of remembrance and gratitude. Before the wet sand between the toes of the priests had a chance to dry and the aquarium wall had a chance to return to its liquid state, God had instructed Joshua to set up markers of remembrance (Joshua 4:1-9). Twelve stones were taken from the river bed, each one representing a tribe of Israel, to construct a memorial. These stones would act as a visual cue for generations and generations to come, a reminder of the time the Jordan River stopped flowing so that the Ark of the Covenant and the children of Israel could cross safely into the Promised Land. Throughout Scripture we see God instructing or inspiring his children to erect, construct, or retain symbols of remembrance and gratitude because he understands the human condition: we are prone to forget the goodness and mercy which follows us all the days of our lives and points us to His faithfulness.  

It is against this background I am convinced that Canada’s move follow the United States in officially recognizing the history and contributions of the black community via black history month is spirit-inspired. In 1926 Carter G. Woodson chose a week in February to commemorate the achievements and history of Africans and African-Americans. What was then dubbed Negro History Week would soon become Black History Month in the United States. By 1950 the celebration found its way to Canada via railroad porters who had been exposed to it during their US travels.1 Due to the lobbying efforts of the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS), Black History Month became officially recognized in Canada when Jean Augustine, MP and Parliamentary Secretary, put forth a motion which was unanimously passed in the House of Commons on December 5, 1995.2

There are those who would say that Canada is not in need of such a celebration. After all, it is the United States that has a problem with race relations, not us. Some will even argue that Canada was a place of refuge for runaway slaves and can boast of having officially abolished slavery 30 years prior to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation order.3 However, I would argue that if the contributions of Alexander Graham Bell and Pierre Trudeau’s to Canadian history are better remembered than those of their Black contemporaries Elijah McCoy and Lincoln Alexander, then there is a lack of respect and memory of true Canadian history. As a respected Aboriginal leader, George Erasmus says, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.”4

The reality remains that the Euro-centric historical account continues to dominate the way in which the Canadian narrative is told and framed. This lack of common memory results in the continued perpetuation of belief systems and actions that reinforce the mistaken belief that people of African descent are inferior. In fact, this provides a breeding ground for racism and its normalization in Canada. How can we effectively engage in acts of justice against issues such as police carding and health inequalities in racialized communities (Aboriginals and People of Colour) when we lack common memory? Black History Month serves to not only remind Canada about the contributions of Canadian Blacks, but also the realities that there remain many segments of society where we still celebrating “firsts” in the terms of equal rights, access, and freedom.

It is a blessing and a step in the right direction that Canada has adopted the ancient practice of remembering the significant contributions made by the Black community. The celebration acts as a rudimentary start towards the development of a common memory, which is a necessity in order to move towards racial justice and reconciliation.  

The Office of Race Relations will be facilitating a number of experiential excursions called Racial Reconciliation Journeys in an effort to help us move towards a more authentic community based on common memory. It is our hope that in journeying through the past together we can have clarity and discernment for the ways in which God is calling us to walk together in unity and reconciliation. For more information on upcoming Racial Reconciliation Journeys contact Race Relations Coordinator Bernadette Arthur at


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