- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
“What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.” – Carter G. Woodson on founding “Negro History Week,” 1926
Black History Month is a time to remember, honor and celebrate the accomplishments of notable Black figures throughout history. Today marks Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, celebrated across North America on the third Monday of January each year. Chief spokesman for nonviolent activism in the civil rights movement, and remembered for his inspirational “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King is one of the greatest figures in history.
Yes, history. Not just Black history. When we celebrate figures such as Dr. King, I feel that it is imperative to remember that we are celebrating not merely Black achievement, but human achievement. This is why one day is not enough; and for Black History Month, a single month (which, as sardonically noted by various cultural critics and journalists, is the shortest month of the year) is sparse.
Some may argue that without the formal observation of Black History month, it would be impossible to recognize the accomplishments of African Canadians and African Americans; that Black contributions across disciplines—from science and politics to literature and the law—remains a marginalized subject, and that we need to highlight the meaning and relevance of these contributions in a way that observes them in a unique light.
However, many have also argued that it is more important we learn about each other’s history, culture and experiences throughout the year, and that themes as resilience, perseverance and confidence are relevant for all populations, regardless of race, ethnicity, or cultural location.
I take the position that it is always better to affirm and create awareness of the contributions made by Blacks in Canada and the U.S. as part of the larger project of recalling the pioneers who created these nations. Black History Month politicizes celebrations of diversity by recalling the very specific historical (as well as current) socio-political forces that shaped and influenced Black communities and identities. It is about promoting solidarity and empowerment in a time where both of these things are not always a given. A question that I often think about is whether we can give Black history the respect it deserves without suggesting that it needs to separate itself from the rest of historical discourse to prove that it deserves respect.
Nearly a century after Carter G. Woodson introduced Negro History Week, we have seen incredible historical leaps towards more just social relations on both the global and local planes, from the opening of Toronto’s first Africentric school to the momentous inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama. There is much to celebrate, but that does not mean our responsibilities end there. We need to make anti-oppression an ongoing responsibility for all cultural communities, and never get too comfortable with the state of affairs, whoever and wherever we are. There is always more to learn; always another person to help. To quote Martin Luther King, Jr. himself: “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” We need to move towards a deeper understanding of ethno-cultural diversity and race-related issues in libraries and classrooms as well as outside them, and be moved to action whenever oppression is exercised. We need to make discussions of equity and inclusivity a public, year-round conversation.
As we marvel at the man Dr. King was and is, as we hail the names of W.E. B. DuBois, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Rosa Parks and George Washington Carver; as we recite poems by the wonderful Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes, let us remember that true cultural knowledge, appreciation and celebration of our Black communities must continue at all costs, and that Dr. King would be most proud to know that the legacy he left was one of a deep affirmation of these communities—from school curriculums to books, policies and the media. An affirmation that has no beginning nor end, and includes all of us; an affirmation that can, in our era, take the leap from dream to reality.