The other day on Twitter, @racheldecoste asked me who my favourite Black Canadian historical figure was. It’s February, which means it’s Black History Month, so the question made sense. Still, I found I had to take a few seconds even to remember any Black Canadian historical figures, nevermind decide who among them was my favourite. As I began to count them off in my head (Lincoln, Viola, and Mary Ann, oh my!), that old sense of frustration and irritation I had about the superficiality and inadequacy of Black History Month flared to life once more.*
Reading Rachel’s retweets of the answers other people had given her, however, I started to feel a little guilty about my ignorance of all the contributions Black Canadians have made to this country**, even as my annoyance at the focus on outstanding “heroes and heroines” grew. Then, I came across Silent No More: A Sikh Response to the Idle No More Movement. Two passages, in particular, resonated with me:
We face discrimination in Canada and suffer from chronic underfunding in order to address challenging issues like domestic violence, sexual abuse and drug use. However, we are not without means. We have Sikh representatives at every level of government across the country and have been financially successful as a community. We owe a debt to this country and to its true heritage; not the Canada evolved from French and British colonies but to a land that was the sovereign territory of nations that sustainably farmed, fished and hunted here since before the dawn of history.
Today we face many problems as a community. We face internal divisions and external threats. But that has always been the case throughout Sikh history. Things have never been easy for our people. But we are capable of greatness when we are united. And when do we unite? When we struggle for justice, freedom and equality. Idle No More is a growing movement. It is the voice of a people demanding their rights. We need not care about political expediency. Sikh history is clear: the Sikh response to marginalized people fighting for rights has always been simple. We stand with you. Against all odds, we stand for you.
While there are distinct differences between the Sikh/Canadian experience described here and that of Afro/Canadian communities, the similarities ought to be obvious. Striking, even. Which is why, after I read the piece, I thought to myself, “You know what? I’m over Black History Month. In fact, I’m over being over Black History Month.” I realized that I am much more interested in figuring out how to build alliances and strategic coalitions between black people and Canada’s Aboriginal peoples right now, because I honestly believe we’ll be able to effect powerful changes towards social justice, for everyone.
This is not to say that I don’t think the achievements of historical Black Canadians are unimportant, or that, despite my ambivalence toward it, I don’t value the knowledge offered by Black History Month. It’s just that, at this moment in my history, I’d rather focus my energies on current struggles for liberation. That I am able to make this choice precisely because of those historical struggles is not lost on me. Indeed, it’s kind of the point.
So, I’ve decided to stop worrying about Black History Month, stop feeling guilty that I don’t know the names of all the exceptional and outstanding Black people who ever lived, and start remembering that what’s important is to keep their legacies alive in my own time, through my own actions.
Idle Black History Month No More. 😉
* I did eventually tell Rachel that, while I didn’t think I had a “favourite” Black Canadian historical figure, Mary Ann Shadd came immediately to mind. What I didn’t tell her, however, was that I chose Ms. Shadd because she was a powerful Black woman in a time when women weren’t considered to be worth much. (Intersectionality for the win!) There’s only so much one can say in 140 characters or less, you know?
** Even though our school curricula have failed all Canadians in this way, I still felt guilty for not taking it upon myself to learn “my” history on my own. This is a weird combination of internalized racism and resistance that I haven’t as yet been able to untangle.