Cer­e­mony ex­plores era­sure

Mcgill launches in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized Black His­tory Month

The McGill Daily - - News - Nora Mc­cready The Mcgill Daily

On Wed­nes­day Fe­bru­ary 1, McGill’s So­cial Eq­uity and Di­ver­sity Ed­u­ca­tion (SEDE) Of­fice hosted the open­ing cer­e­mony of the first in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized Black His­tory Month at Mcgill. The cer­e­mony, held in the Thomson House Ball­room, in­cluded nu­mer­ous speak­ers and per­for­mances, as well as a panel dis­cus­sion con­cern­ing the is­sue of Black era­sure.

Shan­ice Yarde, one of the or­ga­niz­ers, spoke about the pur­pose of the event and the mes­sage of Mcgill’s cel­e­bra­tion of Black His­tory Month.

“I’m re­ally ex­cited to cre­ate space for […] more di­verse voices. Our theme is Black ex­cel­lence, so we’re re­ally go­ing to be cel­e­brat­ing that and all of its di­ver­sity,” she said.

She went on to un­der­score the idea that Black his­tory does not only be­long to the month of Fe­bru­ary: it is a per­ma­nent re­al­ity.

The panel dis­cus­sion was the main fo­cus of the evening. The pan­elists in­cluded Rachel Zel­lars, a PHD can­di­date with our Depart­ment of In­te­grated Stud­ies in Ed­u­ca­tion, Dorothy Wil­liams, a his­to­rian and writer who spe­cial­izes in Black Cana­dian his­tory, Uchenna Edeh, a mem­ber of the Black com­mu­nity in Mon­treal, and Kapois Lamort, a his­to­rian, writer, and CEO and founder of Pro­duc­tion Noire.

Through­out the dis­cus­sion, au­di­ence mem­bers asked ques­tions and shared their own ex­pe­ri­ences.

The dis­cus­sion was mod­er­ated by Nènè Konaté, an or­ga­nizer of Black Stud­ies at Con­cor­dia, who be­gan with a se­ries of ques­tions on the sub­ject of era­sure.

“What do we se­lect to re­mem­ber?” she asked. “What do we se­lect to for­get? Who gets erased in the process? And who gets to cre­ate his­tory and who is fea­tured in his­tory?”

Lamort be­gan the dis­cus­sion by talk­ing about his book.

“My work is called Les Boss du Que­bec. It’s the first book about Hip Hop his­tory in Que­bec [...] a his­tory that goes back to the end of the 1970s,” he said. “[The book] is not only about hip hop and rap, but it’s also about the his­tory of the Black youth [in Que­bec].”

Lamort em­pha­sized the fact that his book is the only work of its kind, demon­strat­ing the lack of in­for­ma­tion avail­able and the re­al­ity of era­sure.

Wil­liams con­tin­ued on this theme of lack of in­for­ma­tion by dis­cussing her own work, which is also unique in its sub­ject mat­ter.

“I’ve writ­ten the only books that ex­ist right now on the chronol­ogy of the Black his­tory in Mon­treal; [...] I go back to the early days of slav­ery,” said Wil­liams. “For many peo­ple at the time the book was writ­ten, it was quite a shock to find out that [...] we did have slav­ery in Mon­treal.”

“Slav­ery ended in 1834 [in Que­bec],” she con­tin­ued. In 1841 came “the pub­li­ca­tion of a book by Fran­cois Garneau. [He] is con­sid­ered the fa­ther of Que­bec his­tory [...]. Do you know what he said in his book? Slav­ery never ex­isted in Que­bec.”

Wil­liams ex­plained that Garneau con­tin­ued to re­peat this as­ser­tion through three edi­tions of the book. His son cor­rected it after Garneau’s death, but, “it was too late. The myth had been per­pet­u­ated. The nar­ra­tive was set be­cause Que­be­cers were told that his­tory never ex­isted. The era­sure was com­plete.”

She also ex­plained why she has fo­cused on Black his­tory.

“I’ve al­ways writ­ten out of the need to speak about me be­ing here. It kind of goes back [...] to an ex­pe­ri­ence I had in high school,” she said. “One day in his­tory class I asked my his­tory teacher ‘How come you didn’t teach about slav­ery?’ And his re­sponse to me, in front of the class, was ‘You don’t have a his­tory.’”

“Peo­ple ask me when they read my first book [...] ‘how come there’s more foot­notes than there is text?’” Wil­liams con­tin­ued. “And I say, ‘Be­cause I wanted to prove that I had a his­tory.’”

Wil­liams fur­ther spoke about how she al­ways re­mem­bered her iden­tity as a Black Cana­dian woman. In con­trast, Edeh spoke about his per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence as a young child strug­gling with ques­tions of iden­tity.

“I grew up with a nag­ging ques­tion in my mind as a young boy, that is just, ‘Who am I?’”

“To this day I’m still asked, ‘Where are you from?’ I’m born in this city but I’m still asked ‘Where are you from?’ And so there’s al­ways a sense of not be­ing or not know­ing ex­actly where you stand. The dan­ger of that era­sure, when our his­tory is erased on the out­side, and you don’t have a strong sense of who you are, or a strong sense of self, it leads to that void and […] some­thing has to fill that void for you to iden­tify with. So it could be some­thing very pos­i­tive. But as we know it can also be filled with some­thing neg­a­tive.”

But he ex­plained that be­com­ing aware of his own his­tory and iden­tity has given him con­fi­dence.

“My name is Uchenna Edeh, it’s a Nige­rian name, an Igbo name,” he said. “When I was very young and [ peo­ple] couldn’t pro­nounce my name I would let them call me a nick­name. But when you have a sense of who you are and a sense of his­tory it was like, ‘No, my name is Uchenna.’ […] And if [some­one said] ‘Oh I can’t pro­nounce Uchenna, that’s too hard,’ I’m like, ‘That’s ok. You’ll learn.’”

Zel­lars also touched on the is­sue of era­sure and how it af­fects young Black peo­ple strug­gling to un­der­stand them­selves.

“My son’s ex­pe­ri­ence liv­ing on the Plateau in the French sys­tem took my re­search in a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. When he was in kinder­garten and then it be­came very ap­par­ent in first grade and sec­ond grade, he started […] mani- fes­t­ing symp­toms of self-ha­tred. It re­ally reared ahead when he was about seven-and-a-half years old and he started talk­ing about killing him­self,” she said.

“What I dis­cov­ered very quickly was it came from the pres­sures in many dif­fer­ent ca­pac­i­ties of be­ing the only Black child in a Plateau school in a French sys­tem that just did not see him or even have space to ac­knowl­edge this kind of Black child,” Zel­lars ex­plained. “I ended up tak­ing my chil­dren out of school for a year.”

Fol­low­ing along the same theme, Wil­liams touched on the way that Black­ness is con­stantly oth­ered. She noted that cur­rently Cana­dian schools fol­low the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion’s cur­ricu­lum, but that teach­ers can bring other re­sources into the class­room. Such re­sources in­clude the teach­ing kit that she has de­vel­oped to help schools in­te­grate Black Cana­dian his­tory into the cur­ricu­lum.

She stressed the im­por­tance of nor­mal­iz­ing Black ex­pe­ri­ence in or­der to can­on­ize the ex­is­tence of Black Cana­di­ans.

“One of the ways we’re try­ing to in­cul­cate the kit, to help teach­ers to teach it, is to take it away from the ex­otic [...]. We’re telling the sto­ries of the Black coureurs de bois, the fur traders. We’re say­ing you don’t have to make a spe­cial class to talk about Black coureurs de bois. When you’re talk­ing about the coureurs de bois you can men­tion that there were Blacks [...] You can make the con­ver­sa­tion about oth­er­ness with­out it be­ing oner­ous. It then be­comes part of the canon be­cause it be­comes nor­mal­ized.”

Nora Mc­cready | The Mcgill Daily

An in­ter­ac­tive poster at the panel.

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