Ceremony explores erasure
Mcgill launches institutionalized Black History Month
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.”
An interactive poster at the panel.