On Black History Month
Reflections on Mcgill’s first official BHM from within the Black community
My mom tamed my nappy negro hair and my dad sent me to schools in ‘good’ neighbourhoods. “I am Black 24/7, every day of the year. I suffer from the repurcussions of white supremacy by my simple existence – why can’t we acknowledge that?” —Gaby* U1 student Is BHM insulting, tokenizing, and inadequate for Black people? Yes. Is it necessary and empowering? Also yes.
Growing up, my dad would love to reminisce this story at dinner parties: “She was about three years old…this was when we were living just outside of Detroit and I was picking her up from Montessori one day. I asked her how school was and she blurts out, ‘Baba, I’m changing my name to Ashley!’ If this is what she wanted, I thought, okay…i can play along. So I said, ‘Sure, so Ashley, how was school today?’ And you know what she did next? She shouted ‘Stop! Stop!’ and started crying!”
My dad’s friends, a crowd of East African men, would laugh on cue – the punch line being my attempt at assimilation. I’ve come to recognize this anecdote as the beginning of a long, subtle, and predictable identity crisis.
I believe my parents made conscious decisions to distance my upbringing from other Black folk, the kind of people that society loves to label ‘violent,’ ‘idle,’ or ‘promiscuous.’ Their reverence for whiteness was not the result of a Black inferiority complex, but rather a strategy to guarantee a safer future for my brother and I. My mom tamed my nappy negro hair and my dad sent me to schools in “good” neighbourhoods. I don’t blame them for making these choices, ones that have sometimes helped me move more easily through life.
So February has just passed, and I’ve been processing my Blackness within the context of Black History Month (BHM). I’ve always been wary of the agenda of BHM. If the time for celebrating Black identity is carved out for a single, lonely month, it’s bound to be painfully limiting. I was raised with fragments of Canadian and Ethiopian culture by parents who were refugees. My reality is far more nuanced than the current discourse on Black identity. So often, BHM focuses on a single Black narrative that doesn’t represent all of us children of diaspora. The struggle of Black folk is homogenized as if our specific contexts, histories, and individual experiences are unimportant, simply because we have our rich melanin in common. It’s for that reason that I chose to speak to a number of Black friends and peers in writing this feature, in the hopes that I can give voice to the ambivalence that many Black students feel about BHM, in light of our particular backgrounds.
Who does BHM really cater to?
I believe that BHM, as it stands now, contributes to the historical project of making Blackness more palatable for white people. There’s a list of acceptable Black folk to praise, and it has mostly included non-violent historical figures who are no longer controversial or threatening to the white establishment. Naturally, the achievements of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deserve recognition; but in repeatedly lionizing the few, we fail to include the diversity of Blackness. In discussing our Black heroes, we tend to ignore or silence those who aren’t cis, straight, or light skinned who have also asked for a seat at the table. The challenges that have been emphasized are the victories of emancipation and civil rights for African Americans. “Look, we’ve come so far!” helps dismiss the very present reality of voter suppression laws and human trafficking that disproportionately affects Black people. With every passing year that we celebrate BHM, it seems like we’re preemptively congratulating ourselves on living in a post-racial and postcolonial society. In participating, I worry that I am complicit in validating a highly inaccurate representation of Black people.
When interviewing U1 student Gaby*, she discussed a frustration I share: “Not all Black people around the world have a Black History Month. Many Caribbean and African countries do not hold them simply because their curriculums integrate Blackness properly. I feel as though BHM serves white supremacy rather than Black people, mainly because it holds us into a position of marginalization rather than equality.” Her remarks reminded me of the conversations I had with my parents, who never celebrated BHM, yet who still helped me with elementary school projects about Harriet Tubman. It seems to be a radical notion that being of African origin should be of year-round importance. Gaby spoke to this ever-present feeling of isolation: “[Black history] is world history as much as the French Revolution and the Roman Empire. It must be integrated, rather than reduced in the shortest month of the year. As far as I am concerned, I am Black 24/7, every day of the year. I suffer from the repercussions of white supremacy by my simple existence – why can’t we acknowledge that?”
During a conversation with my friend Samira*, a U3 Pharmacology major, she disclosed how, in her youth, she found herself “somewhat uninterested in Black History Month, or Black culture at all for that matter.” I felt a little guilty that I related so strongly. She continued, “I have a memory of crying in kindergarten because my friends forced me to be Scary Spice (the ‘Black one’) from the Spice Girls during recess. Until I was about 17 I did whatever I could to distance myself from my culture, largely because I didn’t go to school with or have many African-american friends, and so I didn’t like that this month drew attention to how different my family and I were from everyone I associated with on a regular basis.” Black folks are often presented with only two options: perform stereotypical Blackness, or ignore and erase any evidence of racial and ethnic difference altogether. This pressure makes it easy to believe that to be whitewashed is simply more expedient. Yet, we’re still expected to show our pride during BHM despite the learned insecurities we acquire from existing in a racist and discriminatory world.
So, is BHM insulting, tokenizing, and inadequate for Black people? Yes. Is it necessary and empowering? Also yes. When speaking with people within the Black community at Mcgill, I desperately resonated with a desire to have a space that “lets us do our Black thing” – to quote fellow student Leah*, who organizes with the Mcgill African Students Society (MASS). Gaby also echoed a similar tension I felt through her experiences organizing multiple BHMS, “Though I am not in favor of BHM in the long-term, it is necessary as a first step towards gaining acknowledgement and then resolving issues for Black people.” Like many of us, her views on BHM changed upon arriving at Mcgill: “When I came to Montreal, I came to understand that Black History Month is necessary because there is little to no place in schools and society for Black people.”
Rachel, a third year Gender Studies major, spoke about taking these kinds of Black spaces for granted, having attended public school in the southside of Chicago. At her high school, unlike at Mcgill, “The heaping majority – at least 90 per cent – of my classmates were Black. At school our history teachers taught us about Black history during all months of year and heavily emphasized the positive contributions of Black people to society. It was the norm for me to be educated on Black history when I was younger. It wasn’t until I came to Mcgill, leaving my Black bubble in Chicago, that I came to truly appreciate celebrating Black History Month.”
Not all Black students at Mcgill feel my ambivalence over BHM – for some, it’s a straightforward matter of recognition and celebration. Helen Ogundeji, a U3 Sociology major and Black Students’ Network (BSN) executive told me, “I don’t think [BHM is] insulting or inadequate at all. I think it presents a very simple message to a very simple issue: Black people in our North American context (and really in a global context) have been exploited and disenfranchised and continue to be exploited and disenfranchised. The month serves as a very simple reminder (it’s the shortest month of the year!) that Black folks have contributed to the world in very lasting and meaningful ways and these contributions ought to be celebrated.”
Mcgill’s first official BHM celebrations
Surprisingly, and yet, unsurprisingly, this year marks Mcgill’s first official Black History Month celebration. “This first year was very much about creating spaces for Black people and other members of the Mcgill and greater Montreal community to come together and learn about and recognize Black excellence,” which was the theme of this year’s celebrations, said Shanice Yarde of the Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) Office at Mcgill University. “We also wanted to center the Black Montreal community in our organizing to try to bridge some of the gaps between the university and rest of the city,” Yarde told me. “We’re excited but also conscious.”
The SEDE Office hosted a series of 15 diverse events about Black history, Black culture, and Black politics in collaboration with student and community organizations within Montreal. I don’t want to minimize the important and essential work that SEDE and other organizers did – the events were well-
planned, nuanced, and deeply interesting. But it’s challenging to do this kind of work without the necessary institutional, financial, and community support. Only one of the 15 events received funding from Angela Campbell, Associate Provost (Policies, Procedures and Equity). “We got funding from multiple sources at Mcgill including Angela Campbell,” Yarde told me. “Funds that she provided went towards a specific event of our choosing and we distributed other funds amongst other events.” It’s hard to believe that a sincere effort was made to promote Black spaces at Mcgill while SEDE staff, in an informal conversation, acknowledged a lack of robust support and funding from the Mcgill administration. Yarde’s official comment on the efforts made by Mcgill were that “the Mcgill administration has supported the SEDE office in its organizing of BHM 2017.”
Apart from MASS and the BSN, most student- run organizations didn’t publicize BHM, nor did Mcgill faculties. Gaby raised an important question during our interview: “Who was talking about Black History Month? No one.” This is partially true – while the opening ceremony was filled past capacity, attendance dwindled later on; workshops, discussion panels, spoken word performances, and social events had the capacity to accommodate larger crowds. At the 5 à 7 for Mcgill staff and students, I remember a faculty member scanning a room of about ten to 15 people and asking no one in particular, “Is this all the Black folk at Mcgill?” SEDE commented that “a direct link to our BHM website added on the Mcgill homepage helped bring additional traffic.”
SEDE has also made a significant effort to continue the dialogue about Black identity beyond BHM. As part of a followup to BHM 2017, SEDE is collaborating with Black Foundation of Community Networks (BFCN) to co-launch #Readtolead, an online reading campaign to specifically honour and share Black authors during the month of March.
Yarde expressed that “[SEDE] is also excited that a resolution was passed in Senate that commits to supporting future celebrations of BHM at Mcgill.” Senator Charles Keita of the Faculty of Arts motioned for the formal recognition and celebration of BHM by Mcgill. Keita acknowledged that, prior to SEDE’S efforts, there has been no formal acknowledgement of BHM by Mcgill, despite the fact that the Parliament of Canada has officially recognized February as BHM since 1995, and Quebec adopted a law to do the same as of 2007.
Kieta’s motion, which was passed unanimously, also included for the 2017-2022 Strategic Academic Plan for Mcgill to explore “additional opportunities to support academic initiatives that highlight the contributions and scholarship of the Black community; and facilitate the enhanced representation of Black community members on campus.”
At the same time as we celebrate Black excellence and the “contributions and scholarship of the Black community,” we must not forget that these contributions were hard-won, and that Black people are systematically denied opportunities to create and learn. This means discussing the contemporary and historic oppression that excludes Black people from institutions like Mcgill. Ogundeji, in a workshop she facilitated about anti-blackness earlier this year, reminded attendees that James Mcgill – whose name and image liberally pepper our campus – owned at least six personal slaves.
According to Ogundeji, “These people were sold, and then the wealth gained from their exploited labour was not only used to fund the conception of Mcgill University but further Black and Indigenous bodies were used to build the Arts building, the institution’s first building.” Mcgill’s slaves include an unidentified male Indigenous slave; Marie “Potamiane,” a female Indigenous slave; Jaques, a Black male slave; Marie-louise, a Black female slave; Sarah, a Black female slave; JeanLouis, a Black female slave; and Joseph-françois, a Black male slave along with his wife and two children, Marie-charles, Joseph, and Pierre-augustin.
It’s easy to historicize or dismiss the gravity of slavery at Mcgill – but the legacies of white supremacy are an ongoing feature of student life. At Mcgill, Ogundeji notes, students from France are allowed to pay out-of-province Canadian tuition, while students from French-colonized African and Caribbean countries have to pay international tuition. Mcgill has yet to offer reparations or an apology for James Mcgill’s ownership of slaves – in fact, as the Mcgill bookstore was renamed “Le James” this year, even more buildings on campus bear the name of a slave owner.
Today, Mcgill has far too few Black professors and offers very limited resources to Black community members. Kieta’s motion notes that Mcgill “is host to a limited interdisciplinary African Studies program and no formal Black Studies program. Eunice, a U3 Psychology student, told me that “I definitely do not think that Mcgill is doing a great job of supporting the Black community at Mcgill academically.” She noted that while she hadn’t experienced social discrimination at Mcgill, “my biggest concern is the lack of appropriate courses and resources in the African Studies Program. There is a general lack of courses that teach about Black people, countries, or issues; and if there are courses that address these topics, they are usually painted in a negative light ( i. e. poverty, disease etc.).”
Mcgill has been repeatedly criticized for their weak hiring equity policy, which continues to privilege ‘merit’ at the expense of diversity. Kieta’s motion specifies that “employment equity data indicate clear underrepresentation of visible and ethnic minority academic staff on campus” and that “Black and racialized minority academic staff in particular experience discrimination and negative treatment that affects their ability to succeed,” according to the 2016 Report of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Systemic Discrimination.
I’m tempted to be cynical, and believe that this motion is simply another symbolic gesture that does little to improve the lived realities and representations of Black people at a mostly- white, ‘ elite’ institution. Promised “academic initiatives” sound like an intangible commitment that needs to manifest in concrete policies, and the visibility that Black folks gain through BHM is no replacement for structural and institutional reform that combats anti- Blackness, like a robust hiring equity policy and a formal Black studies program.
Reconciling empowerment and marginalization
Despite the fact that not all of us Black folk see ourselves represented, valued or emboldened through BHM, it’s undeniably a platform to amplify Black voices. Rachel had a vastly different and positive upbringing with BHM, one that I envy, in that she felt “proud to celebrate a history that too often goes erased [...] in that sense BHM helps Black youth to have more self-confidence, be proud of their Black heritage, and gain historical heroes.”
Asked if she was surprised that this was the first year that Mcgill formally recognized BHM, Eunice told me, “I wouldn’t say I was surprised, because at a majoritywhite university I wouldn’t expect the students to feel inclined to celebrate Black History Month. However, I am very proud that [...] Black students fought to have BHM celebrated, and I am very glad that the university decided to set aside some funding for it.” The praise that SEDE has received points to their success in providing an opportunity for members of this campus to selfeducate. The burden is so often placed on us to introspect and then educate non-black and other Black people that BHM can alleviate that arduous responsibility.
I don’t have an answer to the contradiction inherent in BHM – a month that can be harmful and healing all at once. Helen expressed it best when saying, “I think BHM serves different communities to varying degrees of effectiveness.” For her, “BHM encourages Black students to remember their worth in a society that continues to invalidate their existence.”
I’ve taken to the motto of Mcgill’s BHM organizers: “excited but conscious” ( read: woke). We’re making the most with what we’re given, and fortunately, the tone in my conversations with members of the Black community is one that is relentless in asking for more: more activism, more representation, more appropriate courses and resources, more spaces and opportunities by and for Black folks at Mcgill.
“Is this all the Black folk at Mcgill?” SEDE has also made a significant effort to continue the dialogue about Black identity beyond BHM. At Mcgill, students from France are allowed to pay out-of-province Canadian tuition, while students from Frenchcolonized African and Caribbean countries have to pay international tuition. The burden is so often placed on us to introspect and then educate nonBlack and other Black people that BHM can alleviate that arduous responsibility.