On Black His­tory Month

Re­flec­tions on Mcgill’s first of­fi­cial BHM from within the Black com­mu­nity

The McGill Daily - - News - Writ­ten by Gelila Bedada | Vis­ual by Nishat Prova

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.

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