If it’s February, it must be Black History Month
By Faisal Kutty – It’s that time of the year again. You’ll see no shortage of functions organized by historical societies, libraries, and schools. You may even catch the corporate giants sponsoring short vignettes on black history, or perhaps a rerun of Amistad or Roots.
Welcome to Black History Month.
The celebration has come a long way since 1926, when Harvard-educated Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week. Mr. Woodson, popularly known as “the father of black history,” chose the second week in February to correspond with Abraham Lincoln’s approval of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery, and with the birth of prominent black advocate Frederick Douglass. Mr. Woodson’s goal was not only to educate his own community about its rich heritage, but to make American society aware of black contributions. In 1976, during the U. S. bicentennial, the commemoration week was expanded to National Black History Month.
The month was first marked in Toronto in 1950 by the now-defunct Canadian Negro Women’s Association. The city formally recognized February as Black History Month in 1978 after being petitioned by the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS). The event was first officially proclaimed in Ontario in 1993 to mark the 200th anniversary of legislation introduced by Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe to prohibit the importation of slaves into Upper Canada. To be fair, it was compromise legislation: The 1793 statute confirmed the ownership of slaves, but provided that their children would be set free at age 25.
Many look forward to this month, during which a marginalized people’s history is given importance in the mainstream. Others question its relevance and consequences. Is black history not part of Canadian, American, or world history? Why should it be condensed and highlighted only during one month?
During our school years, we spend months, perhaps even years studying history. Yet how many of us in Toronto were given even a cursory glance at the life of blacks during the 1800s? I, for one, don’t recall any mention of blacks — or, for that matter, any minority — in Toronto. We heard that the great Underground Railroad brought escaped slaves into Canada, but how many, for instance, were taught that in 1802 there were 18 free blacks living in Toronto? How many were taught that, in 1837, there were about 50 families of escaped slaves from Virginia in Toronto, and that, by 1850, this black colony had grown to a prosperous and respected community representative of every southern state, numbering about 1,000 out of a total population of 47,000? How many recall reading about the First Baptist Church on D’Arcy Street, which was founded in 1826 by escaped slaves as the first black institution in Toronto? How many have heard the story of W. R. Abbott, who escaped slavery, was illiterate, and became a prominent Toronto businessman? Or how about his son, Anderson Ruffin Abbott, who graduated from the Toronto Medical school in the 1860s, served as a surgeon in the U.S. Civil War, as coroner of Kent County, and resident physician at Toronto General Hospital?
Accomplishments by blacks have benefited all of us, not just members of one race. Immigrants to Toronto, for instance, owe a great debt of gratitude to William P. Hubbard. Mr. Hubbard, elected as the first black politician in Toronto in 1894, won another 13 consecutive annual elections as alderman in Ward 4. He fought for cheap hydro power, and stood up for Chinese laundry owners being forced out by rich, white laundry owners.
It’s not hard to understand the pride felt in having one’s history and contributions to this country remembered and honoured. “We need such a month to help us arrive at an understanding of ourselves as Canadian,” said OBHS president Rosemary Sadlier in launching this year’s celebrations.
But in our multicultural society today, does it make sense to celebrate or commemorate the history of one particular race? The history of all peoples should be celebrated and taught all year round. And by limiting the remembrance, study, and celebration to one month, are we not undermining it?
As well, some have suggested that when the government, the schools, the media, and others are allowed to lead the remembrance of one’s history, there is a danger of losing control over it.
Black History Month comes and goes like a holiday. As one commentator noted, it’s as if the sun rises on black history every Feb. 1 and sets on black history every Feb. 28. This not only diminishes the contribution of blacks, but minimizes their role in shaping society. Dissecting and isolating black history from Canadian, U.S., or world history gives others the chance to label it as “revisionist history.” It leaves the impression that European history is the “real” history, with black history merely being worthy of mention as an aside. On far too many school curricula, outside of this month, black history shows up once just before the U.S. Civil War, disappears and then reappears with the civil rights movement. It should be brought up throughout the year. It is our history, and must be recognized and valued as such by all.
It’s good to have a month to acknowledge the achievements and contribution of black people. As Mr. Woodson wrote, “The achievements of the Negro properly set forth will crown him as a factor in early human progress and a maker of modern civilization.”
But this should be just a first step. The whiff of patronization and complacency is too strong during Black History Month. Some blacks sit back with a sense of pride, while the rest of us feel good for allowing “their” history to be recognized. Rather than merely being what it is today, Black History Month should be a symbolic moment when we begin to appreciate the contributions of a people throughout the rest of the year.
Note: First Published Tuesday, February 2, 1999 in The National Post
Byline: Faisal Kutty
Source: National Post
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