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Black History Month warms my soul to the core. It's a dedicated month to stand tall and, as James Brown demanded of us, “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.” The intentional celebration of Black excellence and Black success stories—including Black educators, artists, scientists, inventors, and social change makers—is invigorating and inspiring. I’m proud to be able to share these accomplishments with my kids.
I love that I can take them to activities that will teach them the storytelling traditions of their African ancestors. I love that they can learn about kente cloth (brightly coloured, woven traditional West African fabric), and Elijah McCoy (a Canadian-born Black inventor) at the local libraries and community centres who care enough to offer Black History Month programming. And right now, at ages five and eight, my kids seem to love it, too. But I also know that as they get older, more self-aware, and more self-conscious, there may come a day when the month of February causes anxiety and tension for them.
Josie Rose, a mom of one in Markham, Ont., has experienced this first-hand.
Every Black History Month, Rose has learned to expect a call of apology from her son’s school principal. Like clockwork, the phone rings with an explanation: someone has called her son the N-word, or someone has made fun of his skin colour. This is what Black History Month has looked like for her and her now 16-year-old son for over seven years.
“My son hates Black History Month. Every year, he feels singled out and is bullied or called the N-word, because it’s a new word the kids learn during the month of February," says Rose. "The families and the children that go to school with my son don't understand why we need to have Black History Month.” She explains that Markham is not a community with a lot of Black faces (although this is slowly changing)—it’s predominantly Asian-Canadian or White.
The real issue here is how Black history is taught—or not taught—in schools. For 11 months of the year, Black children and the very real issues they face in the school system are essentially ignored: enduring racial slurs, the higher suspension rates, harsher discipline, the fact that Black children are more likely to be streamed into non-academic programs, the over-diagnosis and overmedication of Black children, and the over-policing of their bodies (and their hair, and their clothing). All of this affects our kids’ behaviour.
Then, every February, there’s a sudden awakening and a scramble as school principals and parent councils across the country search for someone—anyone—who can captivate their gathering of kids for the obligatory Black History Month assembly. The pictures of smiling children sitting crosslegged in a gymnasium, heads bobbing to the beat of the djembe drum (because there is always a drum!), fill my Twitter feed like notches on a belt. This show is all designed to communicate one thing: “Look how inclusive we are. We care about Black History Month.”
When it was originally conceived in 1926 by African-American historian Carter G. Woodson, Black History Month was actually called Negro History Week. It was developed with the idea that people would learn about Black history throughout the year and then come together in February to share the knowledge they had gathered.
That learning has essentially been condensed into the 28 or 29 days in February each year, and this shrinking of Black History celebrations has done a disservice to Black and non-Black students alike.
Natasha Henry, a curriculum consultant and the Ontario Black History Society President, says that while she’s glad to see all the progress that's been made in celebrating Black History in schools, focusing on Black History just in February can be stressful for some Black students—especially if there aren't a lot of other Black kids at their schools. A concentrated focus on Black History Month suddenly makes you hyper-visible, as Josie Rose’s son has learned.
Over the years, Rose has had teachers come to her (a parent!) to ask for resources around Black History, because these educators did not feel competent enough to teach it. Her son has also had teachers who simply leave the job to Hollywood and show slave movies during class, as if the only stories worth telling about black people are slave narratives. (This has left her son feeling embarrassed, upset and angry with white people.) Most recently, one of his teachers decided not to address Black History Month at all, and taught Shakespeare instead.
While it would be easier for Rose’s son to survive the school corridors were he not singled out, educators who simply throw their hands up in the air and ignore Black History, presumably because they can’t be bothered to do the work, is not a viable option. If you can’t figure out an inclusive and culturally appropriate way to deliver the curriculum—so that Black students don’t feel further disenfranchised and isolated—it’s both lazy and anti-Black.
“Teachers need to ensure that Black men and women are presented as individuals with agency,” says Henry. “We in Canada need to get out of the romanticized myth of Black history that reinforces the idea of white superiority and dominance, or white benevolence.” (As in, “We helped you; we rescued you; because of us you are free.”)
Henry argues that Black issues must be addressed at a deeper level. Staffers and school boards need to ask themselves, what are we doing to make sure that our schools are safe for Black children all year long? That their outcomes and experiences are the same as the other children, all year long? That they feel comfortable in their classrooms?
Rose was so distraught over her son’s experience at his school, year after year, that she finally created her own Black History Curriculum and invited all the teachers from his district, the York Catholic District School Board, to attend a workshop she put together. Not one person came.
For me, this is the real issue with the Black History Month banner that school administrators and teachers love to wave every February. Who is showing up for Black kids the other 11 months of the year? What are you doing?
As one mom recently told me, in the same way people speak of wanting the “spirit of Christmas” to live in our hearts all year round (not just during the holiday season), we should seek to celebrate Black culture, and to understand the Black experience, 365 days a year.
Here are a few easy ways to celebrate Black history and culture, all year long:
1. Check out your provincial Black History Society: —The Ontario Black History Society website lists several family activities and events each month. —The Nova Scotian Black Cultural Centre also lists a calendar of events and is a treasure trove of information about Black Canadian History. —Black History Canada gives a detailed history of Alberta’s Black pioneers and also has links to Black history for each province
2. Visit your local library, which may have programming celebrating Black contributions and culture all year.
3. Check out the International African Inventors Museum, which is a travelling exhibit showcasing Black Canadian inventors.
4. Support Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs. Check out the byblacks.com/directory.
5. Attend cultural events.
6. Take a look at the newly-released Black Lives Matter Black History Curriculum Resource Guide.
7. Check out the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario Black History Resource Page.
9. Consider Equity and Anti-Oppression training.
10. Speak positively to your children about Black people of all shades.