Photo: Tanya Hayles
I often joke that, though my appearance hasn’t changed, I’ve never been more black. When I look at my Facebook feed, I’m interacting and engaging with people of colour like never before. I’m reading new publications and websites geared to black women and the community. There’s an overarching tone to who I am now, both online and off.
They say to know where you’re going, you must know where you’ve been. As a social scientist at heart and a dreamer, this cliché statement has always resonated with me. I like being able to detect patterns and look for ways to know better and do better. And I have some catching up to do: I grew up in a small town north of Toronto, where I could count the number of black families on one hand. I was vaguely aware of my differences: My hair would never swing in the sunshine, and I’d never get PB&J sandwiches for lunch.
But I still made friends and had a good childhood—that is, until I reached sixth grade. Our class was studying black history, which consisted of a brief lesson on slavery. In gym that day, we happened to be doing skipping and Jump Rope for Heart training. A classmate of mine took his rope, pretended to whip me with it and called me his slave. While he didn’t physically hit me, the emotional sting of it reverberated. To a certain extent, it still does.
I am now the mother of a five-year-old boy—a little boy who will grow up to be a black man in a society that is still struggling to value the contributions of all people, no matter what their skin tone. Nurturing a strong sense of identity is crucial: I want to make sure that he sees strength in his colour and culture and that he has the tools to help him combat any prejudice he might face. The only way to fight ignorance is with education, which is why we’re going to be busy this Black History Month.
Why let him know he’s different? Why teach him that his history is full of struggle, violence and negativity? Because, like kids from any other culture, he deserves to know who he is. I visited a friend’s cabin this summer and loved watching the Finnish kids speak the language of their homeland and embrace cultural traditions without a second thought. There’s no official language for him to learn from me, but I can teach him the story of triumph.
Black History Month focuses so much on one specific chapter of history. Yes, it’s important to acknowledge how we got here and why it’s vital that we never forget. One day, he’ll understand how that history has affected the present-day condition of his community. But for now, I can show him heroes that look like him, both male and female, to instill pride and give him the tools to dream big. Representation matters.
As the Obamas began their exit out of office, it was a cue for me to start this journey with my son. For March Break last year, we travelled to Washington, DC. Our first museum stop was the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Though we skipped the slavery exhibits, which showcase the darker side of black history, we visited the floors that focus on the positive and long-lasting accomplishments of black people.
He saw Chuck Berry’s famous red Cadillac, learned what a record is and listened to some of the most influential music (he took a liking to John Coltrane’s Jazz). He learned how a botanist named George Washington Carver changed the way we grow crops and discovered how dance can be used as a language. Being surrounded by the sights, smells and sounds of black people—not just the ones in glass cases and on the screens but all around us—was an amazing experience.
As a parent, you want to give your children the world and let them feel like they can do anything. Learning about historical figures who did more with less sends the message that the sky is indeed the limit for them. There are so many great ways to teach kids about history. The Toronto Public Library offers a variety of events that target every age level. What child wouldn’t love to bang on an African drum? What train-obsessed child wouldn’t love to hear about the Underground Railroad? Need child-friendly books? The Toronto Public Library and the city’s bookstores have activities that engage all of the senses and allow for different ways of learning. Older kids will enjoy Toronto’s longest running Black History Month celebration at Harbourfront Centre. TD Bank has stepped up to sponsor a ton of events and installations taking place throughout the month as well. I’ve also added Hidden Figures to my Netflix queue. There are so many ways to teach ourselves and our kids, and we’ll be using many of them throughout the year.
One of the key things I’d like to focus on is black Canadian history. While we share similarities with black people in the United States, our roots have a heritage all our own. I’ve already put The Kids Book of Black Canadian History on hold at my local library, and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario has an online curriculum available that I’m checking out.
Whether it’s Viola Desmond defiantly refusing to sit in the “whites only” section of a movie theatre or Donovan Bailey smashing through another world record, there isn’t one aspect of Canadian society where black people haven’t had a positive impact. To know your future, you must know your history. This upcoming Black History Month, I will give that not only to my son but to myself as well.