Friday, February 14, 2003

Wrestling with Black History Month

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
– Langston Hughes

February, thank God, is the shortest month of the year. It is a barren field frozen with snow, full of many of the things that I dread most: Valentine’s Day, midterms, and Arctic temperatures. It is also Black History Month, an annual event that I do not dread, but rather feel totally ambivalent about, which might be worse.

In the three years I regularly attended editorial board meetings of The McGill Daily, whenever February would appear on the horizon, discussion would turn to the subject of a Black History Month issue. It was an issue greeted with, well, ambivalence. There would be talk about maybe coordinating a special issue on multiculturalism instead, or an edition that focused on race relations. Nonetheless, we always ended up producing a Black History Month issue. The main reason, it seemed, was to avoid incurring the anger of the Black Students Network, with whom we traditionally coordinated the issue.

I should note that in these three years, the number of Daily editors who were black was zero. (I should also note that I did not take part in the discussions this year and have no idea how they went, having happily left my days of Friday production nights behind.)

During the lead-up to the Black History Month issue, the relationship between The Daily and the BSN was often strained. We were non-black editors and journalists trying to put out a special edition dedicated to Black History. They were non-journalistic Black activists trying to put out a newspaper. (I remember one particularly heated debate among the Daily staff over whether or not to capitalise “black” or not. Stylistically-correct lower case or politically-correct upper case?)

In the end, the Black History Month issue was always a headache and the most difficult one to produce. It turned out that a great many Black students at McGill were just as ambivalent about the value of a Black History Month issue. While there were some articles that were entertaining, provocative, or insightful, the majority were bland and there were too many first-person meanderings – this despite the most earnest desire of both The Daily and the BSN to put out the best issue possible.

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Black History Month, in many ways, is nothing more than an excellent time for companies and corporations and politicians to demonstrate that they are progressive and care about minorities. Nissan Motors is currently running a multi-million advertising campaign, which includes billboards that proclaim “Black Future Month”. The message: you’ve come a long way, baby, now buy a Pathfinder SUV. The images of Miles Davis and Muhammed Ali are used to sell Apple computers. The major television networks cram in all the Black-themed shows they can, so they don’t have to feel bad that minorities are underrepresented the rest of the year. Republican leaders fall all over themselves trying to rehabilitate their party after the Trent Lott scandal, by posing with Black Americans and heralding Black History Month. It’s a band-aid for North America’s troubled racial conscience.

There’s also the matter that Black History Month just doesn’t have the same raison-d’être here in Canada. Most of the stuff we get fed is African-American History. Sure, you can name Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Langston Hughes, and Thurgood Marshall, but can you name nearly as many famous Black Canadians? Do you know who Harry Jerome, Mary Ann Shadd, William Hall, or Senator Anne Claire Cools are?

Black History Month has been around most of my life. So, why is it that I had to search online to find famous Black Canadians? People are incredibly knowledgeable about slavery and the civil rights movement in the United States, but know little about our own Black culture and history. (And haven’t Blacks had more to do with history than just slavery and the civil rights movement? And by relegating the civil rights movement to history, does that mean that it is over? Do I have to bring up Trent Lott again?)

The Canadian television industry has given us a skewed version of our culture. The inner-city Black culture of the United States is very different from the Canadian Black culture, which is rooted in the West Indies, but it is the American Black culture that turns up predominantly on TV. One rarely spots Haitian-Canadians or Caribbean-Canadians on Canadian television, whereas everyone is familiar with the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Including Blacks (and other “ethnic” groups) in our history books is a laudable goal. Over the past 30 years, a lot of progress has been made in integrating voices. But most of this has been the result of social historians and educators working all year round to be more inclusive in their research and teachings. Little has been from the hoopla that surround Black History Month.

I think a great number of people are “on the fence” about Black History Month. It doesn’t have enough fire to get anyone really riled up either way. I wish it did, because February is such a cold, cold month.

On the Fence appears Thursdays. J. Kelly Nestruck can be reached at jkelly@cup.ca.
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