“The Negro has no history.”
These five words pioneered the introduction of Black History Month.
When Carter G. Woodsman was getting his PhD at Harvard University in 1912, professor Edward Channing challenged Woodsman to prove African-Americans had a history worth studying. By uttering those five words, Channing set Woodsman on a path to retell America’s history: a history of blacks digging the foundation to the White House, of blacks forming the intricate Underground Railroad to grant their brothers and sisters freedom, of blacks running as far as Ontario to escape being hunted by slave catchers.
By 1926, Woodsman had triumphed. He introduced Negro History Week in schools and organizations across the U.S. The week would not display black history but instead celebrate the achievements of black Americans. The program later expanded to become the Black History Month we know today.
But when NHW was introduced, Woodsman didn’t view it as a one-week affair. He believed black history was too important to America to be shoved into a small timeframe. Instead he envisioned, NHW as an opportunity to commemorate what students would be learning all year-round.
But that was 91 years ago. Black History Month is still that – a month. No year-long celebrations. No daily learning. We have not moved forward.
According to a 2011 Stats Canada report, there are 945,665 Black Canadians: the third most visible minority group in Canada.
But Black History Month empowers this visible minority for only a month. For the empowerment and education to continue all year-round, Canadian curriculum and representation need to be changed to adequately fulfill the illustration of black history.
Vidal Chavannes is a Senior Consultant Managing Director at ReSolve Research Solutions Inc. For Chavannes, BHM is part of his life 365 days a year.
“It allows us to tell a story that hasn’t been told and that should be told,” says Chavannes. “It is an opportunity to pay homage to the work that has been done previously by people from the black community in Canada and around the world internationally.”
To say Black History Month does not do justice to teaching black history and should be abolished is inaccurate. BHM does go forward with raising awareness and teaching youth the influence of blacks in Canadian history.
However, Black History Month limits the education of black history to a 28-day time frame. An education that, on the 29th day, seems to disappear from the books of schools and organizations alike because it might take too much time away from the real curriculum.
“The purpose of black history month is to shine the light on the work black people have done. It’s not something that happens only during the month of February, it needs to happen on an ongoing basis,” says Dr. Leroy Clarke, president of e-CAMP MENTOR and member of Ontario Alliance of Black School Educators (ONABSE).
Just like Woodsman over 100 years ago, Clarke hopes black history is incorporated into Canadian history and that, some day in in the near future, he won’t have to celebrate only one month per year.
“It means a recognition of our past, where we are now, and looking into the future,” says Clarke. “Highlighting the legacy of those shoulders we stand on and using it as something to propel us forward.”
Dr. Clarke started a Black History club at Father Leo J. Austin Catholic Secondary School in Whitby. Each year they have a celebration in February.
Mentors from the community come in and share their journey with young people. Some mentors have included Madame Justice Martha De Gannes, who is a Justice of the Peace, and Raphael Francis, a retired IT professor from Durham College.
Clarke believes he has a responsibility to let the younger generation know they have a responsibility to their future.
“Young people sometimes do not see the role models around them,” says Clarke. “It is important that they have the recognition of those people who have worked so hard in the past so that we can be where we are.” These role models include people like Lincoln Alexander, Bromley Armstrong, Viola Desmond, Josiah Henson and Mary Ann Shadd Cary.
Both Dr. Clarke and Chavannes think Durham Region needs some changes in black representation.
Dr. Clarke said he is the only black teacher at Father Leo J. Austin Catholic Secondary School. “Because in this day and age when our population is growing leaps and bounds, there’s no reason why we should be seeing the same staff level,” says Dr. Clarke.
Black youth are not seeing authority figures represented in school.
“In fact some of our racialized kids do not have these role models in their own families,” says Dr. Clarke. “So where are they going to see them?”
If all black youth only see people in positions of authority who do not share their race, they will think they can’t be in those types of positions. They will think they do not have what it takes.
“That is not good enough!” Dr. Clarke says. “We need to see people of colour in spaces which are enriching.”
Clarke once heard a young man in Grade 12 saying he has never had a black teacher. Encouraging black kids to reach for the stars and inspire them is something Dr. Clarke is trying to implement. Chavannes agrees.
“The changes that I think are important for the region are not things that I think should only happen in February,” says Chavannes.
Chavannes said curriculum and representation are two major things that need to be changed in Durham Region to help expand the illustration of black history.
“There have been people from a variety of different backgrounds, including black individuals, who’ve contributed to the growth of Canada, and we don’t get that story currently in our history books,” says Chavannes.
“Not only posters, but also recognizing that the people who run the administration of our town, of our offices, of our schools, should be reflective of the community that they serve,” says Chavannes. “We have to do a better job of making sure there is cultural representation in those spaces.”
Chavannes says we should acknowledge our black brothers and sisters not just in the month of February, but honour them every day.
Chavannes knows a little something about history because when he was in Grade 12 he worked with Jim Foy who was head of the History department at St. Mary’s Catholic Secondary School in Pickering. Chavannes helped expand Grade 10 history by creating a supplementary curriculum called “The Elastic Nationality.”
This was to focus on black history as well as Indigenous populations: to show the contributions made by those who normally who do not get acknowledged in history textbooks.
Chavannes writes and does presentations about Black History Month. He wants the youth to get to know as much as they can.
“Be thirsty for knowledge, be open to hear a story that maybe you haven’t heard before.” Chavannes tells youth. “So that we can look at each other and recognize the humanity in each other regardless of what the complexion looks on the outside.”