The Ontario government has announced its decision to introduce legislation that will officially declare February as Black History Month. This is not the first time a month has been designated by Ontario legislation to celebrate culture. Jewish Heritage Month, Sikh Heritage Month and Asian Heritage Month are just some of the other designated months to celebrate a specific culture and history. Why do we need to designate specific months to celebrate culture and history? Why do we need Black History Month?
The Black History Society of Ontario has said Black History Month is needed as it helps to affirm the contributions of African-Canadians. The group believes Black History Month gives young African-Canadians the opportunity to gain an understanding of the social forces, which have shaped and influenced their community and identities.
These are valid points but the complexities of black history must not be overlooked. The consequences of telling young African-Canadian that their history is distinct from the rest of Canadian history is problematic at best. There is a cost in telling black youth that their distinct history is only worthy of center stage attention for only 28 days of the year. Isn’t what we are really saying through this guise of tokenism, ‘yes your history is important, but not important enough to be recognized as inherently apart of the rest of Canadian history you see in your textbooks?’ Until black history is treated as an intrinsic part of Canada’s story African-Canadians will continue to be painted as ‘the other.’
The intention to help make black youth feel they are represented and affirmed is diluted by the Eurocentric history they are taught in school. We cannot minimize these effects by 28 days of putting African Canadians in the spotlight.
When Negro History Week was initiated in 1926, Carter G. Woodson anticipated it would grow into a yearlong celebration taught alongside American History. 50 years later Negro History Week evolved into Black History Month. In 2016, Ontario is set to create legislation to officially recognize February as Black History Month.
Here is some food for thought: What if instead of creating legislation fueled by tokenism, the Ontario government decided to acknowledge African-Canadian contributions throughout the year. Would we then decide it is time Black history took its rightful place as an intrinsic part of Canadian history? Would we then see that our history—Canadian history—needs to be taught in its entirety?
What will it take for Canadians to ask for more than a feeble attempt at inclusivity by means of a February commemoration of African-Canadians and their history?