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Dr. Lisa Tomlinson

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Black History Month is Not a Feel-Good Mass Therapy Session

Posted: 02/23/2014 12:27 pm

I am fully aware of the significance of Black History Month (BHM) and why in 1926 Carter G Woodson was compelled to initially promote a week in February that would memorialize the achievements of Black people. In a society that envisioned and continues to imagine Africans as culturally inferior and to discount their contribution to world civilization, Black History Week (which later extended to a month in 1970) served as a cultural affirmation and a redemptive narrative for many African Americans who sought to reposition themselves as equal citizens in White America. African Canadians and other Black communities in the Diaspora would also adapt this concept to restore cultural pride.

Therefore my intention is not to dismiss the relevance of Black History Month or is it to reprove the proponents of BHM who for decades have committed their time to ensure that Africans globally are recognised for their contribution to world civilization and to cultivate cultural pride in young Black people.

While I always anticipated and taken part in many Black History Month events, over the years my enthusiasm for this time of year has been dwindling. This is not because I have become disinterested in disseminating and valourising African history. However, it appears Black History Month's celebrations are sadly in alignment with Canada's sugar coated approach to multiculturalism. It is a practiced multiculturalism that symbolically supports cultural diversity while in reality marginalizes the very histories it professes to represent.

Multiculturalism as represented in our schools and workplaces often takes the form of cultural tokenism. Racialized groups are primarily encouraged to wear their traditional clothing or "costumes," share their native music or exchange ethnic cuisines with peers. In a sanitized performance of cultural exchange, there tends to be an exotifcation and cultural fetish of "otherness".

In (re)presenting these celebrations as cultural inclusion into the wider Canadian society and romanticising Canada as a haven for cultural harmony and oneness, multiculturalism fails tremendously to open up conversations around equity and anti-oppression. It is not surprising therefore that many Canadians are unable to critically read the political, economic and cultural exclusion and equality behind the mask that is Canada's multiculturalism. They most often limit their analysis and understanding of multiculturalism to clothing, ethnic festival, foods, language retention classes, music and dance.

In many of my lectures on contesting Canadian multiculturalism, undergraduate students compellingly inform me that racism does not exist in Canada because "ethnic" foods such as samosas and Jamaican patties are sold throughout the Greater Toronto Area. This region wherein about 43 person of the residents are racialized. What surprises me is this mythical image of Canada also emanates from some racialized students, who have also bought the bill of goods on Canada being a racially tolerant and inclusive society.

Similar to multiculturalism, Black History Month has also become a socially questionable exercise where Black historical events and past and contemporary Black figures are carefully repackaged and rebranded to fit the white Canadian imagination. It is less threatening to sell Martin Luther King's dream exclusively as an "integrationist" while overlooking his multiple positions which included his support for working class rights and trade unions, reform of American capitalism as well as his strident opposition to the Vietnam War. Nelson Mandela is celebrated as an icon for world peace and racial harmony because his action did not threatened white power and capitalism in South Africa. But we do not see the Canadian mainstream highlighting the contribution of Black Consciousness Movement founder, revolutionary and theorist Steve Biko in the struggle to end apartheid. The contribution of Black women, especially radical ones, remains secondary during this month and the Black LGBT community continue their struggle to affirm their presence in African history.

Black history in Canada very much like European civilization must become everyone's reality and should be taught in its fullness. Our educational institutions therefore must be challenged to be more inclusive of stories that accurately speak to the African presence in Canada, as well as the struggles and the achievements of African people in other parts of the world.

More significantly, Black history must not just stop at educating our young people about the past, but it should also be used (alongside other cultures of resistance) as a vehicle throughout the year to teach our children about the importance of civil and human rights struggles. The presentation of Black history should serve to encourage political activism on issues that continue to disenfranchise our communities and other oppressed groups in Canada. Indeed, the preceding approach to education would offer Canadians a truthful understanding of oppression and the work that has been done and is going on to promote social justice. As Amilcar Cabral candidly reminds us in our struggle for emancipation:

Every responsible member must have the courage of his responsibilities, exacting from others a proper respect for his work and properly respecting the work of others. Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures.

Until we find concrete and genuine ways to take into account cultural differences and the institutional power relations that inform that reality in Canada, Black History Month, like multiculturalism, will continue to be sidelined and watered down to satisfy Canada's mythical narrative of togetherness, racial justice and equality. The history of an oppressed people should serve as a tool to facilitate their liberation and not used as a selective and conservative feel-good mass therapy session.

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