Why only one month for Black History Month?

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TORONTO (CUP) — Black History Month is a fine thing. It’s a time of year when it’s okay to remind people about racism, to talk about Rosa Parks or the Black Panthers. Just like Christmas, it’s a time when people are called out to show off their finest in moral fibre.

Well, fuck that.

The Salvation Army is around for the other 11 months of the year, and so are black people. It is not okay to just remember centuries of colonialism, ongoing oppression or the reality that racism, in fact, has not evaporated, for just 28 days.

Black History Month is at once an educational opportunity and a sorry excuse for the way the history of marginalized peoples has been swept under the rug by the nation-state and is left out of the curriculum in the public education system. That is exactly the problem I have with Black History Month: its tokenism.

What is the point of a month-long battle to educate our oppressors about our history, our culture, our people, if they can just forget for the rest of the year? Are we to sit around waiting for our gift of time, just to start again every year? What’s the point of an International Day for the Elimination of Racism? It’s only one out of 365 days. Every day should be that day.

The oppressed need to make their voices heard every chance they get, and the oppressors should have to listen every single time.

Discussion surrounding Black History Month reminds me of the huge debate surrounding so-called “black-focused” schools in Toronto.

While I personally don’t like the idea of segregated schools per se, why the hell shouldn’t young children from racialized backgrounds grow up learning about themselves? What is necessarily wrong with an alternative curriculum? There are already public and Catholic school systems across Canada, as well as French immersion and Saturday schools run by and for various immigrant and religious communities.

Outside of that, the only time when children are taught about black history is during Black History Month. When you consider that February is the only time of year when we can talk about racism, about the diverse and varying histories of black people, it is no surprise that some people want alternative schools where these things can be talked about openly, and all the time.

Whether or not students, regardless of their background, feel comfortable talking about racism, their identity can be debated on a case-by-case basis.

But just by identifying a Black History Month, we are declaring that people can get away with ignoring black history, racism and the plight of black people and other marginalized communities for the rest of the year.

Creating a safe temporal space for education and discussion once a year is not enough. We have to ensure that issues regarding racism, diversity, power and oppression are on the table for educators and politicians all year round.

Black History Month started in 1926 when Carter G. Woodson of West Virginia started promoting “Negro History Week,” the second week of February. This became the Black History Month celebrated today in the U.S. and in Canada – and in October in the United Kingdom.

He did so because he noticed that only a certain demographic was featured in the history books, and he decided to write a few more characters in.

So how is it that an effort that began to make public education more inclusive of marginalized communities and more comprehensive – because really, any history books about Canada and the U.S. with only white people are just plain lacking in terms of academic integrity – became the opposite?

In the end, Black History Month is more symbolic than it is productive. While it is nice to have an institutionally endorsed educational initiative specifically for marginalized peoples, it is not enough. Black history, and the stories of all oppressed peoples, should be written into and featured in all history books.

In the case of a former colony like Canada, its institutions, railways, roadways and very existence were built on the backs of slaves, immigrants and Indigenous peoples, and their stories deserve respect. They deserve to be acknowledged and learned about in legislatures, in boardrooms and in classrooms – and not just for 28 days, but all year round.

Haseena Manek
Ryerson Free Press (Ryerson University)

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