Black history is not just dusty facts

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      Jacky Essombe’s African dance classes are full because Vancouverites want what she’s got. Sure, there’s the Afro-robics sweat session, but there’s also unrestrained joy and a sense of community. That, Essombe told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview, is the heart of the class. And isolated, reserved westerners are hungry for it.

      But unlike dance students in Africa who intuitively catch on, she said, Vancouverites often need the steps spelled out for them. The cerebral approach opposes the nature of the dance, she said. “If you have to shake your upper body or your bum, you can’t think about it. You just have to do it.”

      The same western mind obsession that has trouble with her dance lessons, she said, can also suck the poignancy out of Black History Month.

      “When people feel guilty for a piece of history, they try to make things right,” Essombe said, noting that black history is far richer than any litany of names, dates, and accomplishments. “It [history] becomes an intellectual debate because it feels safer that way. It’s different to feel the pain of people’s ancestors. And for black people, it’s very painful”¦.This is something that cannot be fixed. You just have to sink into that pain without feeling you have to do anything about it. If you try to do something about it before you feel that pain, it just covers up our own discomfort, guilt, desire to cover something that happened in the past.”

      Indeed, much of Canada’s BHM is celebrated through teaching names and dates. In the philatelic world, two Canada Post stamps were released on February 2: one commemorated the first black Canadian elected to public office, Abraham Doras Shadd (1859), a councillor in Raleigh, Ontario; and the other honoured former NDP MLA Rosemary Brown, the first black woman elected to public office in Canada (1972). The B.C. Teachers Federation social-issues department e-mails a list of resources to primary and secondary teachers for BHM; none are B.C.-based and most focus on facts rather than feelings, as Essombe suggested. Canada’s minister of multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, wrote in a statement that this year’s BHM focus is threefold: the First World War contributions of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, the only all-black battalion in Canadian military history; black Olympians; and the preservation of the historical contributions of black Canadians.

      Essombe, from Cameroon, isn’t the only critic of the dry approach to BHM. Handel Wright, the Sierra Leone–born director of UBC’s Centre for Identity, Culture, and Education, studies how culture is taught in the classroom. The very fact that BHM still exists, he said, is distressing.

      “I’d love to get rid of it,” he told the Straight in a phone interview. “But we haven’t earned the right to. When we have achieved what they call in the U.S. a ”˜more perfect union’, then we can get rid of it”¦.Now, it’s the month when you drag out and dust off Canadian blackness. After that, you wrap it up and put it away again.”

      Wright said an interdisciplinary cultural-studies approach would move things forward. That way, BHM could address contemporary black issues, integrate African forms of knowledge, such as dance, into the education, and challenge school curricula that segregate ethnic histories.

      “This approach would not be satisfied with merely putting forward black accomplishment,” he said, “it would insist on asking tougher questions.”

      His students, he said, are ready for more complicated questions. Most consider themselves to be part of a post-racism world. The debate around U.S. president Barack Obama’s blackness—or lack of it—illustrates the need for a more complex celebration of black history, Wright said. He said he hopes to start this discussion in Vancouver with his first annual BHM lecture series (

      For contemporary black contributions to Canada, Essombe believes that the essential African values of joy and community, which so many of her students are seeking, will eventually filter into the mainstream. Community centres will fill up; families will choose to live in closer quarters; parents will encourage their children to play outside; and Yaletowners will start sitting in their condo lobbies.

      “There’s more and more people coming here from different countries [to share those values],” she said. “This is not something that can change overnight. Our habits are ingrained. But, with exposure, the attraction [to difference] will eventually evolve into life choices.”

      Black history: Canada versus the U.S.

      > Slavery abolished in Canada: 1834

      > Slavery abolished in the U.S.: 1865

      > First black senator in Canada: Anne Cools, 1984

      > First black senator in the U.S.: Hiram R. Revels, 1870

      > First black-owned newspaper in Canada: Voice of the Fugitive (Windsor), 1851

      > First black-owned newspaper in the U.S.: The New Orleans Tribune, 1864

      > First black Canadian governor general: Michaí«lle Jean, 2005

      > First black U.S. president: Barack Obama, 2009

      > Black population in 2006 in Canada: 2.5 percent

      > Black population in 2006 in the U.S.: 12.8 percent

      Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Statistics Canada, Library of Congress Web site, Chronicle of Canada




      Feb 5, 2009 at 11:04am

      Why would one write a comparison betweeen Canada and the US on Black history? It's absurd. Why not focus on what all Canadians have done and not colour code it.


      Apr 11, 2009 at 2:30pm

      ..and if we're going to colour code it, let's have White, Yellow and Red History Months as well.

      Dr. T

      Apr 14, 2009 at 5:15pm

      "Why would one write a comparison betweeen Canada and the US on Black history? It's absurd. Why not focus on what all Canadians have done and not colour code it."

      Canada, like so very many FREE and OPEN democracies, is/was founded on principles established in distant lands. People came to Canada, from those lands and they bought THEIR culture with them. Those people, carried great hopes and visions, they bought a basic understanding of right and wrong, good and bad, and love-the best of traits. They LOVED their families, their homelands, and the dreams that filled their hearts with each passing week, day and hour that those rusting and wooden ships lumbered to 'The New World."
      Upon arrival, they began to chart new paths, climb new mountains, ford new streams and rivers, and cross a new land.
      THAT LAND already had, BABIES LIVING ON IT, THAT BELONGED TO FAMILIES WITH CHILDREN ALREADY IN THEM, and NATIONS (First Nations) that had been practicing TRUE democracy about four to six Thousand years longer than present day Canada, Oh yeah.
      You know what happened to those people? Of course you do! Modern North America prospers for what it did to those 'natives' STILL!
      Do you have ALL THE FACTS about what this modern Canada and the debt it owes to the raped, pillaged, slaughtered, etc?
      If YOUR forebears had been murdered, killed quickly, almost mercifully, but illegally and immorally, WHAT REPAYMENT would you demand from their attackers?!? Be honest! Be fair! Think like someone who knows that those people who came from other lands knew what the Magna Carta was/is. Act like you know that those people came to your divine canada with a BIBLE in their hand and a gun and they knew how to use both because where they came from, European conflict - yes, even in the far east, Africa, etc,- had perfected war until Adolph Hitler - and Hirohito forced the world to understand the face of atomic obliteration. Think,... what you would do if someone invaded, INVADED, your homeland - just how desperately would you fight, how afraid for your children you would be, ALWAYS, even on your certain deathbed.
      To this day, even in this magazine, we see the failure of 'canadians' AGAIN to embrace with fairness and openness, people who have homes on our shores, whom we willingly accepted as immigrants EVEN THOUGH WE ALL CAME FROM SOMEWHERE ELSE we treat them with contempt! When are we going to learn?
      They WILL fight, just as your forebears fought. They will wage a sacred and intense war from INSIDE canada to show canadians just how much they love their lives and the lives of those they love -think- what would you do!??!
      One day, one month, might lead to a LIFETIME of recognizing the fact that if we humans/canadians, are left to our daily grind and pervasive drive to 'make-a-buck', we will sweep human life under the wheels of fortune-seeking and use our steel, germs, and gunpowder to push people of color/difference, yes, they have color so very many of them -we spend BILLIONS to get a tan but they grow it for free- to amass fortunes and cultivate HOT, SEARING, HATRED! The color of a persons skin is not everything, but it can cost them EVERYTHING once they reach the shores of this nation: We need to do all we can to think Black, Brown, Red, Yellow for at least... at least, long enough to become brothers and sisters. You do NOT want to see hate-filled conflict the way I have! It is too easy to forget that you did NOT really want to drop that NUKE! Nuff' said.