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 (educ.ubc.ca/events/).
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