Prof. Handel Kashope Wright: To celebrate Black History Month in B.C., we must connect the past with the present

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      By Prof. Handel Kashope Wright

      Growing up in my native Sierra Leone I had not paid much attention to being Black, since just about everyone else was. It wasn’t until I arrived in Canada in the late 1980s for graduate studies in the seemingly ubiquitous whiteness of Windsor, Ontario, that I was made to focus on race, acknowledge my own Blackness, take on Black identity and realize that, in the eyes of others, I was seen first and sometimes only as Black.

      Since then, I’ve lived as a Black man in race-focused Canada and USA, including British Columbia where I’ve spent the past 15 years. What I’ve come to realize is this: it’s hard being Black in Canada; it’s even harder being Black in B.C. As a Black professor, for example, I’m supposed to be exceptional. On the one hand, this is quite true given racist overt and covert societal messages that Black kids are fed in Canada about what they can attain in terms of education and occupation. On the other hand, this is absolutely ludicrous to me as a middle-class Sierra Leonean who knew only Black professionals and was educated exclusively by Black teachers and professors.

      One of the myths that makes it hard to be Black in B.C. is the widespread impression that there’s little to no Blackness—no Black people, no Black history. Unlike elsewhere in Canada, B.C. has no Black neighbourhoods. While Halifax has Mulgrave Park, Toronto has Jane & Finch, and Montreal has Little Burgundy, in Vancouver, there is nowhere to go where one can find a high concentration of Black people or where one can be among Black people—a curious fact about a major Canadian city.

      The lack of present-day Black neighbourhoods in Vancouver is in fact linked to the racist erasure of Blackness in the past. Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver’s Strathcona area was once home to a large community of Black residents, including Nora Hendrix, grandmother to rock legend Jimi Hendrix. However, the neighbourhood was bulldozed in 1967 to erect the Georgia Viaduct—an act that saw not just the demolition of buildings but the erasure of Black community in Vancouver.

      According to Statistics Canada, Blacks constitute some 1.2 percent of the province’s population. With B.C.’s Black community being relatively small and geographically scattered, it is altogether too easy to ignore or forget B.C.’s Black population.

      All of this makes for what I call the Catch-22 of Blackness in B.C. Because there are relatively few Black people here, there’s apparently little reason for interventions to help foster a more welcoming, supportive environment for us. But because there is not a more welcoming, supportive environment for Blacks in B.C., we fail to attract Black people or keep them if they do come here. In education, for example, there are supposedly too few Blacks to justify Black studies in the curriculum. But because of the lack of Black studies, we end up knowing little of Black B.C. history and thinking there are no Black people here.

      We clearly and urgently need to intervene in this vicious cycle, to escape our Black Catch-22. My recommendation is a Black Field of Dreams: “build it and they will come.” In other words, establish Black Studies to overtly attract Black faculty, staff and students to our institutions of higher learning, teach all British Columbian students K-12 and beyond about historical and contemporary Blackness, and foster an environment that is welcoming to Black workers and families and we will have fuller representation of Blackness in B.C. in every sense.

      Community groups such as the B.C. Black History Awareness Society and the Hogan’s Alley Society are playing a significant role in filling in the blanks, both in terms of raising awareness of Black history and addressing of erasure of historical Blackness. And Black Lives Matter Vancouver is at the forefront of addressing urgent contemporary anti-Black racism. Works like Gillian Creese’s book, The New African Diaspora in Vancouver: Migration, Exclusion and Belonging, are instructive for learning about Metro Vancouver’s recent immigrant Black Africans. And since we lack Black place, social media groups like “Meanwhile, Black in Vancouver” are creating Black community in cyberspace.

      But more needs to be done. Part of making Black community and culture and addressing anti-Black racism necessarily involves understanding the history that has led to it being hard to be Black in B.C. today. This Black History Month, if we want to meaningfully honour and celebrate the historical and contemporary Black British Columbians, we must take the time to learn more about our province’s history—its entire history, including its Black history.

      Historical wrongs cannot be unearthed let alone understood, and present-day discrimination cannot be understood let alone addressed, until the past is connected with the present. This is a project not just for Black History Month. After all, those of us who are Black do not have the luxury of a month of identity. We are Black all year round.

      Handel Kashope Wright is a cultural studies scholar with a PhD from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. He’s the senior adviser to the president on antiracism and inclusive excellence at the University of British Columbia. He is also the co-editor of the forthcoming book, Black British Columbia: Past and Present.