OPINION: Modernizing Black History Month

Sketch by Rachel Arhin.

By Rachel Arhin

I remember celebrating every Black History Month throughout my 14 years in the public school system. It was limited to the principals allowing student council members to announce one or two fun facts about a black inventor during the morning announcements, playing Tupac’s “Changes” as the song between class periods, or hosting a version of a culture jam one evening during the month of February.

While it was nice for my friends and I to finally strut our stuff to Tupac in the school halls instead of plugging our ears to block out “ACDC” playing, it’s sad to look back and realize how little the school did to truly facilitate an education in black history. To be completely frank, their efforts were lackluster and disappointing.

President of Ryerson’s Ghanaian Student Association, Jessica Bentu, shares a similar experience. “Growing up…we didn’t celebrate black history month every year,” she says. “If a teacher was willing to take on that task, then we might do something but even then, it’s really small like posting a picture of Martin Luther King or just highlighting American black history.

Similar to Bentu, in secondary and elementary school, I wouldn’t have realized the opportunities being missed to learn about my culture. But as an educated African-Canadian woman in her fourth and final year of university, I realize a change needs to be made. I’m lucky enough to have older, educated siblings, great mentors and friends who encourage me to learn about my African history, but there a many who are not as fortunate.

Sometimes when a young black person realizes there is a major part of their identity missing, because they were not given the equal opportunity to learn about themselves, they take on feelings of guilt and shame. Bentu is currently writing an essay for a class and chose to do it on a Ghanaian photographer. She says that researching his work “makes me a little bit sad because I know a lot more about European history instead  of my own history. African history in general is extremely rich, and it’s sad that if I didn’t have this assignment or if I don’t go out my way to learn more about my culture and roots, I would still be pretty naive. ”

It’s refreshing to now be part of a higher learning experience and see the campus groups who take the initiative to change the concept of bringing awareness to Black History Month. Ryerson’s Racialised Students’ Collective has taken on the great task of trying to make sure this month is celebrated in all its glory and importance. The group has events setup all throughout the month addressing issues important to the black community such as being queer in black communities, healing and spirituality related to blackness and the correlation between hair and the black identity.

While it is great to have more options to commemorate black excellence, the way in which people traditionally view celebrating black history is in dire need of a revamp.

“I think Black history month was initially a first step in addressing anti-blackness and centralizing black contributions and black voices, but I think it’s now gotten to a point where [it] is repetitive and folks are centralizing black bodies in February and then the rest of the year forgetting about our existence,” says RSU President, Susanne Nyaga.

It’s too easy to say on the morning announcements: “In 1923, Garrett Morgan patented an electric automatic traffic signal,” or for a politician to fight for a Harriet Tubman postage stamp, or for a professor to quote MLK during one of their classes.

Nyaga says that she sees a need for reform as well, but specifically on the Ryerson campus. It’s not only about creating events for black students to talk amongst themselves, “the black community already knows what anti-blackness is. Instead of hosting these places for conversation, I would like to see the school taking tangible actions to eradicate anti-blackness on campus,” says Nyaga.

While there remains room for improvement in celebrating black historians my real question is why can’t we appropriately celebrate the black excellence of today? Is it too close for comfort? While this should be done everyday of the year, it’s all our responsibility to make the most out of this month, highlight the greatness that is the world’s first civilization and propel the recognition into a practice that takes place all year long.

Times are changing. Yes, the younger generation has social media accounts like “The Shaderoom” and “Mediablackoutusa” on Instagram to look to in terms of validation for how much people of colour contribute to the world. Yes, we have “BlackTwitter,” which I truly believe is the backbone to the entertainment and woke value of Twitter. But how do we translate this stream of consciousness into the everyday institutions that continue to befall our lives?

While “Black Twitter” might be the one to emphasize that it was Tarana Burke, an African-American woman, who started the #MeToo movement, most major news outlets will highlight the stories of sexual harassment countless other white women face and attribute the hashtag to their stories instead. When working at a full time job, you might celebrate women’s month, but how much is your employer doing to acknowledge Black History Month?

These examples might seem inconsequential, but they are minor cases that add to the greater issue. School institutions, jobs and politicians for example, all need to do more to highlight the black excellence of today. Will acknowledging that the young black community of our time is making great strides in the world be a detriment to the status quo of a white patriarchal society?

If that’s the case, then it really is time to go O.D on celebrating black excellence.

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