Black History Month remembers the half of the story that was never told and recognizes ongoing oppressions
This month marks Black History Month, an observance established in 1995 through a motion introduced by Jean Augustine, the first black Canadian woman elected to Parliament. This month not only celebrates black people and their culture, but also remembers black history—a history with half of the story that’s never been told, according to Michael Farkas, the president of the Montréal Black History Month Round Table, a non-profit organization which advocates black culture and education.
“Obviously, in terms of blacks, you really have to check history to understand all the things that have happened to us and that are still happening to us,” Farkas said.
“There’s so much to uncover,” said Farkas. “Every year I personally learn something new.”
“We have a chance right now to have a beautiful month. Yes, it’s the coldest one, and yes, it’s the shortest one, but who really cares? I care about getting the information,” said Farkas.
“White people and people in the world show little or no interest to Black History Month—the little month we have,” Farkas said. “It should be in schools, it should be part of the curriculum.”
Concordia has yet to develop a Black Studies program, which Sophia Sahrane, the Concordia Student Union’s (CSU) academic and advocacy coordinator and a strong supporter of black activism on campus, believes is vital to be a major and not just a minor.
Sahrane is involved in the Black Studies Collective, which is responsible for bringing the Black Studies event series to Concordia. Sahrane has also organized a BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of colour) committee, open exclusively to racial minorities on campus, which recognizes and addresses barriers faced by BIPOC students and groups at Concordia.
The first talk in the Black Studies event series, held in September 2016, featured guest speaker Dalton Anthony Jones, a black scholar from the United States, who is known for developing Black Studies programs in American universities.
“The talk was on the importance of Black Studies,” said Sahrane. However, she said a main critique amongst some educators within Black Studies is that it should be integrated into general studies.
“When the Black Studies initiative was brought up to the Concordia senate and the university a couple of times, one of the things [Shepard] said was there’s no interest in a Black Studies program,” said Sahrane. “We’re trying to prove that there is by having this Black Studies event series—people are showing up,” she said.
She said the senate meeting revealed that the university didn’t have black professors to teach this program. “If we want a Black Studies program, we want a majority of the professors to be black, to be of some type of black culture. We want them to be able to relate to course curriculums,” said Sahrane. “But the thing is, [Shepard] just admitted to the lack of diversity at Concordia.”
There have been some initiatives to diversify Concordia’s faculty. The Student Association of Graduates in English (SAGE), for example, has brought in a racial bias specialist to help make the English department’s staff more diverse. “He sits down with the hiring committees and he helps them identify their biases and helps them work around them,” Sahrane said. However, she added that the English department is the only department to have taken this initiative so far.
There are not only issues concerning lack of diversity within schools, but as well the lack of education towards certain language and pop culture references.
Farkas said the N-word has been greatly appropriated, identifying an example as the way the word is represented in rap music. “They dehumanized the word in a way—and that’s their thing—but often they don’t know their history,” said Farkas. “The name comes from a very rich heritage.” He added that in the Americas, as well as parts of Europe, the word has been used to dehumanize black populations.
“There’s a very strong history of oppression and persecution and racism in Canada and I think that Canada worked really hard to try to erase that history, and being known in the international community as the peacemakers and a multicultural mosaic society [that is] accepting of all,” said Sahrane. “I think that because there’s this general belief that Canada is great and we don’t have a recent [racial] problem—I think the event on Sunday proved that we do,” she added, referring to the shooting in Quebec City on Jan. 29.
The N-word actually originated from an Ethiopian dialect called Amharic, Farkas explained. “When you really study the etymology of the word, it means that it’s close to niggus, it’s close to Nile, it’s close to Niger and it’s close to Nigeria—it is a very highly regarded name in a different language.”
Farkas referenced Sahle Selassie, who ruled Shewa, Ethiopia between 1813-47, who was dubbed the title “The Negus,” which translates to king or ruler in Amharic.
Things have improved with the advancement of people being more politically correct, as well as being in times where anyone can be videotaped, said Farkas.
“We’re all human beings and we all sometimes have ideas or prejudice in ourselves towards others,” Farkas said. “We all have to work on it, regardless of your colour.”
“Most of the microaggressions I have experienced have been in interpersonal relationships, such as being fetishized [for being black],” said Sahrane. “As much as I am very proud of my identity—can’t I just be a woman?”
“Some people aren’t comfortable around people of colour,” Farkas said, comparing this to the discomfort some people have towards people of other religions.
“Stigmatization can happen to anyone for any kind of reason—whether you’re a gay, whether you’re obese—people can make you feel very uncomfortable and you can feel intimidated,” said Farkas. “I’m not just going to say it happens to blacks, but sometimes, if you’re a black woman, maybe some people will make you feel uncomfortable and you’ll have to fight back for your right.”
“I think we need to retain some kind of values to pass onto our kids, and the ones we should pass on are respect and nonviolence,” Farkas said. “In that respect, we all can grow, I believe.”
Graphic by Florence Yee