Racial divide maintains need for Black History Month

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Harold Usher in Victoria Park

Laura Barclay

REMEMBERING THE PAST, LOOKING AHEAD TO THE FUTURE. London city councillor Harold Usher poses next to a plaque in Victoria Park. The plaque was installed this past year to commemorate London’s first black settlers, the Underground Railroad and the location of London’s first school for black children in the 1850s. With Black History Month underway, a number of events are taking place in London this month, including a ceremony featuring Usher in the University Community Centre today starting at noon.

When Victoria Falana first came to Western she noticed the adverse stigma on campus immediately.

“Initially I felt very uncomfortable on campus,” Falana, the vice-president of Western’s Black Students’ Association, admitted. “I can remember specific instances of people treating me differently and applying negative stereotypes to me because of the colour of my skin.”

Falana’s story is not unique. Every year sees a new class of visible minorities come to Western for the first time, an experience that can be daunting especially for those who are still assimilating to North American culture.

Former University Students’ Council VP-university affairs David Simmonds feels Western’s reputation as a white campus has dogged him even past his graduation.

“The black community at Western is a reflection of the black community in Canada,” Simmonds said. “It is a community that is struggling to find its place.

“It’s not easy to go to Western and be a minority. To this day people question the authenticity of my time at Western and my ability to experience the success I did with student government, residence, campus life and academics.”

The racial divide on campus is a primary reason why Black History Month is so important for all Western students, according to Falana.

“Today, Black History Month is not only just about African-American history, it’s about progression. It’s a time to acknowledge progression on a daily basis,” Falana said.

For Damon Allen, professional football’s all-time leading passer and a 22-year-veteran of the Canadian Football League, the month is a time to reflect on the struggles of black individuals throughout history, especially those involved in the Civil Rights movement.

“It’s unfortunate that a lot of the people who we remember at this time are past and gone,” Allen said. “Black History Month allows me to really reflect on the past: from where we’ve come, through the struggles and challenges to make change, until where we are today.

“There were times when we couldn’t go to school and we couldn’t vote. It’s important to encourage young people to take advantage of these things because people in the past died for the freedom that we have today.”

While racism is still an issue for black Canadians, the focus and zeal of the resistance to racism have notably changed. The lack of a major united cause is a source of this apathy, according to Simmonds.

“Young black Canadians are not equipped with the toolkit necessary to participate the way leaders did in the 50s and 60s,” Simmonds said.

“There was a call to action issued during the Civil Rights movement " you had to be smart, well versed and bold to garner respect within [it]. Knowledge was respected and expected. I think we have strayed from that.”

“The problem with Black History Month is that people are still caught in the ideas of slavery and hatred and anger. It’s really not about that,” Falana added.

Allen agreed, citing the lack of positive role models for today’s black youth as a catalyst for the tendency of Black History Month programming to rely on memorials for Civil Rights pioneers.

“A lot of modern day figures, athletes especially, have never really stood up for anything,” Allen asserted. “I think that’s why we’re constantly looking to the heroes of the past. They were the ones who really stood up for what they believed in no matter what the consequences. The exception, of course, is Barack Obama.”

It’s nearly impossible to discuss Black History Month today without acknowledging the African-American Harvard graduate who recently took control of the Oval Office.

However, Obama’s emergence as a prominent black role model in the United States has shone a light on Canada’s lack of such a figure.

“There are lots of prominent black Canadians, the problem is nobody knows of them,” Falana said. “The media doesn’t cover them. There are lots of blacks in Canada who have worked hard and achieved great things in their field but the media really washes it down.

“You hear about the shootings at Jane and Finch all the time but you never hear any positive stories.”

“I’m not sure we have created a stage that can showcase the powerful contributions of the black community in Canada,” Simmonds added. “We haven’t embraced [the impact of race in Canada], and as a result, we overlook the many accomplishments black Canadians have made.”

Black History Month has not been without its criticisms. Several African-Americans have recently stated their opposition to the month-long celebration.

One of them is Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman, who chastised the month in a 2005 interview on 60 Minutes saying that black history should just be American history.

“You’re going to relegate my history to a month? ... Which month is ‘White History Month?’” Freeman questioned on the program.

For Tafsir Diallo, a fourth-year Western political science student, Freeman’s argument rings true of his experience with Black History Month.

“The only people who pay attention to Black History Month are black people,” Diallo added. “People who aren’t black think that they can’t take part in Black History Month activities " they don’t feel comfortable. That’s so wrong. That’s not the way that it should be.

“Why don’t we do the same thing for Polish history? Why don’t we have a Chinese history month? Why don’t we recognize Greek history? Where do you draw the line? As a black person, everybody’s history is my history.”

Simmonds, on the other hand, blames society’s tendencies to generalize for the Black History Month backlash.

“Our history is black; our history is white. It is female and male; straight and queer. It has different abilities and is not always pleasant,” Simmonds said. “Until Canadians have come to terms with this reality we will continually create categories, boxes, weeks and months for those things that are different than the status quo.

“We shouldn’t turn our eyes from looking in the mirror for the culprit who helps silence persist. Change is a collective exercise and requires collective action.”

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