Written by Elizabeth Clarke, edited by Sandrine Jacquot
Black History Month originated in the United States in 1926 at the hands of Carter G. Woodson, the “Father of Black History”. Initially only a week-long celebration during the second week of February, the first Black History Week commemorated the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two prominent men whose historic achievements had already been long celebrated within the Black community. The week inspired schools, universities, and communities across the nation to organize local celebrations and establish independent history clubs and activism groups. By the end of the decade, Black History Week evolved into Black History Month, with continued celebrations on several college campuses. In 1976, American president Gerald Ford was the first to officially recognize Black History Month as a national event. Since Ford’s call upon the American public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every endeavor throughout… history,” each president has similarly endorsed it. This idea has resonated with countries around the world, with Canada being one of the first nations to join the United States in celebrating Black History Month. This was largely due to the efforts of the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS).
Founded in 1978 by Dr. Daniel G. Hill and Wilson O. Brooks, the OBHS lobbied the City of Toronto to formally proclaim February as Black History Month. This designation was achieved in 1979, marking Canada’s first-ever official celebration in Toronto. By 1993, Ontario had proclaimed Black History Month a provincial celebration, further expanding across Canada as a national celebration in 1995. Instrumental in this national shift was the vision and hard work of the Honourable Jean Augustine, the first Black Canadian woman elected to Parliament. Since 1995, Black History Month in Canada has included art installations, presentations, concerts, fundraisers, and conferences to foster awareness, education, and celebration.
Learning about and engaging with Black history during February fosters important allyship. However, it is also necessary to recognize the dangers of utilizing Black History Month as an opportunity to disproportionately promote a narrative of trauma and historical victimhood. History should represent the whole truth: both the positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, it should not be selectively retold to omit the lasting effects and ongoing presence of systemic racism. People of all ages must deeply acknowledge and strive to dismantle the biased system that has existed, and continues to exist in North America. However, on the other hand, we must also celebrate past, present, and future Black excellence, joy, and success.
This year, Canada’s theme for Black History Month is “Ours to Tell”, representing “both an opportunity to engage in open dialogue and a commitment to learning more about the stories Black communities in Canada have to tell about their histories, successes, sacrifices and triumphs.” While Canada maintains the title of Black History Month, many organizations and universities – including Queen’s University and the City of Kingston – have made a significant transition to Black Histories and Futures Month. As also quoted this February by the Queen’s Journal, Professor and Queen’s National Scholar Chair in Black Studies Daniel McNeil, describes Black Futures Month as “a time to affirm, celebrate, and defend all Black lives”. Black Futures Month was first established in 2015 by the abolitionist and anti-capitalist Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). M4BL describes Black Futures Month as “a visionary, forward-looking spin on celebrations of Blackness in February; a time to consider and celebrate our radical Black history and to dream and imagine a world in which all Black people are free”.
Indeed, “forward-looking” well-encapsulates the mindset we must embody during February – and all year round for that matter – in terms of recognizing and disrupting racial injustice, celebrating and supporting Black excellence in business, arts, and academia. We must be proactive in listening to, and learning from, Black voices to create a more just future.
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