I begin this article by quoting Rosemary Sadlier, who is the president of the Ontario Black History Society. She wrote, “When the contributions of people of African descent are acknowledged, when the achievements of black people are known, when black people are routinely included or affirmed through our curriculum, our books and the media, and treated with equality, then there will no longer be a need for Black History Month.”
Many in Canada and in our diocese join in the annual celebration of Black History Month in February. There is an annual diocesan Black Heritage Service that is held on the last Sunday in February at St. Paul, Bloor Street at 4 p.m. The first service was held at St. James Cathedral in February 1995. Some parishes in our diocese also hold similar services during the month.
The question has been asked of me and others, “Why do we have to designate a month called Black History Month?” Answers vary, but fundamentally it can be summed up in the quotation used at the beginning of this article. Although considerable progress has been made in race relations through the years, racism – subtle and not so subtle – still exists in many of our institutions, including the church. Prejudice and bigotry are very present with us and are manifested in the way others are treated because of their age, race, sexual orientation or whatever makes them different.
There are persons who support the observance of Black History Month and believe that it is important for such a celebration to take place. There are others, including persons of African heritage, who do not share these sentiments, and who believe that such an observance minimizes the importance of black history.
Since 1926, Americans have recognized black history, first known as “Negro History Week” and later as “Black History Month.” There have been black people in America since colonial times, but it was not until the 20th century that they began to be included in history books. Dr. Cater G. Woodson, a PhD Harvard graduate, was the person responsible for the celebration of Black History Month in the United States. He established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now called the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History) in 1915. It is believed that Dr. Woodson chose the month of February because of a number of African-Americans who celebrate significant achievements in that month. It is also suggested that he wanted to honour Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, whose birthdays were in February and who were in the forefront of ending American slavery.
In Canada around 1950, the railroad porters within the black community, on learning about what was happening in the United States, were inspired by these celebrations. However, it was the Ontario Black History Society, founded in 1978, that became the pioneering body for such a celebration in Canada. It successfully lobbied the federal government to have February declared as Black History Month, and in December 1995, Parliament officially recognized February as Black History Month. The first black Canadian woman elected to Parliament, the Hon. Jean Augustine, introduced the motion.
The objective of Black History Month is to provide information about black history, culture and heritage. The hope is that sharing such knowledge will inspire confidence among black people about their cultural heritage. Black History Month fundamentally highlights the history and contributions of black communities and black individuals, past and present. Making this history known enables many in our communities to learn of the significant contributions made by persons of African heritage to the development of their communities and the world.
Often some of the names of people of African heritage with whom this month is associated include Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and Desmond Tutu. Our own Canadian personalities include Lincoln Alexander, Michaelle Jean, Deborah Cox, Rosemary Brown, Keith Forde, Harry Jerome, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and Ann Cools, to name a few.
Black History Month is an opportunity for us in Canada to recognize the past and present contributions that African-Canadians have made to the life of this country in areas such as education, medicine, art, culture, public service, economic development, sports, religion, politics and human rights.
In our diocese, many of our members are Afro-Canadian and Caribbean people who have made and are making significant contributions to life and witness of our church. I believe that the Anglican Church of Canada is the richer because of its diversity, the result of many people from many lands, including persons of African heritage.
It is my hope that the sentiments of Mary Sadlier will become our reality, when the contributions of people of African descent are acknowledged, their achievements known, black people are routinely included or affirmed through our books and the media, treated with equality, and assume leadership positions by virtue of their competencies and qualifications. When these are acknowledged, there will no longer be a need for Black History Month.