Youth Perspectives | All History, All the Time
by Oji Okafor
YouthREX Youth Research Assistant
This is my unpopular opinion. Black History Month is a problem.
In my experience, February is a month of reflection, not progress. Before I was old enough to understand the full implications of Black History Month, I knew this: I would be expected to act as an ambassador of blackness during every class discussion. Every time. It was delightful. I was one of the only black kids in a very racially diverse elementary school. There was nothing especially terrible or traumatizing about this experience; but something about the constant black “like Oji!” had me on edge. The filtered content that we learned throughout elementary school wasn’t especially intriguing either, and my high school brought the same speaker in for two years in a row! He recited the same speech both times.
Every February I hear the same stories and narratives on repeat. At first they make you feel good, but then you see that very little is actually changing.
When I was in Grade 11 World History Class, I started to identify some problems with Black History Month. It is no more a celebration of Black History than my World History class was representative of world history. Black History Month has and continues to be a product of white supremacy. Victors always write the history books, and due to Europe’s successful colonization or pulverization (sometimes both) of countries in every continent on earth, “World History” in my little Canadian classroom was “Western History - As it Relates to the Rest of the World”. The curriculum was not built to investigate and explicate the history of humanity, it was built to strengthen the notion that the West, is humanity. In the same vein, Black History Month relegates the entire history of a people, thousands of years, into the space of one month, long enough that we can get excited about it but short enough that it doesn’t taint the fair complexion of the rest of the year.
Fast forward to 2017 and I am now a young black male, the son of East and West African immigrants, living in Toronto, one of the most diverse cities on the planet, still at odds with the month, but for other reasons. In 2017 we are living in one of the worst periods of racial tensions in North America since the Los Angeles Riots of the early 90’s. There are now almost-mainstream political groups (eg. the so called alt-right party) spewing white supremacist rhetoric and disguising it as nationalism. Black history month has been a constant feature in the United States since 1976 and in Canada since 1995 and yet the deep lying racial divide in many North American communities still exists. The structures to support equity are strained if not fully under attack.
We celebrate Black history in February, but from March to January, the narratives shift and for the other eleven months, the stories about black people are not so positive. The dominant narratives emphasise that whiteness takes priority.
What use is a month celebrating black history if doesn’t bring about any concrete change? Black History Month is a token affair in the grand scheme of things; we learn the basic, safe history of the African American/Canadian experience, but rarely delve into its ugly truths. We most definitely do not circumnavigate the condition of black people and race relations in our present society.
Black history itself is of the utmost importance, and in theory a month of celebrations and study of our history goes a long way to ensure universal familiarity, acceptance and progress when it comes to black people and our culture. Unfortunately, theory does not always prove true in practice and this has proven the rule for Black History Month. In our increasingly globalized world, diversity is quickly becoming the norm rather than the exception. We need to move beyond the safe “feel good” narratives that keep power structures intact and onto concrete models of change that can be applied in communities everywhere. This starts with youth.
My suggestion? All history, all the time.
I remember the confused look on the faces of my classmates whose ethnicities and racial backgrounds weren’t represented during black history month; their faces mirrored a similar displacement during rest of the year, as well. This was not a look of misunderstanding, but rather a look of, “where do I fit in?” All cultures are rich and profound with plenty to offer the world and young people, all year round. Knowing where you came from is the first step to getting where you need to be. It is youth, after all, who push culture, and self-knowledge is critical to be able to perform great services like break down stereotypes and curtail cultural stigma; that way, we can all work together to solve society's problems.
Youth workers can provide the safer spaces needed for youth to dialogue about themselves and where they came from. Youth come in all shapes, sizes and ethnicities and the learning from each other serves the double purpose of being a self-educational experience, but it can also provide youth workers with a deeper understanding of the specific cultural and historical influences that may be active in a young person's day-to-day choices. This will not only help youth workers better serve youth in our communities but will assist in solving community issues. A clear historical understanding is necessary for a clear vision of the future. Youth workers can encourage youth to create a spirit of togetherness in racially divided or multicultural communities through knowledge of self and each other. If we had more brave conversations about things like anti-black racism, perhaps that would be a step in the right direction of changing the institutions, systems, and services we all participate in. Educating police departments about black history and culture, promoting awareness about the true nature of Islam, and throwing community mixers where we can openly share and learn together are tangible strategies that can be used to translate self-knowledge into better racial relations in North America and experiences of equity for the black community every day of the year.