BLACK HISTORY MONTH CELEBRATIONS: Is it any longer relevant in Montreal?
By Dr. Clarence S. Bayne (President of BCRC)
Mr Egbert Gaye, the Editor in Chief and owner of Community Contact (Community Contact, Volume 28, Number 02 Jan, 26 20118) in an interview featuring Michael Farkas, the President of the Black History Month Round Table (BHMRT) posed the question: “Is the celebration of Black History Month any longer relevant in Montreal?” Egbert, in the lead up to this question, described the official opening event for Black History Month traditionally held at City Hall in a way that captures the feeling in the Black English speaking community. He said it is an event in which the Black English speaking community has lost interest and from which they feel that they have been excluded. By and large the key organizational leadership in the English speaking Black Community have absented themselves from the event; and the same is true of the major Black French speaking organizational leaders.
Let me put it up front I believe that the event in and of itself is important but for it to be truly meaningful and not be mere smoke and mirrors, the City Administration and Provincial government must show evidence that they are aggressively eliminating the systemic barriers to Blacks in their administrations and their distribution of resources. In general, most Blacks I speak to do not believe that this is happening or will happen. Moreover, because of my working relationship with the BHMRT I have had to respond in private to many of the questions and observations made by Egbert in his interview with Michael. So in this article I am going to pretend that I am being interviewed and responding to Community Contact and several other Community leaders from the English speaking community questioning me, as in fact they have, about the relevance of the celebration and the significance of the events at City Hall.
The first question. “Clarence as a leader in this Black community and a Professor I do not have to tell you that Black history is about life, survival, and living. We do that every day. So why you and your friends get together with the City to celebrate Black History for only one month in the year? Do you feel that makes sense?”
The first thing I do when I attempt to answer this question is to get out of this leadership role that is so gratuitously being assigned to me. Because it usually is a trap. So I make the point that I want to breath fresh air, drink clean water, and to be safe from the cold and other inhospitable things like ”bad mouthers”, reproduce myself and feel good. But I can’t do that to the maximum possible without making sure that some others also survive. So I do what I have to do (act responsibly) so that my true friends and my family all have a better chance. So let’s drop the preamble, “as a leader, etc,” Moreover being a professor is how I make a living salary. That’s it. Having said that, I agree with those that say “Black history month is every day”. But I think that when we compare Black activities and visibility in the early sixties with today, we are living our history and reproducing our cultures as a people incredibly more than we were then. Unfortunately, we are doing it under great stress and negation by the mainstream White culture and the levelers in our own community. Part of the problem is that we have no one telling our stories and singing the praises of our achievements between the events at City hall. So we are more likely to hear the voice of the personality assassinator than the creative voice of achievement and hope. But the reality is that the activities that our children take for granted today and question did not exist in 1960: there were only 5000 Blacks living mostly in Little Burgundy; there were only three Montreal born Blacks at McGill and Sir George University; and Mr. Clyke, with a Master’s degree, could only find work as a porter on CNR. There was no Black Theatre Workshop, no Vues d’Afrique, no Nuits d’Afrique, no Black Film Festival, no Carefiesta, no Ragae Festivals, no Jamaica Day, no Trini Day, no Oliver Jones, no Charlie Biddles, no Oscar Peterson, no Blue Ribbon or DouDou Boicel Jaz Festival, no Calypsonians, no Eddie Tousaint, no Zab nor Westcan, no taste of the Caribbean, no African and Caribbean restaurants; no Caribbean Associations, no Black Doctors or Nurses, no University trained managers and professionals, etc. Blacks were trapped in low paying jobs as porters with CNR and CPR, suffered discrimination at most restaurants, night clubs and bars, and were not permitted to rent in most neighbourhoods of the City. We began to push back the barriers to our progress from the mid-sixties during the “quiet revolution”. The Sir George William computer Crisis, the Black writer Congress, the creation of the National Black Coalition of Canada represent high points in the struggle to change the inhospitable landscape that we met in the late fifties and early sixties.
In 1991, a group of activists went down to City Hall and told the mayor that we were fed-up with being excluded from the cultural, social and economic proprietorship of this City and Province, and that we wanted our culture and contributions recognized. We wanted greater strategic control in the social, cultural and economic life of the City. The City Administration of the day, under Mayor Jean Doré, agreed. The City not only agreed but become engaged in getting the province to put in place a Table de Concertation to address the broader issues of racial discrimination and the economic isolation of the Black community in Montreal and Quebec. To accommodate this the Black Community Forum was created in July 1992 to mobilize the Black English speaking Black communities.
Concretely, one of the things the City and the Black Community leadership agreed to was to adopt the Black American model for Black History Month and officially declare February Black History Month, to be celebrated by all Montrealers. This declaration did not give ownership to the City Administration. Nobody owns Black History month. It is a time for celebration of our presence and contributions and to get some recognition of the contributions of Bauxite, Sugar, cotton, banana, rum, citrus and slave labour to the development of the British Empire and Canada. God knows in the English speaking Caribbean we ate a lot of salt fish tail and processed salted herrings not suitable for European markets to keep cost cheap and profits high for the Canadian and its booming Maritime economies of the time. In effect, “Black History Month” in North America and the Caribbean evolves out of the English speaking Black experiences of the triangular mercantile trade, and slavery and capitalism. It is a celebration of the victory of the Western Black victory over the hell hole of plantation slavery and the embracing of hope and the march to the “mountain top”.
It would be crazy for us, as Blacks, to say that the City and Province should stop this symbolic and official recognition of Blacks; that only Blacks should celebrate Black History Month. The latter would defeat the purpose of the Event here in Canada. What we need to do is to get the mainstream to learn more about us and incorporate our contributions in a valid and more integrated history of Montreal and Quebec. That has to be a struggle that we must continue above all else. We cannot just allow City officials, policy makers and administrators to think that all they have to do is invite us to City Hall once a year and that we will be satisfied with a superficial type of fraternization. Unfortunately, this is what many activists in the English speaking Black community believe has happened since 1992.
The polite terms in which Community Contact puts it is that it has become an event where, after some chit chat from the Mayor and maybe the Police Chief, “guests will mull around the hall, chit chatting and enjoying the dipsy variety of cheeses, finger foods and wine whisked around by servers dressed in formal attire. And when it is all done it appears as if that is the end of Black History Month.” Egbert expresses a view that is widely held in the English speaking Black Community. And if you try to tell those individuals anything different, they will tell you that “you are just trying to defend your buddies.”
Egbert says that interest has waned and Michael, the President of Black History Month Round Table, agrees. But the reason is not, as Michael is reported as saying, that there is a “societal shift towards acknowledging diversity in a broader sense.” Black History Month in North America is not simply about diversity. It is about reconciliation, inclusion and community education and the correction of history. The concept of a larger diversity is the type of avoidance that one might expect from the French nationalists pre-occupations with distinctions between “multiculturalism” and “inter-culturalism” or their increasing impatience with the “others” cultures. In my opinion, what has really happened is that the population, both Black and White, sees the City Hall event as not pertinent to what they are doing. One thing I am constantly being asked is why, out of courtesy, English is not spoken at the event. Second statement of detachment is that the event is no longer an expression of the Western Black struggle for reconciliation, recognition and strategic control. The English speaking Blacks, especially the Caribbean English speaking Blacks, feel that they have been excluded from the decision making processes with respect to the City Hall event. In general, it is believed that the “Calendar” has two serious flaws: one is that it no longer promotes other events in the Black community outside the control of the Black History Month Round Table. Thus, at times, it is a competitor with the events it was created to support. The second problem frequently cited in both the Black and White communities is that awarding twelve Laureates per year raises questions about the value of being a Laureate. One critic actually said to me that awarding a laureate to a sixteen year old Black Youth for having gained a “Black Belt” is an insult to Youth achievers. A prominent Black politician complained to me about the seeming absence of consistent criteria for making choices of laureates. The person ventured the statement, that it should not be aimed at the superficial satisfaction of the individual’s need for self-actualization but at the promotion of excellence. Here again they say that the BHMRT seem to be competing with other Black agencies and not marking out a niche need area, like youth achievers in certain fields of endeavour, etc.
I do not believe that Black History Month is being honoured less. I believe that Black arts, cultural and social events have increased in quantity and quality; that these events are taking place throughout the year. I believe that the reason that there appears that interest has waned in the Black and White communities is because there is not effective coverage and encouragement of activities. Some attempts have been made to improve that situation by the Pan-Black Website created by an alliance of Black community organizations and administered by the BHMRT. But the BHMRT is awaiting support from the City and other sponsors to manage the site professionally. Also, I would like to point to the fact that the Black Theatre Workshop School Tour which takes place specifically for Black History Month has been booked for over forty schools in the English speaking school Boards in each of the last three years. Moreover, the schools have been inviting speakers to make presentations and participate in programs on diversity put on by the school staff themselves.
However, BHMRT has to become more active in supporting and promoting these events. In particular, it has to promote the initiatives of the Union United Church walking tour of its history all year round, as well as the Church’s Martin Luther King Jr Birthday church service; and it has to actively support the Vision celebration event of BTW as the opening event leading into Black History month; and the educational school tours during February. This is particularly important, since BTW was one of the original Black English speaking companies that lobbied the City to declare February Black History Month, and was active in the early years organizing and staging a number of its variety theatrical performances.
I do not think that Black History Month events alone should be responsible for defining us and our place in Quebec. However, it has put the focus on us in a way that is not the case with other cultural groups. But we must realize that it lends itself to being exploited as a mechanism for token recognition. It receives none of the kind of financial support that would qualify as identity defining support. It is the operations of agencies like Zab, Black Theatre Workshop, Nuits d’Afrique, Vues d’Afrique, Black Film Festival, Carifiesta, Blue Ribons, the Ragae Festival, the poetry jams and readings of Black artists, cultural displays by Concordia and McGill universities; and the University of Montreal, cultural sponsor of Black arts and culture such as the BSC Charitable Fund, Michaelle Jean Foundation, the TD Bank, the Cole Foundation, private arts and cultural events that are doing that work on a long term basis to define us and the roles we play in this society.
The City Default
On the other hand, the City has defaulted on early promises. It has cut key resources to the English speaking events such as the Carifiesta and the Black History Month celebrations. It has failed to give the full value to the contributions of Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones here in this City where they were born, grew up and became World greats. Other Cities have done more for Peterson. No organization knows better than the Black History Month Round Table the sting of the slap we received as a community from the City in the 375th Montreal Celebration year of 2017.
Black English Speaking Community Gratitude and recommendation
We must commend the Organization and its President, Mr Michael Farkas, for the role they played in expressing our concerns and anger at our exclusion from the celebrative events. The Black History Month Round Table theme “Ici pour rester, Ici pour durer” represented our feelings as a community. Also the Black Community Forum partnership with the BHMRT was successful in representing the community frustration and anger at the rejection of BHMRT project for full participation in the 375th celebration. It led to the naming of a building in the Sud-Ouest after Oliver Jones. The news coming from the English speaking Caribbean sectors of the Black communities is that BHMRT needs to do more of this type of collaboration and to more actively promote and celebrate the English speaking communities and organizations. This is the message I am getting and asked to deliver.
For Full Version of Semaji February 2018 Click Here