For governments, leaders, Black History Month is a way to put a PR bandage against continued anti-Black racism. This is what it should look like
|Toronto Star 23 Feb 2021 at 08:53|
Since 1995, Canada has officially celebrated Black History Month every February. Every year it represents a deep contradiction.
Following the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, which ignited Black Lives Matter protests around the world, including here in Canada, these PR-like campaigns from governments and leaders are pushing the message that this Black History Month should resonate more than ever.
I mean, just in Canada this year, we’ve encountered and been exposed to everything from Durham city staff performing BHM-themed scavenger hunt (“have a conversation with a Black employee”) to the faces of Black freedom fighters being plastered on police cars , while we as a society question the very purpose of the police’s existence.
All of this is done under the banner of commemorating the cultural achievements and contributions made by Black Canadians. Yet, what this has made especially clear is that we need to think about Black History Month in a whole different way, how we mark it, and how we practice it, or we risk continuing to have a month that remains counterproductive. If we accept Black History Month as only a month for shallow, pageantlike celebrations, then we’ve lost the plot. Another way is possible.
I get it, Black History Month in the ways we’ve always “celebrated” it can be such an allure. The seduction that comes from a desire to be included in the nation, with official proclamations and national commemoration that tug at our sensibilities for belonging and fictive togetherness. The reality is that we are excluded.
This celebration always rings hollow when put up against Canada’s long durée of absenting Black people socially and politically at every level. In so many ways, what has become clear is that the official remedy offered for the structural racism Black people endure, in part, is Black History Month. The fleeting, central visibility that Black people hold and enjoy during BHM is designed to serve as the PR remedy to the long and enduring structured condition of Black life in Canada. In the wholehearted uptake of BHM, these forms of celebration from performative to pageantry, begin to govern our own interactions and work to quell forms of speaking not only truth to power, but to demanding accountability from power.
There is a way BHM, and the way it is celebrated demands politeness from the very same Black people it purports to celebrate. As it has come to be practiced, BHM in Canada and beyond, is not a time for Black rebellious rage, centring of Black peoples’ concerns or our Black demands, but rather what is required from us is a kind of obedient gratitude that simply appreciates the spotlight being bestowed upon us, no matter how fleeting it might be. We should keep in mind that a core component of how white supremacy does its work is to set limits of the speech of those it subjugates, which has the effect of prioritizing comfort with the status quo over the needs, well-being and concerns of Black people, even during Black History Month.
Ultimately, the main issue with the tone of BHM is the way that the uncritical celebratory approach always demands a trafficking in the slack economy of representation. Toiling in that kind of surface symbolism, at best, leaves little (to no) room for critique and at worst assumes Black freedom as a fait accompli. It freezes past victories of Black struggle, neuters them and installs them into the narrative of the nation. We need to keep in mind how the state offers us symbolic solutions in the face of structural conditions by providing things like commemorative spaces and dedicated months of history and appreciation.
What would a different kind of Black History Month look like? What might it sound like? Toward this vein, I have been inspired by Idil Abdillahi and Rinaldo Walcott’s idea of the Black Test from their co-authored book . In part, they write:
It is from this stark reality of marginalization that I want to propose that any new policy actions in the North American context ought to pass what I will call the Black test. The Black test is simple: it demands that any policy meet the requirement of ameliorating the dire conditions of Black peoples’ lives.
What if we took Abdillahi and Walcott’s idea of a Black test at the level of policy and every February — with all of our energies — applied that test to all of our institutions: to our school boards, legal systems, how care is structured and experienced for Black youth, our universities and colleges, policing, and our political structures. And what if we demanded better.
What if Black people in Canada en masse, rejected Black History Month in this celebratory pageantlike form and rather than revel in state recognition, official commemoration and infinite celebration of Black firsts? What if Black History Month was a time we reckoned with the contemporary state of Black life in Canada? What if we used Black History Month to re-enchant a form of rude, radical Black demand, and found joy in it?
With that in mind, for what is left of this Black History Month, and all those that follow, I am interested in revelling in Black struggle, Black demand, and Black joy that cannot, will not and does not want to fit into the narrow representational logics on offer — the thin slice and politically neutral pageantry that comes with the celebration of firsts, state recognition, and all the banality that flows from official commemoration
I stand in solidarity with and celebrate everyday Black people who get on and get by, that exist outside official Black History Month posters, but with whom I walk figuratively and literally every day on the street. You are my inspirations, my muses and my teachers, the source of all my joy, who I think about when I write and work. And this Black History Month, let’s be as rude as we can be. And enjoy it.