Ruggles, Clifton, 1995, “Black History Month is better than ever,” The Gazette,” Montreal, Thursday, February 23, 1995.
“I guess practice does make perfect. Every year it seems that Black History Month gets better.
This year is no exception. Performances celebrating black historical and cultural contributions ranged from lectures, art exhibits, music, theatre, dance, film, poetry and even a demonstration of caring for black hair.
Black History Month evolved out of African-American educator Carter G. Woodsen’s 1926 Negro History Week. It has a dual purpose: celebrate the experiences and achievements of blacks and educate blacks as well as non-blacks about that history.
The West End had its share of Black History Month events, “Free Your Mind Return to the Source” as the Loyola Concert Hall featured more than two dozen musicians. It showcased the evolution of black music from the chains and drumbeats from the heart of Africa, to the Americas, from slavery to hip hop.
In the middle of one of the worst winter storms this year, blacks and whites came together to hear the sounds and the stories of the African diaspora.
One of the most impressive performers was South African vocalist Lorraine Klaasen.
She sang songs that spoke of the black struggle for liberation in South Africa as well as a song based on a traditional cry of joy. And she reminded parents of the importance of teaching children about their ancestors and culture.
Maison de la Culture Notre Dame de Grâce and Maison de la Culture Côte des Neiges had a full array of activities to celebrate Black History month. I was particularly taken with Pat Dillon’s portrayal of a black domestic talking about life, politics and the condition of black women in “Clemmie is M’friend.”
The one-woman play gives historical significance to all the black women who have worked as domestics, my mother included, and who in some ways have been the backbone of the black community.
Reads letter aloud
During the play, she reads aloud a letter she sent to her mother and children in Jamaica. She tells of the police shootings of black men and recounts the bitter irony of how these black men were killed. She concludes her letter by telling her mother not to send her teenage son for fear he might become one of the police statistics.
Even the National Gallery of Canada got involved in Black History Month this year by having a series of talks on such topics as African art and aesthetics and the image of blacks in art.
I attended one of these by art educator Maureen Flynn-Burhoe called “The Positive Presence of Absence: a History of the African Canadians through Works in the Permanent Collection of the National Gallery of Canada.” Even though there weren’t many works in the Gallery’s collection, Flynn-Burhoe managed to use certain paintings in the permanent collection to discuss the social and historical significance of these images to the black experience.
What wasn’t there became as relevant as what was there. One fascinating story was about the portrait of a naval officer, painted for his bravery. However, what was not hanging there, Flynn-Burhoe noted, was a painting of an equally brave soldier who was on another ship at the same time, and who was awarded the Victoria Cross. His name was William Hall and he was black. The omissions speak volumes.
But the most fascinated thing about the art tour was coming face to face with a bronze bust of one of my relatives – Tommy Simmons, who worked as a railway porter and coached an all-black girls’ baseball team.
It is one of the few existing sculptures of a black Canadian person. The bust, by Orson Wheeler, was found in 1975 in a studio at Sir George Williams University.
Jones, also a relative of Simmons, was on hand to give some historical information about the bust.
The talk reminded me how the contributions of black Canadians have gone missing from the pages of Canadian history. Black History Month came to life for me when these untold stories began to surface.
Reactions to Black History Month vary with the black community. Most of the people I spoke to were very positive about its scope and impact.
One view was that besides giving blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves, Black History Month forces the involvement of societal institutions like governments, schools, art galleries, and various media.
Other people, however, were sceptical of the benefits of dedicating just one month to this agenda.
One person I spoke to expressed concern that there were not enough young people at the events; another that there weren’t enough people of other cultural groups.
One view was that Black History Month should work towards incorporating into the programs events that have a focus on the future.
Black History Month showed the diversity, richness, and talent can be found in the black communities. It was a testimony to the pain, joy and difficulties of the black experience (Ruggles 1995:02-23).”