Black History Month used to take me by surprise each February, writes Renée James.
Why did it surprise me? Perhaps because I grew up in Trinidad where racial discrimination played out by a different name: colourism. It was a given, though not always, that your light skin colour and tone meant everyone else could make positive assumptions about where you’d end up living, who you’d marry and the job you’d have . . . unless you simply weren’t smart. (Questions of access and equity aside, getting an education and being smart trumped all.)
The island celebrated Emancipation Day of course. And every Diwali my father would take us kids for a long drive into the country to see thousands of diyas lit in towns and villages where Trinidadians of East Indian descent lived. For decades, Mastana Bahar (East Indian) and Best Village (African) were the weekly cultural programs broadcast on our single national television station that no one would confess they watched. Those programs showcased East Indian and African talent, music, song and dance. Over the years, terms like Afro-Caribbean and Indo-Caribbean crept into the language of politics and public discourse.
What does God have to say about racial justice?
All this to say – I grew up surrounded by people who, more or less, looked like me, lived like me, carried themselves like me. Sure, British Petroleum and Texaco mined our oil reserves and sold us our gas while radio stations blared American music countdowns, BBC World News and British radio drama instalments. Even so, we simply took each other’s ethnicities and heritage at face value.
No wonder then that the invitation of Black History Month – the very need for it – surprised me when I arrived in mid-1980s Toronto and for decades after. I confess though that the surprise has worn thin over the past few years in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, islamophobia in London, Ont., the discovery of unmarked graves at Indigenous residential schools in British Columbia and the kindling of anti-Asian sentiment.
Why do I need Black History Month?
At its core, Black History Month invites me to remember truth. To remember that the vast majority of captured Africans were deposited on Caribbean islands as trader ships plied north to the United States. That chattel slavery across the Caribbean and in the United States built the economies in which you and I live today. That 84 years after his work was rejected in the UK, and 78 years after it was first published in America, where it became a highly influential anti-colonial text, a new edition of Eric Williams’s book, Capitalism and Slavery, is to be published in Britain. Eric Williams was a Black Oxford University scholar and the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago.
This month invites me to scan my assumptions: Whose voices have I become indifferent to, simply because their skin colour is darker than mine? Who do I not see around the tables at which I sit? And why is this so?
Here are some ways to pause and remember truth over this month:
- February 17 – Canada pauses to remember the contributions that Black Canadians make to Canada. Here’s a link to learn more about a virtual event being held that evening and what else is being planned: https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/black-history-month.html
- What does God have to say about racial justice? Do a topical Bible study on unity and justice. Start with the book of Revelation.
- Visit a library near you. Ask for titles by BIPOC authors (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour). Read one, and don’t forget to pick out a title for your children or grandchildren.
Renée James is a writer and editor in Toronto. Photo for Faith Today by Caroline Ryan.