‘Black’ identity not defined by Black History Month

by | Mar 4, 2015 | Opinion

Aresell Joseph
News Reporter

Black History Month is coming to a close, but the reference to “ black” identity is still a troubling one. It’s used in society to classify a group of people based on their physical appearance, but within this categorization are real individuals with multiple cultural identities. None of us within the range of skin colours so loosely called “black” is the same, but we are all marked by this distinctive racial and cultural reference..

Harlem Renaissance novelist Nella Larsen once said, “everything can’t be explained by some general biological phrase.” Black History Month in February is symbolic because it celebrates what? Afrocentric culture? What about Caribbean culture? Or are we all to walk under the same umbrella?

My brother said recently that black history or heritage did not start before slavery. He meant that a lot of people think blacks had no history before slavery because they were tribes in Africa not documenting their history, or cultural norms and practices.

But boy, we can imagine it was rich and strong due to discourses and art published by individuals like Nigerian novelist and critic Chinua Achebe and American feminist, author and social activist bell hooks, whose work focuses on the interconnectivity of race, capitalism and gender.With such a vast heritage and so many cultural identities packed into “black” history, is it fair to designate only a single month every year to celebrate it?

When Canada’s first female African-Canadian MP Jean Augustine went to the House of Commons to advocate for Black History Month, she thought she was doing something right. Augustine, like me, is from Grenada and part of the African diaspora — but can we really say we are 100 per cent African?I grew up in Tuileries, St. Andrew’s, a part of the island country in the Caribbean, Grenada.

As a child, I looked at my family and saw a group of multiracial individuals — dark skin, Indian, light skin, Creole — and I thought everyone was beautiful and interesting. Although Grenada does not have Black History Month, it does have a day called “Grenadian Independence Day,” where people on the island celebrate their cultural heritage and mark the end of colonialism in Grenada.

Grenada was owned by several other nations. First Great Britain, then France, then the English again until the island became independent in 1974. Although Grenada was granted independence, it is still a part of the British Commonwealth, like Canada.

When I arrived in Canada and heard about Black History Month, I knew immediately that blacks were visible minorities in Canada but that not all blacks collectively shared the same identity.

Identifying as black meant that I was negating other racial or cultural ties flowing through my blood, while ignoring my blackness meant that I was promoting the “inferiority complex,” which Afro-French psychiatrist, philosopher and revolutionary Frantz Fanon discussed in writings in the 50s.

He said some blacks love the people that enslaved them and hate their own.

The first time I experienced discrimination in Canada was through another black person, who mocked my Caribbean accent and called me a “monkey.”

Then I thought about Caribbeans who are ostracized in and outside of the black community, or choose to use class and indulge in white privilege to get ahead.

Unity in the black community is broken, since blacks sold each other to slave masters. Even though slavery is not the basis of black history, it remains a focal point in our history.

During Black History Month these themes are not explored, because February has 28 days and black activists and event organizers across Toronto like Candice Warner-Barrow want to celebrate the beauty of Afrocentric culture, rather than reference the bad.

Yet, people in the black community must accept the good and bad in order to move towards solidarity. For while the general population needs to know that “Black” actually represents a multitude of cultures and histories, it is also important that people who share this racial designation not continue to marginalize each other based on those same social and cultural differences.