Understanding Black History Month

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Growing up in Nigeria/Africa had its own peculiar challenges.

I mean, there was the absence of constant power supply. You had bad roads, and poor water supply to contend with.

Religious houses mounted their speakers at most corners. Sometimes, it was as though there was a competition between them on which religion could keep the neighbourhood more awake at night.

Poor governance bred a lot of consequential ills. Ranging from abject poverty, to the terror of terrorism.

In every facet of life, from child-hood to adulthood, there was tribalism, nepotism and corruption to deal with.

And when you heard “Fellow Nigerians...” over the radio, you ran into your homes with terror-struck hearts, and doors/windows firmly shut. Because it signalled yet another bloody military coup, and you wondered fearfully which heads would be forced to roll by the incoming government.

But in all of the challenges faced, being a (visible) racial minority was not one of them. Especially not one who’s race had its narrative written by history in sorry light.

So that while we had our own problems in the motherland, we could only empathize (without actually understanding first-hand) with brothers and sisters living outside Africa; struggling with being racial minorities, overcoming racism and the prejudicial treatment it naturally begets.

No. Struggling with racial minority was is not exactly our reality. So that the first time I heard about Black History Month, it did not seem that much of a big deal.

There was no need to celebrate black history month. We WERE black history. We lived it every day, every time.



I remember the first time the reality of being a visible minority dawned on me. It was during my post-graduate studies.

It was less in the things said, and more in the things unspoken.

In the surprised (nay… shocked) reaction, when I introduced yourself as a law grad-student. Or the 'nice' store attendants, who dutifully followed me to every rack through the stores.

In the fact that the first time we were three black students in the elevator of the law building, we actually shook hands, and smiled with each other, while acknowledging that none of us had witnessed there being “so many” black people in the same place, at the same time, in the building.

It all began to come together for me.

And it became clearer, as I read stories of the black slaves who had run away from the United States of America to Canada, but were subjected to harsh living conditions, even as “freed-men”.

Living in Halifax, I was exposed to what was the systematic neglect of Africville – the first establishment for Black-Scotians – resulting in the deterioration in health and poverty of the people who lived there, eventually leading to its demolition.

But it finally all came together for me last year.

As I sat at the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers (CABL) and Law Society of Ontario (LSO) joint celebration of the Black History Month, the tears unconsciously rolled down my eyes, as listened as Dr. Jeane Augustine. She was the first African-Canadian woman elected to the Canadian House of Commons, and she shared her story on the struggle to achieving greatness as a person of African descent.

I listened to Professor Joanne St. Lewis share how her father was advised to take her out of the education track to technical school. Her primary school teacher had condemned her to being “not bright”, whereas she was actually too intelligent for the class she had been placed in, upon migrating from the West Indies. 

That she surmounted life’s challenges and attained the huge achievement of becoming a law school professor still did not protect her from subsequent racist and derogatory statements published of her as a “house-negro”; demeaning all her professional accomplishments.

However, none of these prepared me for the struggle I would experience; the fight against prejudice job-hunting. Hadiya Roderique in her mind-blowing op-ed Black on Bay Street tried to put this in words. It was worse for me as I was not just black and female;

I was an immigrant too.

(But that is story for another blog-post)

Again, it was less in the things said, and more in the unspoken things.

These experiences (and others too many to list) provided adequate insight into the peculiar limitations and barriers people of African descent living outside Africa have been subjected to, birthing the celebration of black greatness through Black History Month.

You see, with many other minority people living in this part of the world, it may be possible to ‘mask’ that minority heritage.

There is code-switching. You could even change your name to be a “Rebecca James”.

(All respects to all Rebecca Jameses in the world)

But as a black person, by virtue of the very colour of your skin, there IS a box society seeks to (consciously or subconsciously) place you in. It does not matter if you have three Rebeccas in your name. It does not matter if you came by way of slavery or choice.

The society was configured such that your skin colour (by default) automatically determined your level of success. Yet, black people broke these boxes, and now conquer these barriers in achieving greatness.

It is this greatness that Black History Month celebrates.

The fact that the ones before us – Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, Katherine Johnson, Serena Williams, Bennet Omalu, Jean Augustine – went above and beyond prejudices to mark their names in the sands of time.

The fact that till date, those barriers and prejudices are still being fought - and conquered - by black people; especially black women.

From the absence of diversity on boards of big corporations, to the negative labelling of all things black.

Being tagged “the angry black woman”, for being outspoken. Being schooled that your God-given Afro was a sign of “bad hair”, with your human frame described as “threatening”, for being a graceful 6-footer.

Being told that your African first name is “funny”, or having to switch it with your English (baptismal) middle-name, so as to get your foot into the door which society craves to keep firmly shut in your face.

It is against the backdrop of these that we can understand the evolution from being (silently) deemed an abomination, into rightly celebrating those things that signify our uniqueness as people of African descent; celebrating our blackness and the successes we have achieved with it.

This is why a lot of us will NEVER get enough of Black Panther; seeing on global display the beauty and splendour of who we are as people of African descent.

Image result for black panther

We have come a LONG way. We have gone full circle. And Black History Month is the exhibition of that circle.

I now have the understanding, that Black History month is all about acknowledging the scars of the past while celebrating achievements of black excellence; even in the face of the many obstacles faced by us – people of African descent - in the path to greatness.



www.unsplash.com - Oladimeji Odunsi
www.byblacks.com - Dr. Jean Augustine
Black Panther movie - Kwaku Alston/Marvel Studios

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  1. "True that"...I will never forget the racism I faced in India while job hunting and in Germany. Though the racism in Germany is not like India

    1. Sigh... same story all over the world. It is well..