“Black History is Canadian History”

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A Black History Month event in Shelburne honoured the past, present and future of the black community with stories, artistic expression and calls to action.

The theme of the Feb. 25 event at Grace Tipling Hall, hosted by Museum of Dufferin and Dufferin County Canadian Black Association (DCCBA), was Black Perseverance and Resilience.

“Black history in the west begins with slavery but true black history precedes that,” said host Alex Ihama, executive director of the Canadian Congress on Workplace Diversity. “When we all come together today I’ll quote the honourable Jean Augustine our fine social justice matriarch, who made the motion in 1995 that Black history should be recognized in Canada in February. You’d expect me to quote some philosophy but she said it very simply. She said ‘Black History is Canadian History’.”

In his welcoming remarks, Shelburne Mayor and Dufferin County Warden Wade Mills congratulated partners, especially DCCBA founder Alethia O’Hara-Stephenson, for all the work they have done to “move the understanding forward in great leaps and strides” about the vibrant black history in Dufferin County.

Speakers shared stories, songs and poetry. The line-up included children’s book author Suzette Daley, of Mini Intel who has adapted the story of freedom-seekers Lucie and Thornton Blackburn, who operated the first cab company in Toronto; Streams Community Hub Sing Club facilitated by Noni Thomas; Black Chapter of Centre Dufferin District High School students Aliya Thompson, Sean Harry and Gabrielle Spencer performing spoken word poem My Black Joy, local artist Richie C performing with Shorty, Canadian Hip Hop legend Maestro Fresh Wes.

With dignitaries in the audience, speakers called on the provincial government to include black history in the curriculum and promote the rich, significant history and the 400-year presence of black people in Canada.

Keynote speaker Natasha Henry-Dixon, assistant professor of African Canadian History at York University and president of the Ontario Black History Society, outlined the history of Black History Month, which evolved out of an effort by Carter G. Woodson and his colleagues who were troubled by the lack of information about the accomplishments of African Americans after Emancipation. In 1915, he founded what is now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and helped create Negro History Week in 1926, the impetus for what would evolve into Black History Month.

“Dr. Woodson and his colleagues, friends and advocates believed it was imperative for young black people to learn about their history and to be proud of their heritage and their culture. He identified a direct correlation between black dehumanization in history and how black people were mistreated in society,” said Henry-Dixon.

In The Mis-Education of the Negro, published in 1933, Woodson wrote, “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”

“It is important to note it was a scholarly and grassroots educational intervention to counter the racist representation and erasure of black people from American history,” said Henry-Dixon. “It was designed to create opportunities for black students to critically study black life and cultures.”

She said due to advocacy by those in the black community, Black History Month has been recognized in Toronto since the 1950s, and at the municipal level since the 1970s. Shelburne has proclaimed February as Black History Month for the past five years andFeb. 25 marked the inaugural celebration.

Black History Month helps affirm black identity, heritage and culture, particularly for youth, build cultural competency and racial literacy, and educate white society and other cultures in Canada, to positively affirm and normalize blackness, said Henry-Dixon.

She said it’s a time to value black lives, perspectives and voices, and pay attention to the contributions and accomplishments of black people.

“Black History Month was designed to foster resilience and perseverance, the theme of this event, in black people as a mechanism to weather and withstand the tentacles of white supremacy, colonial violence, miseducation, anti-black racism and to nurture possibility in black communities and black futures,” said Henry-Dixon.

She said the intention was that everyone would learn about black history throughout the year and come together to share in celebration during the month of February, not to cram all of the learning into 28 days.

Maestro Fresh Wes joined a virtual panel discussion in 2021 and said he was honoured to return in-person to learn and make a contribution.

“My slogan is don’t make records, make history. What I’ve tried to do in the last 34 years is make some history and that’s what we’re doing here tonight in Shelburne,” he told The Echo.

Maestro Fresh Wes is the first black artist to go gold in Canada and the first recipient of the Juno award for rap. He spoke Saturday about the evolution of hip hop, marking its 50th anniversary, and the evolution black culture. His music, including his 2023 Juno nominated children’s album, Maestro Fresh Wes Presents: Julia the Great, covers themes of racism and social engineering designed to dismantle black families.

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