One year ago, the three of us delivered a presentation entitled “Beyond Black History Month”. Since then, we have moved through the two-year mark of the murder of George Floyd and witnessed another set of hate-driven mass murders in Buffalo with its attendant promise of an(other) awakening and call to change. We have also witnessed the recent loss of Tyre Nichols and other previous deaths in Canada – some of which are covered by the media and others are not. Those violent losses, especially intensified as we move through the global pandemic, have shone a light on structures of continuing dehumanization and devaluation of Black lives in Canada, the United States and elsewhere. The repeating calls to action reveal the deep paradox that in order to be heard, and to initiate a movement for what Katherine McKittrick calls “Black livingness,” more souls have had to be lost. The lives and experiences of Black people are rife with such paradoxes in this, the UN’s International Decade for People of African Descent.
With a long line of thinkers who tackle the contradictions of Black lives and even take up the notion of Blackness as an always problematic binary relation to whiteness (which proclaims itself to be the unmarked standard for all otherness), we wish to sit with the tensions – named through paradox – of thinking with and beyond Black History Month. We owe a debt to William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’ notion of double-consciousness, and Frantz Fanon’s notion of black skin/white masks and more recent explicit turns to paradoxes of Black urban life and of the colour line. We take up paradox as a wayfinder, particularly in the context of academia where we met and where Black scholarship and presence are systemically invisibilized, but also at times, hyper-visibilized.
In our presentation, the three of us engaged with the paradox represented by the offering of the month of February to remember Black history. It is both a necessity and a challenge. The championing of the Honourable Jean Augustine, and prior community efforts, are why we celebrate the importance of Black History Month in Canada. However, the surge in demand for engagement and the invisible labour that accompanies it, often leaves Black people feeling exhausted and drained by the end of the month. What is implicitly forgotten is that Black histories, knowledges and people are relevant every day, all year. Forgetting this means normalizing: silences and erasures; the microaggressions that leak out of systems and into bodies; and most importantly, the violent eruptions that have ultimate costs for some. This experience of coming together in community and thinking beyond the month serves for us as a springboard to think about related paradoxes which prompt critical questions to help navigate these times.
Silence and violence
In the wake of violent events and even the everyday racisms encountered in institutions, we collectively face the conundrum of what to say and not to say. Sometimes silence is necessary when we don’t have words and reflection is needed. However, when the media is not present to witness and evidence violence, when the world is not held captive by a pandemic, and when it’s not the calendar month of relevance, silence can be felt as violence. “Comfortable silence”, in particular, following losses signals a lack of willingness to engage in a sustained way.
Dates of celebration, therefore, are critical for countering silences and mobilizing knowledges not otherwise centered. For example, while the inclusion of the history of Black communities in Canadian education curriculums continues to be debated, Black History Month remains a key way for many young people to learn about the histories and continuing presences and contributions of these communities. In response to calls for including Black history in the curriculum that emerged during Black History Month in 2021, the Ontario government invested in enhancing curricular resources on Black history and teaching about Black experiences. Black History Month is also the prompt for curricular-focused debates which are ongoing in other Canadian provinces. In Alberta, the minister of culture gave special attention to communities such as Amber Valley during Black History Month in 2022, and, as a result of coordinated community efforts, these communities and histories are currently under review for inclusion in Alberta’s renewed kindergarten to grade six curriculum. Black History Month serves as a provocation across all of Canada for intervening in the disappearance of Black histories and knowledges.
This prompts us to consider the question: When does silence inflict violence and how do we leverage celebrating Black History Month to extend engagement beyond the month?
Centering Black History (Month) and coalitional possibilities
The question above leads us to think beyond Black history toward coalitional politics that subvert the “flavour of the month/day,” even as we acknowledge with other communities the possibilities and confines of calendar events. As we urgently call at this time of year for Black history and presence to exceed the confines of February, we call attention to other commemorative dates. International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27) is an increasingly necessary memorial given both the rise of violent antisemitic hate crimes targeting Jewish people (up by 47 per cent in 2021) and the alarming number of Canadian youth growing up not knowing about the Shoah. We note that the Government of Canada has named Jan. 29 as National Day of Remembrance of the Quebec City Mosque Attack and Action Against Islamophobia amidst a 71 per cent increase in 2021 of the number of hate crimes targeting Muslim people. May is Asian Heritage Month, at a time when anti-Asian hate incidents have been at an all-time high throughout the pandemic in the wake of long histories of xenophobic and racist blaming for illness.
In these calendar logics, the ultimate deferral of foundational genocide at the heart of the nation-state of Canada, appears in June with National Indigenous History Month and June 21 as National Indigenous Peoples Day. June is also Pride month and we keep in mind, the goals of Stonewall are far from achieved. The stark and continuous presence of children who haven’t come home exceeds the boundaries of Sept. 30 as National Day for Truth and Reconciliation (Orange Shirt Day). With long histories of gender inequality and misogyny playing a role in increasing attacks on women in public and domestic spaces, women’s history month is crucial (celebrated in October, and in March internationally). Through relational and community accountabilities, we also need to centre people with disabilities in coalitional struggles. Canada celebrates National Disability Employment Awareness Month in October. While this is a key focus, it is not as expansive as what may be possible with the National Disability Awareness Month that exists in the U.S. Transgender Awareness Week appears in November as a way to amplify the voices and presences of people often left out in societal education and care.
All of this shows the limits of singular identity month-of-the-year approaches when first, people exist in these communities everyday and year-round and second, many people exist with multiple and intersecting identities. Indeed the Human Rights Campaign organization reports that transgender violence occurs most commonly for Black and Latinx transgender women. As we try to name these communities and the harms they experience, but inevitably miss some – we recognize the impossibility of a calculus of cataloguing discreet labels and violences. Rather than engaging in such a zero-sum game, we affirm multiplicities and intersectional coalitional work that needs to continue. Again, finding ourselves in another paradox does not dismantle the importance of Black History Month and the work that can be done in these offerings, but highlights the need to make sense of the constraints as well as the possibilities.
As we think through this paradox, the question remains: How might the confines of calendar celebrations propel us to both center communities and engage expansively in coalitional relations?
The promises and the realities of inclusion
Although Canada is becoming increasingly diverse, inclusion in institutions often takes the form of a veneer of action, where material realities do not bend toward justice. Inclusion can be an invitation or an imposition, and the ideals of inclusion of Blackness or diversity often yield to a strange performance metric in universities and elsewhere. In this sense, moving beyond Black History Month in higher education is a call to exceed inclusion that is driven by date-specific celebrations and toward participation that is concrete, meaningful and ongoing. When inclusion means acceptance of people of colour as tokens on the condition that they pander to existing structures of inequity, those most on the margins in our communities are forgotten.
The work of inclusion (or remediating historical exclusions) of Black communities paradoxically falls upon the people from within these communities, where we often find ourselves as the lone representatives tasked (in various formal and informal situations) with speaking and acting on behalf of internally diverse communities. Institutional responses to The Scarborough Charter on Anti-Black Racism and Black Inclusion in Canadian Higher Education are emerging sites of this paradox. Higher education institutions have signed on, but material commitments to needed actions have been slow, to non-existent, in many institutions. Additionally, the impulse to consult with affected communities slips into the well-worn institutional pattern of “you do it!”
Throughout history, the notion of “Black excellence” has emerged as an important challenge and reclamation of intelligence and creativity countering legacies of scientific racism that have positioned Black people as deficient. However, Black excellence itself is a kind of paradox in that it both implies excellence as a mythical “shield” against racism, and sets Black people up for poor health outcomes in the quest to appear superhuman and beyond human reproach. The Scarborough Charter has named “Black flourishing” as critical for “enabling the just, fulsome realization of human potential,” thus sustaining the capacity to thrive in educational spaces. It is an aspirational quest for attaining the material conditions necessary for flourishing across a variety of institutions.
We invite a consideration of the following: how do we negotiate representation/inclusion in offerings such as Black History Month in institutions and resist the constraints that prevent us from sustaining substantive conversations and actions?
Paradox as a wayfinding strategy
Living within often-contradictory sets of circumstances speaks to our experiences and those of our extended communities, so we offer paradox and the questions it raises, some of which we’ve presented here, as a means of wayfinding. Rather than finding tidy and overly reductive resolutions to intractable problems, paradox offers a way to pay homage to a long line of ancestors who have shouldered this work, often at great cost. Paradox also urges us to begin again to do this work toward livingness for community well-being not predicated upon premature death of community members. Let us consider, together in community, how to think beyond the institutional confines of Black History Month when one needs to speak out and act out of turn and out of time. There is no easy way out of these labyrinths that obstruct wayfinding, but paradox transcends linear approaches and moves us in and beyond Black History Month.
Anita Girvan is an assistant professor of cultural studies and environmental justice at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. Nicola Dove is a PhD candidate in the faculty of education at York University. Priscilla McGreer is a master’s student of interdisciplinary studies at Athabasca University.