Black History Month isn’t just education—it’s celebration

Everything I learned about BHM growing up was rooted in trauma, and never aimed to go deeper

Makaila believes Canada should celebrate Black History Month more.
Credit: 
Supplied by Makaila Atsonglo

I’ve always felt participating in Black History Month is two-step process, the first step being education and the second being celebration. 

The celebration part came to me a bit easier. My family embraced their Blackness and their culture, not only during the month of February, but all year-round. 

The education component has always been more challenging. 

My perception of what it meant to be Black came from those closest to me. My mother is an Afro-Caribbean from Guyana, and my father is Ghanaian. They immigrated to Canada as young adults who’d been shaped by their experiences in their home countries. These characteristics encompass completely different lived experiences than the one I’ve embodied as a Black Canadian. 

I now realize the place I was born had a lot to do with how I learned about the Black people and Black history. Canada has the reputation of being a kind, racially tolerant country. I now realize Canada’s illusion of tolerance was upheld through the country’s inability to have conversations about race. 

The first instance where race was brought up in school was with another classmate in the first or second grade. I can’t remember how the conversation started, but I’d proudly declared that I was Black. 

The white boy I was speaking to came up to me shocked, shushed me, and said, “You’re not allowed to say Black. You’re supposed to say African American.”

Suddenly, “Black” became a bad word. It became unspeakable. I was confused. How was I suddenly ascribed an identity that wasn’t mine? How was I meant to be African American if I was Canadian? 

The boy replied, “You just are.”

This was a recurring theme in my life while growing up Black in Canada. The constant polite quieting when speaking about race, the knowing that something doesn’t feel right but never being given the space to figure out what was wrong. 

I grew up as the only Black girl of the three Black kids in my grade at my elementary school. Most of the time kids forget about their differences and everyone would be the same on the playground. 

Until February rolls around. 

During Black History Month, we learned that enslaved people fled from the United States to Canada in hopes of freedom. Between lessons, I got the pitiful stares, the awkward silence, and the misdirected apologies. 

Canada was painted as the hero and victor during the time of slavery—but we were never taught that Canadians owned slaves themselves. Those same Black people who settled in Canada after fleeing the United States faced racial inequality, hostility, and discrimination. 

As I looked around the classroom during classes focused on BHM, I realized everyone was thinking the same thing. In a different time and place, they couldn’t be friends with me, and they couldn’t be seen with me. 

Instead of celebrating Black History, I felt isolated by it. 

I remember the rhetoric clearly. Rosa said “No,” Martin had a dream, and Ruby was the first. 

It was all we needed to know, and my Catholic elementary school never dared to educate further. In fact, it was almost as if they expected their Black students to pick up that slack for them.

During Black History Month in seventh grade, myself and the other two Black boys in my grade all coincidentally ended up sitting together in the seating plan for the month. 

The teacher had three pamphlets—one of Rosa Parks, one of MLK Jr, and one of Malcom X. He declared that he was going to divide the class up into three groups to discuss each influential figure. He then proceeded to split each Black kid up so there was one in each group.

Was this on purpose? 

Who knows. 

But I felt targeted. I felt the burden of trying to “educate” my non-Black group members with the limited knowledge of Black History provided to me. I had to sit at a table and tell a group of people why a woman who looked like me couldn’t sit at the front of the bus.

Everything we learned had been rooted in trauma, but never aimed to go deeper. There were no stories of Black inventors, Black musicians, or Black Canadians who persevered.

I had to research these influential figures myself.

If it wasn’t for the internet and social media, a lot of the nuances of Black history would still be a mystery to me. I would’ve never known about Canada's role in racial injustices against Black people.

I wouldn’t know about Africville, or the realities of the Jim Crow era, or how Black Canadians are still being unfairly treated in this country. 

It wasn’t until my late teens that I found out about redlining, mass incarceration, systemic racism, sundown towns, and the way that Black Canadians were treated while fighting during the World Wars. All of what I learned was  either in an article from Google or an Instagram post. 

Without my own self-guided research, I would’ve never truly understood what exactly we are celebrating this month. 

Black History Month is more than recognizing trauma—it’s celebrating Black success in all shapes and forms. It’s celebrating Black music, Black movies, Black inventions, Black homeowners, Black Canadians, Black judges, Black authors, Black lawyers, Black everyone and everything. It’s about reclamation and pride.

With time, I was able to dispel the blanket that Canada used to cover the conversation about race. 

I began creating my own opportunities to acknowledge Blackness and Black history, whether it be sending TikToks of Black creators to my non-Black friends, bringing it up in day-to-day conversation, writing a creative piece about it, or placing it in my essays. I now question rhetoric surrounding race and use Black feminist theory to influence my perception of media. 

The celebration of Black History, Black culture, and Black people is rooted in being educated about the injustices Black people have gone through.

Because I provided myself with the space that wasn’t given to me to learn about Black history for myself in an unbiased and objective way, I’m able to fully commemorate the Black people who came before me and acknowledge my own history as a Black Canadian.

Makaila is a fourth-year English student.

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