Sunday February 5, 2023
You can’t have missed the fact that February is Black History Month. Magazines feature stories of Black singers you might never have heard of, otherwise. TV networks do specials on Black leaders. Black tragedies. Black regiments.
A friend from New England asks, “Black American History month? Why? Isn't Black American History, American history?”
I know him well enough to know that he’s not prejudiced against either Black people or Black history. He’s wondering why we – “we” meaning generic white society – feel a need to segregate Black History from history in general.
Haven’t American history and Black History been inseparable since 1619, when the first slaves were brought ashore in Virginia?
In fact, as a 2019 article in Time magazine pointed out, slavery didn’t start in Virginia. Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon brought black slaves with him when he explored Florida, in search of the fabled Fountain of Youth, more than a century earlier. Spanish ships had delivered slaves to their settlements around St. Augustine since 1565.
Slavery may have been officially abolished in America in 1865. But the slavery mindset still exerts a toxic presence in American life today.
“Think of Black History Month as ‘affirmative action’,” I wrote back to my friend.
That is, it’s an attempt to correct a historic inequity in American awareness. I can only speak as an outsider here. But it seems to me that American history has been White history. White pilgrims. White explorers. White industrialists. White politicians.
With only a few exceptions, such as musicians and sports figures, Black people have been peripheral to mainstream America. Most lived in a little-known underworld, until a few individuals – Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis – broke through the race barrier.
I can object to that. But I can’t be complacent. Because we Canadians have not done any better.
In fact, we may well have done worse. America has Black History MONTH. Canada has Indigenous Peoples’ DAY.
Canadian history celebrates Radisson and Grossaliers discovering the Great Lakes. Alexander Mackenzie reaching the Pacific Ocean. David Thompson mapping the mighty Columbia River. Did you ever hear the names of the Indigenous people who paddled their canoes, fed them, guided them?
I didn’t think so.
Only in the last 30 years or so, as the iniquities of the Residential School system have become too blatant to bury anymore, have Indigenous realities been taken seriously.
Indigenous history is even more invisible than Black History was.
I called Black History Month a form of “affirmative action.” Affirmative action – also called “positive discrimination” – was a dirty word for many, back in the 1960s.
In an attempt to balance historic inequities, universities, businesses, and professions set up, as Wikipedia puts it, “policies and practices within a government or organization seeking to include particular groups based on their gender, race, sexuality, creed or nationality in areas in which such groups are underrepresented -- such as education and employment.”
Baldly put, affirmative action took priority over competence. People were hired or promoted to fill quotas.
I remember feeling like a victim of affirmative action myself during that period.
I had worked for four years training novice CBC announcers. I knew their tests up, down, and sideways. I could pronounce Respighi and Rimsky-Korsakov without stumbling. I knew Azerbaijan from Azimuth. I could have aced my audition.
Then a friend on the inside told me, “Don’t bother applying. We’re not hiring any male announcers at all until we meet our quota of female announcers.”
I felt discriminated against. But have you noticed? Male or female is no longer an issue in broadcasting.
Affirmative action worked.
Now the pressure is to include gays and lesbians. People with disabilities. Indigenous people. Especially among university faculty and corporate executives.
So I support Black History Month in principle. It’s not a solution to America’s history of prejudice against Blacks, but it’s a start. I also support Indigenous People’s Day, the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and World Refugee Day. Until they are unnecessary.
I’d also like to see Canada declare Diwali, Yom Kippur, and Eid, to be statutory holidays, to balance the white/Christian holidays we have now.
I dream of a time when it’s not necessary to single out any particular group for special attention, a time when future generations will ask themselves, “Why did we need a Black History Month?”
Paradoxically, it seems, the first step to achieving equal status is to gain special status.
Copyright © 2023 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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After the flood of mail about Erika van Oyen’s effort to supply re-usable menstrual pads to young women in Uganda, it was almost a relief – almost – to get just two letters about last week’s column.
I had commented that search engines reflect your own biases back to you – that “search engines will never direct a conservative politician to a socialist manifesto. Or a hard-core evangelical Christian to a critical view of the Bible.”
Isabel Gibson commented, “Streaming services now offer a ‘Surprise me!’ option, and I think I've seen the same thing on the Google home page -- sort of a ‘Search for anything’ option.
“I don't suppose they actually offer a surprise. I'm betting they direct us to carefully calculated guesses based on our watching/searching history. There's room for an algorithm that would deliberately do what you suggest: expose us to a contrary point of view.”
Erika, by the way, sent her own letter of thanks. “The response has been truly overwhelming.”
Vera Gottlieb had some strong reactions to modern technologies: “’Smart phones’ they aren't. People of almost all ages (even older children) living with their eyes and noses stuck to these gadgets -- do they also sleep/shower with them? How did these people get on before this ‘mania’ came about? I shudder when I see people take out their ‘must have’ gadgets oblivious of what is around them or who is there. Wherever they happen to be…sit down and then grab that ’smart’ thing. Having lunch at a restaurant…the ’thing’ rings, the person answers, gets up and leaves. Were this person at my table, I would get up and leave.
“Conversation already suffered when TV came about…now it is suffering even more.”
JT: Further to Vera’s last comment: I remember going on a church visitation program, back when television was still relatively new. The person we were visiting didn’t turn of his TV set. Discussion died; we could not break away from those flickering black-and-white images.
A couple of other letters challenged Ted Wilson’s assertion that Ontario premier Doug Ford had been elected by a “solid majority.” I gather the correct figure was 43.5%. Which means, effectively, that a majority voted against him, not for him.
But I think what Ted meant was not that Ford won a majority of voters, but that he won a “solid majority” of seats in the Ontario legislature.
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