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Growing up in a predominantly white town, I was the only Black girl in my school. To add to that, my family and I were the only Black family in the town. To be completely frank with you, I barely saw any Black people other than myself and my family. I recall Black History Month never really being celebrated or even acknowledged in the schools I attended, and I did not see it in our history books. Lucky for me, I was exposed to the richness of Black culture and history at such a young age through books, television, and movies. Most importantly, my parents made sure to keep me grounded in my Nigerian heritage.
It is interesting to see how Black History Month has broadened in the Canadian context. For a period of time, I remember seeing it as more of an “American” celebration than a Canadian one. Looking back, I also remember Black History Month being a debate amongst Black individuals to a degree, especially when it came to the month individuals celebrated Black History Month. I can recall hearing grumblings and jokes from Black comedians (I hear Kevin Hart’s and Chris Rock’s distinct voices in this instance) asking, “Why Black History Month is in the shortest month of the year?” So, why is Black History Month celebrated in February?
Black History Month initially started as “Negro History Week” in 1917 by Carter G. Wood. Mr. Woodson, who has been recognized as the “father of Black history,” lobbied vigorously for the national recognition of Black stories and perspectives1 Whereas, in the Canadian context, it is believed that the first celebration of Black history, which also started as “Negro History Week,” was on February 13, 1950, and hosted by Stanley G. Grizzle.2 It was not until 1995, that Toronto area MP Jean Augustine introduced a motion that was passed unanimously by the House of Commons to recognize Black History Month across Canada.3
Regardless of this motion being passed in 1995 to recognize Black History Month in Canada, I deemed its integration into Canadian society slow. It was not until I entered my professional field that I got to see the celebration of Black History Month in its fullness. I started to see more organizations embrace and celebrate Black History Month in their workplace. The integration of Black History Month in the workplace reminds me of the work we do when conducting workplace assessments and reviews. Our role is to help organizations improve and/or change their workplace culture. We do this by identifying issues that contribute to problematic behaviour and negative experiences in the workplace.
I can imagine the impact that workplace assessments and reviews have on organizations in diversifying, implementing equitable practices and tackling anti- Black racism in their workplace. I can even see our work contributing to the acknowledgement and recognition of Black History Month in some workplaces.
If I were to hone in on Black History Month and identify one takeaway in honour of this celebration, it would be Mr. Wood’s vision as he lobbied tirelessly for Black History Month, that national recognition be given to Black stories and perspectives. In doing that, I believe that Mr. Woodson would not want only one month to celebrate Black excellence. If anything, I would assume it was a building block for us to celebrate Black stories and perspectives 365 days a year.
This principle leads me to what I learned the other night and my lived experience. As I watched one of my favourite basketball players, Mr. Lebron James (sorry Raptors fans), briefly talk about Black History Month, he said, “Black History Month is every day.” This impactful statement resonated with me and challenged me to look at Black History Month differently.
I encourage organizations to honour Black History Month by supporting Black businesses, diversifying their company, facilitating a workshop on anti-Black racism, bringing in guest speakers, and embracing mentorship for Black professionals, especially now with the social and political climate that we are currently facing. Most important, what I hope as I write this blog, is that organizations take their commitments to celebrating Black History Month one step further; celebrate Black History Month every day. I echo what Lebron James said and believe that we need to make more effort to acknowledge Black history and Black individuals’ contributions throughout the year, not just in a particular month. Take this moment to seize this opportunity, build momentum, and establish continuous impact for your workplace.
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