I look forward to February as Black History month. This is when regardless of ethnicity and racialization we can all as citizens reflect on the struggles by so many to create an inclusive society; when readers seem to really appreciate my book A Place Called Heaven: The Meaning of Being Black in Canada and honour me and the book with questions and request for speeches.
The focus of this month in on the struggles of those who are African or of African descent: their black skins have traditionally been the mark of exclusion in modern societies. This is particularly true in the Americas where the black skin signaled a person’s or group’s supposed lack of humanity and dignity; the colour of skin symbolic of a hypothetical inherent inequality for those so “marked.” When we are all citizens of a given state we are all equal; when we are citizens we all have the same sense of belonging and inclusion in that nation state; when we are citizens—regardless of skin colour, place of birth, native language, sexuality, gender, natural ability to name a few mainly physical attributes—we have the same rights and privileges. We are holders of the highest recognized status in the land: citizenship. We know that attaining such social status has not always been the case for “Blacks.” Some might say that even now such is still the case for the vast majority of Blacks. And we know that Blacks, in all areas of the Americas, have fought many battles to claim full citizenship as part of the Dreams of the Americas for a region of new beginnings and social inclusion for all. This is why Black history is celebrated this month in this part of the world and in others months, such as October in Britain. Ours have been a long struggle of seeking recognition, of attaining acceptance as fully functioning members of our societies, of attaining self-determination and independence—as citizens and members of countries that treasure and position us as full members.
But just as importantly Black History is also about the future—about how we will make history; about how we will write our names on history’s pages; about the stories and narratives we tell ourselves about how we shall overcome life tragedies. This is about dreaming and idealistic planning so that the good things we will and plot for ourselves can be achieved and shared. We will act with good intentions to all—for such is the agreement of citizenship: that we do good things only to and for fellow patriots. So that historically the present would be a turning point along a plot line, where some of the historic cruel and inhuman experiences of any “race” or “ethnicity” would end and new traditions would begin. From this day on we would enter a period where the inhumanity of the past will be no more. The present moment is always a time of revising and re-evaluating plot lines in our discourses on humanity and dignity. By celebrating Black history now we can plan for a better future and at the same time we can start acting with the greatest of intention to ensure we achieve this dream.
Now all of this might be viewed as unbridled idealism and a pipe dream. But then such has been the hope of all those whose struggles and achievements are the stories of Black history. And such is the narrative of hope, even if not fully the practice, of multicultural Canada or any country in the Americas searching for true social justice. Black history month is not only for those with black skins but for all citizens who believe philosophically in the creation of a society functionally and structurally of equals but who recognize we are nowhere near such an achievement. History of our choice and intentions still has to be made. Black history month allows us to look at the theory and the practices of official multiculturalism and to decide going forward what we will do to eliminate the gap.
This year Black History has a particularly special meaning for me. For the first time in 12 years, I have a new book of fiction whose publication is timed for Black History Month. Independence signals a return home for me in two ways: one, is my return to fiction, and two, I have picked up on some of the themes of my earlier novels such as in No Man in the House, Sleep On, Beloved, Slammin’ Tar, and Dry Bone Memories. These are themes of how do financially impoverished people endure, and even overcome, the daily travails of the human condition; how they remain full of hope and enthusiasm about the future. In this story we take a look at a little boy and girl, their grandmothers, and the village, and the pain and pleasures of freedom of political independence. Independence is a coming-of-age narrative of a boy and girl and their people. I suspect Independence will resonate with the readers of No Man in the House who have been asking me for the longest while for a story on what became of the little boy, Howard, in that story, and of what has become of the island as it achieved statehood. Indeed, what has become of so many boys and girls taking on a new citizenship and a new sense of responsibility and belonging with the attainment of political independence, I hope you like the novel.
Finally, I was doing a bit of research and came across this wonderful column by my friend and former colleague Royston James, columnist for the Toronto Star. It is from 2012 but what he is saying about the struggles of those of us from the African/black Diaspora who tried to make Canada dignified for all is just as relevant today. And today it is just as good a read as when it was first published. Happy Black History month, Royston.