Black History Year Round
Black History is important to all of us, and not just in February.
SWAY Magazine, Winter 2009
By Morgan Campbell
February is around the corner, and that means two things. It means we celebrate Black History Month, and it means we field questions from white folks about why Black History Month even exists. After all, there’s no White History Month.
We all know the standard response to those questions — we celebrate white history all year, so black folks deserve one month. And while that answer is true in some ways, it’s also incomplete.
Looking at Black History Month in isolation — as some sort of compensation for years of being marginalized — might explain why it exists, but still doesn’t address why black history should matter to mainstream Canadian society.
The answer here is simple but not always obvious. But knowing black history can teach us all something about what it means to be Canadian.
I’ve forgotten the name of the textbook we used in my 10th grade Canadian history class, but I remember the book contained only one photo of a black person. It was Ben Johnson, pictured after he became famous, but before his positive drug test prompted Canadians to disown him. Beyond Ben, according to the textbook, no other African-Canadian had ever achieved anything worth noting, and race never played a role in Canadian society. Which is why I found the textbook’s blurb on D.W. Griffith’s seminal silent film Birth of a Nation so intriguing.
The book mentioned that in 1915 Canadians packed theatres to watch Griffith’s film, attracted by the movie’s advanced technology. I knew the secret to the film’s success ran a little deeper than that, and when the teacher mentioned the film to the class, I waited for him to reveal the real reason Canadians made Birth of a Nation one of the highest-grossing films in the country that year.
Instead, he echoed the textbook explanation, as did my classmates, who chimed in with comments about how technology made this American film so popular in Canada. Frustrated, I finally stepped up and stopped everybody short. I knew the technology in Birth of a Nation was like fine writing in Playboy magazine — a bonus, but clearly not the main selling point.
I asked the class if anyone even knew what the film was about.
Even from the teacher.
So I explained that the Nation being born here was the Ku Klux Klan, and that the film depicts the emancipation of American slaves as a grave wrong that only the Klan could right. The clips I’ve seen depict blacks as savages rampaging through the post-slavery South, and the Klan as heroes who save civilization through a campaign of lynching. This is no secret. Promotional posters for the movie show a man atop a horse, dressed in a white sheet and hood, torch held high. The film’s alternate title: The Clansman.
Still, the teacher assured me that no matter what was the film’s plot, the technology made it popular in Canada
I didn’t buy it, and I told the class that no matter how advanced the technology, Birth of a Nation couldn’t become a blockbuster unless people — Canadians included — stood behind the film’s racist message.
I’m sure the others in the class didn’t all agree with me, but it didn’t matter. What’s important is that everyone present was forced to question long-held assumptions about Canada. Has Canada always welcomed different colours and cultures? Evidently not. Canadians packed theatres to cheer for the Klan.
What were race relations like in Canada back then?
Obviously poor. Canadians packed theatres to cheer for the Klan.
And why did I even know enough as a 14-year-old to raise those questions?
Because in my parents’ house, we knew black history was important, and not just in February. So by the time my class was discussing Birth of a Nation, I knew that it was not just a technological marvel, but part of a tragic mass media tradition that stereotyped, denigrated and misportrayed African-Americans: a tradition Canadians embraced as they packed theatres to cheer for the Klan.
By then end of the class everyone else in the room knew it too and left that day with an insight gained only by viewing Canadian history through the prism of the black experience.
Copyright 2009 SWAY