COMMENTARY: Black History Month at the U of A

The growing enthusiasm to celebrate BHM also means asking difficult questions about inequities

Philomina Okeke-Ihejirika - 1 February 2021

Recent social trends have forced us to rethink the lives of Black people globally and in particular, their place in the Canadian society. The United Nations proclaimed 2015–2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent in recognition of the fact that the immeasurable impacts of oppression, dispossession, and discrimination stemming from slavery, colonization, capitalist expansion, and the current age of globalization have marked “people of African descent a distinct group whose human rights must be promoted and protected.” According to the UN, “around 200 million people in the Americas alone identify as being of African descent.” Enough reason to mark Black History Month (BHM).

The resurgence of the Black-Lives-Matter (BLM) movement has upped the game for what Sara Ahmed, former professor of culture and race relations at University of London and feminist writer, dubbed the “happy talk.” The usually well-packaged committees, policies, and workshops on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), that often adopt a one-size-fits-all response to anti-Black racism in industry, public parastatals and the academy, have been caught off-guard. BLM has had its highs and lows in the past, but from this current surge, fueled by the painful death of George Floyd, emerged a mutual nod from various corners of the West – acquiescing, at least to a reality we previously cringed at. The world is divided into two major groups – Whites and non-Whites, and Blacks are, for the most, at the bottom of the group of non-Whites! Compared to other Canadians, Blacks have lower post-secondary education, employment rate and income, and higher unemployment rates — disadvantages credited to discrimination.

According to Statistics Canada 2019, 2020, 24% of Black individuals aged 15 or older reported experiences of some form of discrimination based on ethnicity, culture, race or skin color compared to 4.6% of the sampled population. Yet Blacks demonstrate greater job satisfaction, resilience in the face of adversity, hope for the future, a sense of belonging to the organization they work for and seek out friends at work as a crucial source of support (Statistics Canada 2019, 2020b). Statistics Canada (2016) estimates that Black immigrant women were more likely to become single parents than other immigrant women. About 30% of Black immigrant women aged 25 to 59 were single parents, 20 percentage points higher than their other immigrant women counterparts. Black single parents were more likely to be living in a low-income situation (34%) compared with other single parents. 27% of Black children were living in a low-income situation, compared to 14% of children in the rest of Canada. Another reason to mark BHM.

Alberta has even more reason to mark BHM. Canada relies on newcomers for population growth, labor supply, and cultural diversity. Newcomers, in turn, see this country as a haven where they can find economic opportunities. Migration, rather than natural birth, is the main source of Canada’s population. Statistics Canada 2016 notes that newcomers from Sub-Saharan (Black) Africa have steadily helped to fuel this, making Africa Canada’s “second-most important source of new immigrants.” The Prairie provinces, and Alberta, is their most popular destination, between 2001 and 2016 their numbers quadrupled from 39,955 in 1996 to 174,655 in 2016 (Statistics Canada 2020a). Sub-Saharan Africans increasingly come as skilled workers; relatively young, from non-settler colonial societies and unfamiliar with anti-Black racism, they are ill-equipped and lack the support to deal with systemic barriers. How do we plan for these newcomers if we do not understand the barriers they face? BHM provides a forum to educate Canada-born Canadians about the Uber driver readily at their service, the cashier at the Superstore, or the next-door neighbor, whose lives they know little about. 

Every year, February comes and goes with little or no official mention of BHM at the U of A. Some institutions may have done better with official celebratory statements relevant academic websites, however half-hearted. Others have made a point of holding big splashy events, many of which lack substance and ongoing impact. No one would dispute the invaluable place of the 3-Ds – dress, dance, and diet in celebrating Black resilience and contributions to Canada and Alberta.

It would also be simplistic to say that we didn’t celebrate Black History Month at the U of A; closer to the truth is the fact that Black students, faculty and non-academic staff, and allies from across the campus rallied to do something – little get-togethers, exhibitions, poetry sessions, and concerts to remember. Often many Blacks would leave the campus and retreat into their various communities and public forums to celebrate BHM. In essence, Black History Month at the U of A has been mostly about a series of small, disconnected community activities which have not come together under a larger, organized institutional effort.

But the U of A has its own very good reasons to mark BHM – the contributions of Black scholars to its growth and diversity – as community-based scholars, international ambassadors, and pathbreakers in innovative research and teaching. In this vein, the growing enthusiasm to celebrate BHM should itself be celebrated. It’s been too long in the waiting but it’s not too late.

However, this wind of change should go beyond a celebration. I think there is now a recognition that the academy is not simply a place where we study social inequities but is embedded in its very DNA multiple and complex inequities that must be addressed. Thus, the celebration of BHM should go hand-in hand with asking difficult questions about inequities; the new Black Faculty Collective has already raised three of these that we cannot ignore:

  • How can we address the inequities Black people face if there are no steps in place for the systematic collection of Race-based data?
  • Why did the U o f A consider the pay gap based on gender and left unattended the significant gap between Black and White faculty members? A CAUT study demonstrates that Black University Professors are paid up to 12% less than their non-visible minority peers.
  • Why have EDI policies and practices at the U of A consistently veered towards gender to the neglect of race? The representation, recognition, and rewards system leave no room here for arguments.

BHM 2021 is already on our door-step and we have little time to plan. But let us mark future BHMs not only with a recognition of Black oppression, resilience and contribution, but also with open forums where we can pose difficult questions about racism, the father of race, and particularly, the anti-Black forms.

Philomina Okeke-Ihejirika is a full professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, and Director of the Pan African Collaboration for excellence – a U of A-based interdisciplinary, international research initiative to improve the well-being of people of African descent, locally and globally.

The Pan African Collaboration for Excellence Celebrates Black History Month, February 2021