Black History Month gains more meaning when Black communities reclaim it

The month must move beyond symbolic gesture to include action, says U of A scholar.


Michael A. Bucknor says observances like Black History Month will have the most value if they help society take meaningful action and acknowledge “an ongoing responsibility to challenge and question systems in place.” (Photo: John Ulan)

As a graduate student at Western University more than 20 years ago, Michael A. Bucknor was asked for his thoughts on Black History Month by a student journalist.

His response was deliberately equivocal: “I am more than Black and less than Black.”

The resulting profile in Western’s Gazette stirred controversy, with some wondering if Bucknor was claiming not to be Black.

“I wanted to expose the ways in which notions of Blackness are multiple,” he said. “I do not want to be talked into some kind of ticked box.”

That nuanced interrogation of uncontainable Black identity has become his life’s work as the newly appointed Canada Research Chair in Black Studies in the University of Alberta’s Department of English and Film Studies.

Having just arrived from Jamaica’s University of the West Indies, where he served as chair of its Department of Literatures in English, Bucknor offered an elaboration of his initial take on the annual observance.

“Especially in white-dominated spaces, I can fully understand the need to have some acknowledgement of things erased … such as Black histories, the important Black moments.”

Of perhaps greater significance and potency to those in Black communities, he said, are the ways in which the occasion has been reclaimed. As a black majority nation, Jamaicans celebrate Reggae Month in February, for example, the month of Bob Marley’s birth.

“What they've done is signal a kind of acceptance of (Black History Month), but at the same time given it a new meaning.”

If the month is to have any value at all, he added, it must move beyond symbolic gesture to include action.

“The work of making Black lives matter more significantly is an ongoing responsibility to challenge and question systems in place. It’s about how we can make not only Black lives, but all marginal lives, better.

“If it's the beginning of that kind of conversation — if it leads to some kind of change, some kind of movement — then I think it’s a very important thing to do.”

Bucknor’s research interests include Caribbean-Canadian writing, post-colonial literatures, critical race theory and Black masculinities. He is co-author of the Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature and has helped demonstrate that Canada has become “a kind of hub for Black transnational writing.”

The letters of celebrated Barbadian-Canadian author Austin Clarke — one of the subjects of Bucknor’s doctoral thesis — reveal an extensive network of Caribbean writers around the world, he said.

Some of the best known Caribbean-Canadian writers include Dionne Brand, Cyril Dabydeen, Lillian Allen, David Chariandy, Olive Senior, Shani Mootoo and children’s author C. Everard Palmer, and younger writers such as Kaie Kellough and Canisia Lubrin.

“What my early research exposed to me was there was a substantial number of people who you could call Caribbean-Canadian,” said Bucknor. “It's a much more expanded field these days … and Canada has had a kind of unheralded role in the development of Caribbean literature in general.”

He points to the Montreal Congress of Black Writers in 1968, a landmark event in shifting Canadian Black consciousness as well as shaping international Black radical politics.

Aside from the ever-expanding field of Caribbean-Canadian letters, however, Bucknor also has an eye on representations of Blackness in popular culture. His one course this term, called “The Black Dandy: Styling Masculinities in the African Diaspora,” explores the dandy as a prevalent figure of resistance in Black film and literature.

Examples include characters in Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X, decked out in the flamboyant “zoot suits” of the 1940s, or the sharply dressed outlaws in the 1972 Jamaican crime film The Harder They Come by Perry Henzell.

The course also examines the 2015 documentary film The Congo Dandies: Living in Poverty and Spending a Fortune to Look Like a Million Dollars.

“We're looking at fashion and Black aesthetics as a decolonial practice, exposing oppression and ways of thinking about agency and self-representation,” said Bucknor.