General Gripes And Groans About Black History Month Activities

by Lennox V. Farrell

Black History Month ("BHM") is no more - for the year 2001 - that is. Or is it?

An individual, from sentimentality and concern, might recall times when BHM activities in Toronto were so few in number that presentation and participation occupied all of a wintry February night or weekend. Activities grew, expanding later to mid-week and weekend presentations.

Overall, these were mostly attended by an intrepid band of brave souls, scathingly referred to as "radicals" (a specious reference then and now that, within the Black community is synonymous with being mentally unbalanced; and without, of being dangerously subversive); but individuals who sought activities "relevant" to the Black community.

Early BHM activities and sponsors

Activities included political actions, demonstrating outside the embassies and consulates of countries that backbone(d) the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); an organization iniquitously complicit in maintaining apartheid regimes and colonial policies. Such countries included South Africa, America, Israel, Britain, Canada, et. al.

BHM demonstrations were also held against Canadian institutions like the Immigration Department, convenient neighbours then on University Avenue with the US Embassy; and against notorious Police Stations like 52 Division, where Black people invariably came to blows!

Then were meetings also organized to draft community responses to proposals in documents like the 1970s Federal government's "Green Paper" on Immigration. In this, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, peevish about our opposition, insultingly referred to people with, "novel and distinct features".

Then, too, BHM activities were less widespread. One could attend all of them on an evening, without even leaving the Bloor subway lines - or the subway, itself. Then, too, events could be raided by Metro's Finest who, on one occasion arrested, handcuffed, and carted off steaming pots of curried goat and rice! Among the organizers, while the women set about smearing Becker's cheese-paste on white bread sandwiches, the men sat around as glum as Thanksgiving turkeys already consigned. The number of BHM activities today are, by comparison so many, no one individual can possibly attend the vast array of those held in any of the many cities across Ontario.

In the past, activities were sponsored by outcast groups like the Black Students Union of the University of Toronto. Rosie Douglas, Akua Benjamin, Horace Campbell, Sherona Hall, Dari Meade, Akila Meade, June Ward, Margaret Gittens, Hettie Roach, Dudley Laws, Lester Green, "Debo" and a host of other ne'er-do-wells were involved. The two tiny, street-level rooms of the BSU were windowless and airless. Its walls, featureless and cream-coloured were otherwise pockmarked with thumbtack holes. Cold in winter, stale in summer, the 44 St. George Street rooms were unkempt, overflowing with banners, flyers, paint buckets, anti-imperialist literature, socialist manuscripts and wanton optimism.

To this dump, however, came visitors of esteem, among them "freedom-fighters": like Maurice Bishop of Grenada; Africans like Joshua Nkomo from Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia), and African-Americans (then Afro-Americans) like Angela Davis, recently released from prison in the US of A.

Results of activities

Discussions, topics, conferences and planning were oftimes divisive; marked by the splits then existing between the Soviet Union and Communist China. Some colleagues became Maoists; others Socialists. The divisions were as futile and foolish as they were bitter and sectarian. Some of us therefore ended up supporting the Soviet-linked MPLA in Angola while others supported the China-linked UNITA.

Other conferences were also geared, among other things, to find ways to more effectively organize shipments of second-hand clothing, medicines and medical equipment overseas. These, picked up from Lake Ontario docks by Cuban ships, were carried gratis to embattled anti-colonial zones in Angola, Guinea Bissau, Namibia... Interestingly, none of the leaderships who subsequently came to power ever offered in return, a single scholarship for black communities here, nor have their embassies ever sent a note of thanks.

Instead, when later, a President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe visited Toronto, he was feted by the same leaderships at the U. of T. who had mightily opposed the activities of the BSU. Meanwhile, people like Sherona Hall who had struggled on this front waited in the cold outside for seats at the rear of Convocation Hall. Other new governments like those of Sam Nujoma's in Namibia also empowered white agencies that screened who would and who would not travel there. Many sub-lieutenants of these leaderships also married white Canadian women. This, no reflection on their commitment to struggle, might eventually, after they became the status quo, have affected their vision of struggle, too!

For many planning then BHM activities, the possibility, too, of ever seeing a Nelson Mandela freed from an Apartheid prison, or proving that the death of Stephen Bantu Biko was yet another murder by the South African Security Services was as farfetched as that of white society ever acknowledging their crimes of enslavement and subsequent compensation of Reparations.

Then, too, Canadian Security agencies like the RCMP kept large budgets and equally close tabs on anti-racist demonstrators. They foisted on the organizers, the later confessed agent provocateur, Warren Hart. He, an African-American-who co-ordinated security for us when Angela Davis first visited-had been borrowed from his role as an FBI mole in the Black Panthers. Canadian security used him in their attempts to entice individuals into breaking the law, thereby imprisoning a few, but more significantly, discrediting the whole "anti-racist movement".

BHM activities were not eagerly sought after by elected officials, Black or otherwise; commemorative posters were not commissioned for sale and for sure, were not galleried in Parliaments, Banks and other establishment arenas. BHM events were perennially avoided by such established functionaries as Black churches, and the "community" for the most part kept a suspicious distance away. Any Black person who would take to the streets, block traffic and shout discreditable slogans about racism and oppression had to be insane, was an imbecile or lacked decorum.

The community stayed away, partly for fear of being tarnished. Many kept away, too, because they were too busy seeking landed status, keeping double jobs, renting run-down apartments, opposing basic education programs where their children were being destroyed. Some, younger women also stayed away. They were pre-occupied evading deportation, not only from Immigration officers, but also by landlords who, having uncovered their illegal status, were not above increasing their plight through sexual exploitation.

Among the leading organizers and participants, too, in BHM activities were stalwarts like Ed Clarke, Danny Brathwaite, Gwen and Lennie Johnson. These were Black Canadians whose ancestors had not only lived here for centuries, but whose hazardous labours had also ensured our entry-and that of thankless others-into a white Canada. Unlike these Black Canadians, we recently arrived members of the Black community were learning to balance on new cultural sea-legs, the vast transition we faced in acculturation from a salt-water Caribbean to a fresh-water Lake Ontario.

Relevance of BHM activities, primary needs, the establishment

Today, alas and alack, BHM has gone, so to speak, "establishment". It is commemorated-and with bigger budgets and media coverage-by Police Chiefs, Boards of Education, Banks, Provincial viewings and Federal coffee klatches: in short by the same agencies to which, thirty years (and pieces of silver) ago, BHM activities were definitely, "subversive".

What has since been lost; what gained? I shall be prudent and not go there at all. That is for some soul braver, more rash and more resourceful than I. We anticipate her martyrdom with feelings that range between awe and glee!

I think, though, about the continuing needs of this Black community and the extent to which any objectives of BHM activities are relevant or irrelevant. Shucks, there is martyrdom here, too! And anywhere else one dares to swim against the tide of thinking in the community!

However, I'll soldier on, Buffalo Soldier style. I think, too-sobbing into my soup as mortality encroaches-of the possibility of lives apparently wasted by so many, in their efforts to make a difference.

I think, too, of two primary needs of the Black community (Toronto and elsewhere); one of which is, in my opinion, the need for Black youth to find hope in worthwhile effort. There are varying manifestations of this primary need. These include the increasing dropout rates from high school; the drop-in rates to colleges in dead-end, over-subscribed courses like hairdressing and business management; the declining age-levels of teen parents; the increasing of Black children in foster care; the loss, and in many instances the utter rejection of any appetite for academic excellence _

Sounds bleak.

It appears to me that too many BHM objectives-if these are ever defined-today are irrelevant; and not because they are un-important, but because importance can be a sin when necessity is the issue. BHM objectives are irrelevant because they do not, and in their present planning, can not attract those who need them most. From my observation, the individuals who, as parents and youth, attend BHM activities are those whose lives are already in progress to somewhere "productive". These belong to what one might call the working, middle, and upper-classes of Black society. They are, for example, the upper-class of accountants and accountants' children; the middle-class of lawyers and lawyers' children, and the working-classes of nurses and nurses' children _ Forget teachers. Like zebra mussels, they don't rank nowadays!

Very few attendees to BHM activities, are by comparison, the children of drug and alcohol-addicted, single parents. Most BHM attendees do not include the young girls who choose as career options, or are otherwise pulled and pushed into, whoring. BHM activities do not include, neither in the planning nor participation, youth engaged in swarming, criminal activities. These-running to escape with pants draped between their buttocks and ankles-might, if they ever stopped to think about it, consider such time more usefully spent than any attending BHM activities.

Yet, these are the youth and the adults who are used to define the perception, and the self-perception of Black communities here and elsewhere. This defining is not of our choosing. It is determined by moguls in media, government and other power positions. Theirs are the portrayals; theirs the news stories, for ours are stories, not of success as of failures; not of heroic family up-building as of dependent, predictable and contemptible break-downs.

BHM activities, be their presentation in audio-visual forms, oral story-tellings, tabloid reminiscings, in memoriams, glitzy dinners, gospel outlets and other BHM staples, are essentially irrelevant to the outcasts among us: those for whom BHM activities were initially created. Then, of course, the whole of the Black community was outcast. As we have come in from outcastdom, too many have, however-again in my opinion-adopted objectives that pay homage, more to the establishment and its blessings, than organize with the outcast, and downcast so that they can acquire the skills to meet their special needs.

BHM syndromes and staples

For example, too many activities recycle themselves in a syndrome one might call, "having been the first Black in our time to do this" syndrome. Thus, we learn that MP Jean Augustine is the first Black Female Federal MP; Zanana Akande the first Black female MPP and Alvin Curling the first Black MPP, respectively, in Ontario. We learn, oh blessings! that a black woman was the first person to sing on then newly opened Canadian TV. So what?

Another syndrome is that of "Blacks being first in ancient times to have founded humanity; to have founded science; to build pyramids; to have been Moses and Jesus _" O.K.

Of course, correcting history is useful. In fact, getting it right the first time is even better! Neither is the case with a Europe that colonized, not only the continent and culture of Africa; but also the scholarship and future of Africans. European scholarship moved places like Egypt out of Africa; Africa out of history, and Africans out of humanity! Correcting these is urgent business.

However, who benefits most from these corrections? Not self-hating, materialistic, hopeless, pimp-mentality Black youth enamoured, not by the glories of the Pharoahs, but with wearing for jewelry, ripped-off emblems from the hood of somebody's BMW or Mercedes Benz.

For too many of these, an historic Nanny is of less relevance than, for the taking, yet another girl's Booty; Mandela is farther removed from their mall consciousness than are the ruins of Pompeii; Black History Month activities are as closely monitored as theories of relativity and Black Holes. For too many of these youth, the messages of anti-woman, nihilistic artistes like Eminem are more informed than those of Malcolm X or Dr. King.

The premise, in short, for too many BHM activities is to take a look back. In the context of our needs such planning amounts to making a move backward! We still portray ourselves and the reality of ourselves as a people who have the ability more to create martyrs than bankers; struggles than corporations; causes for complaints than transnational bases for taking and keeping power. It is not that we do not have systemic complaints; epic struggles and unmatched pantheons of martyrs. Other peoples also have some, if not all, of these.

However, for want of a word less crass in the crass culture in which we are subordinate, BHM activities do not conceive of the industrializing of our struggles; or the commercializing of our martyrs. Others do, for their own social, cultural benefits, oft inimical to ours. Of course, one criticism here is that I might have sold out to the forces of the marketplace. Who knows?!

What we know for sure is that we live in a world in which justice and injustice; war and peace; the criminal and law abiding citizen are relatively meaningless.

For example, despite the extent to which white communities like Biker Gangs are overwhelmingly involved in managing the profits of drug-related criminal activities; yet the relative ease with which media and other agencies attach drug-related profiles to Black communities, is not so much an example of Black criminality, as it is a manifestation of community vulnerability. When Biker Gang members are brought to court for murder, they are less likely to be held in leg irons than are Black youth brought for lesser crimes. Media coverage reflects awe for the former; contempt for the latter!

In addition, whether or not one is for, or against justice; is a criminal or law-abiding; a war or peace-monger, the primary issue that has meaning is the extent to which a community is, or is not taken seriously by those in power. Take, for example, the people and leaders of North Korea, a tiny country but one in possession of nuclear weapons and the will to use them. North Koreans are taken more seriously by Europe and America than are all the leaders of sub-Saharan Africa; where black soldiers wearing fatigues, in the presence of international media, theatrically use machetes to hack off the black limbs of black babies.

Yes, the world might be a global village. However, consider on any day, of any week, of any month the type of news coming out of the Black world, be it in Africa: Rwanda, the Congo, Nigeria, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, or in the Americas: Haiti, Jamaica or Brazil and see who in this global village is depicted by CNN, Reuters and other print and electronic media as the village idiot! For relief in these instances, we must ironically turn to those we demonstrated against as "the oppressors".

Globalism, other changes and BHM's second primal need.
We live and our children perish in a time of fundamental, subversive change: those of globalism, bio-engineering, the militarizing of space exploration; all of which represent the Europeanization of the future. In such times, while God might bless the child that's got its own, He probably curses any people who glorify martyrdom and still stand in need of martyrs; who still have such traumatic psychic needs that they surrender the present and void the future to flee unrelentingly for refuge into a very distant, powerless and unattainable past.

This brings me to the second primal need of the Black community, as I see it. For want of a better one, I think of the multi-syllabic word: epistemological. My understanding of it-surely faulted-is of having a desire above all else for acquiring "truth". This would mean a tolerance for, and promotion of healthy skepticism. It would mean the pursuit by "leaders in the community" for policy positions that are incisive in analyses and broadgauged in range. In short, the word means for me, in a personal way, a mature sensibility which combines and balances both the caution inherent in commonsense and the determination inherent in courage.

A community's leadership should include, but not be essentially mostly those with the means to acquire property, attend functions and receive awards, especially awards granted by white society! A leadership in pursuit of "bitter truth; not honeyed lies" as the fundamental guiding principle would mean, too, mature leaders with the capacity for individuals to disagree without making enemies, and keep friendships without compromising principle.

"There," as Pride columnist, Patrick Hunter would put it, "I've said it."


What would I do, in addition to talk? I recommend the calling of a major conference, yes another set of talking-heads. It would include the accustomed academics. It must, however, also include not only church deacons, but also dance-hall queens; lawyers and drag-queens; pastors and prison inmates. In short, the range of attendees must be as wide as are vocations: legal and otherwise in the Black community.

Among some of the attainable objectives to such a conference is determining what self-defines "community". Another would include the creation of the means to retain wealth in the community. Surely, the shibboleths of the past would not do. Among these is a definition of community that, at present, is based on our knee-jerk reaction to injustices. Such reactions, in the past, created organizations like the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC). It is, by the way, almost the only community-based organization comprised of Black people from all over: from Jamaica to Zimbabwe; Guyana to Nova Scotia.

Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, said that, "one's ability to change the way one thinks is the only guarantee that one would continue being able to think at all." To continue defining ourselves in terms of systemic inequities is futile in the current global trade imbalances, and power relations. These powers are the same set of pornocracies that initially enslaved Africans; then colonized the continent and now determine who lives; who dies. We reason with a culture that is not accountable to reason; that has supplanted morality; that has the all-powerful omnipotence of a Godhead, but without a restraining omniscience! In the present circumstances, our community's arms must drastically increase the level of torque needed to out-wrestle demi-gods!

If these ideas and their convoluted presentation appear inchoate, abstruse and unfocused, believe me, we are clear on this one matter; agreed at least on this one thing, and I would have apologized to you for your time. If not, let's begin now to prepare for BHM 2002 and the future.

Be a subversive. Let's get radical!

General Gripes And Groans About Black History Month Activities by Lennox V. Farrell

© Copyright 2001. All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be duplicated or copied without the expressed written consent of the author.

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