D.M. St. Bernard says the institutional narrative fails to convey the full meaning of Black History Month. Photo by Denise Grant / Toronto Arts Foundation
In the last three weeks, I've been invited to speak at two universities, lead three workshops and contribute to NOW Magazine.
My opinion hasn't been this valuable since about 11 months ago. So it must be February and I must be black again. It's time to be celebrated in a transparently obligatory way.
Black History Month is hard for me as a teacher, as a token, as a person of dignity. Canada is weird to me as a person of mixed heritage who is apparently black, as an immigrant navigating displacement, as an occupant of a pot into which we melt but don't dissolve.
Thanks to the pervasive presence of an institutional narrative that overwhelms my authenticity, I am annually immersed in three perspectives born of an external gaze on my heritage:
1. Here's that thing we know you people do well.
2. Here's that thing we think of as anomalous to your people. Zowee! Look at you guys go!
3. Here's some irrelevant bullshit genuinely but superficially associated with your culture that doesn't risk arousing a politic.
More to the point:
1. I respect athletic achievement, but I am wary of the implications of using people like professional football players as role models when their achievement is based solely on physical prowess bent to the will and dedicated to the prosperity of an impenetrably white superstructure reminiscent of slaveholding, with a soupçon of strategic and gentlemanly warmongering.
2. Thanks so much for noticing the invention of the stoplight and the electric toothbrush. Can you try to look a wee bit less surprised at the African mind's capacity for innovation?
3. It's cool that you like kente cloth. I do, too, but putting some on the wall for 28 days does nothing to increase my pride or knowledge.
Rather than reach for our most inarguable heroes, safest histories and careworn aphorisms, let's explore new frontiers with Neil deGrasse Tyson, ask Reggie Watts to tell us a story, dispel our hegemonic thrall long enough to acknowledge that the world has seen no fewer than 55 black presidents, at least two of them women.
I want from Black History Month what I want from all of life: to be inspired, informed, challenged, made more self-aware.
I want to talk about things like our culture's impact on the semiotic landscape, like genealogical DNA testing and, of course, big questions like where in blazes did all this delicious peanut butter come from?