I like to think that a good majority of people at U of T — and in Toronto itself — are perceptive and accepting towards distinct racial identities. However, as the end of February approaches, I realize I still understand little of Black History Month other than the basics — the intent is to raise awareness of African-American heritage, and people are polarized about its existence — and was curious to learn more about whether or not students felt it had a positive impact on their lives.
Agape Amponsah-Mensah is a third-year student pursuing a double major in Equity Studies and African Studies. Agape currently acts as the African Students’ Association Public Relations Officer. Conveniently, she also happens to be a good friend of mine, so I decided to interview her to gain an understanding of Black History Month from a student who is a ‘Black Canadian’ (and on why she prefers to simply be called ‘Canadian’, but more on that later). Accompanying her is friend Elo, a fourth-year History/Diaspora and Transnational Studies student who serves as the Educational Director of the Black Students’ Association, who also offered a unique insight on the setbacks of Black History Month.
Both ladies share the consensus that Black History Month is problematic. “Canada claims to be a ‘mosaic’, a melting pot society, and yet you still label it ‘black’ history… that already segregates the black community in itself,” Agape argues. She believes the month of observance steers closer towards trivializing black history, rather than promoting it. As such, she prefers not to be labeled a Black Canadian. “Yes, I’m black. Yes, I’m Canadian. But the phrase itself is a setback because it suggests that I’m not a genuine Canadian, when really, I’m as Canadian as Canadian gets. I have learnt to embrace the multiculturalism that comes behind being a Canadian who isn’t a white Canadian. But it was nothing that was influenced by Black History Month at all.”
Elo interjects to add another major setback of Black History Month — the homogenization of one race. “It’s a celebration that draws from African-American history, which has its good intentions, but it ignores all the hundreds of other distinct diasporas within Canada itself. That means that there’s a lot of generalization when it comes to the prejudices associated with ‘black culture’. And everyone may celebrate ‘blackness’, but only a certain type.” Being of mixed ancestry myself, I imagine this would be similar in some respect to everyone assuming you celebrate Chinese New Year just because you are Asian (FYI: the Lunar New Year is celebrated by many other different ethnicities and nationalities, each with their own traditions).
Agape continues, “being black is different from being African — for example, having to deal with hair, getting it done at a salon — that’s black culture, not African culture.” That said, she expresses great pride in being black and says it plays a vital role in where she fits in at U of T, especially as a minority at the university. “You see what education means to someone who is like yourself. You become hyper-aware of your race, and you’re constantly having to defend your ‘blackness’ even if it’s something you don’t personally identify with. When asking for an example, Elo lists having to give your thoughts on a certain issue of slavery even if you don’t have one as a major one. “There’s always the comfort in being surrounded by individuals who can share your understanding of identity and culture, as that’s hard to find around campus,” Agape adds.
As a final word of advice, Agape encourages fellow students to embrace their roots. “Understand that we are in a place of privilege, to gain an education like this, but don’t allow that to skew your views of countries that are not westernized. If you are African, Caribbean, anything, consider that you have a home in Canada but remember that who you are as an individual is multi-faceted in culture.”
I asked her how should students embody and empower being black, if Black History Month detracts from the very purpose of its inception. Agape insists on the importance of not letting prejudices define who you are as an individual. “If you want to change the black stereotype because of a stereotypical view of ‘black culture’, then you as an individual will need to help progress the world’s mentality of what it means to be a black person, by embracing who you are every day.”