This February, for the second consecutive year, Church of the Incarnation celebrated Black History Month and Beyond. The “beyond” means that the celebration does not conclude at the end of February, but that the historical and present accounts of Blacks over the centuries is intricately interwoven into the fabric of Canadian society. One question remains at the fore: Why is this history not included in our national stories of valour and pride?
Before we answer that question, it may be helpful to ask another question: Why do many whites feel so uncomfortable about February as Black History Month? There is an apparent unease. Why? Is it not possible that in learning about others we re-discover ourselves? Then, there comes the question, “Why do they have to celebrate for an entire month?” That’s almost the same as asking why “they” have to celebrate at all.
While the emphasis here is on Black History Month, this question also relates to any Black, Indigenous, or person of colour (BIPOC), and certainly also members of other communities historically persecuted—women, Asians, members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community. There are specifically identified months for Indigenous peoples, Asians, and other ethnicities.
Back to Black History Month. If Blacks don’t use this opportunity to highlight who they are and their ongoing accomplishments, who will? In the past, our fate has been left to others to decide and the results have been nothing short of disastrous.
So, we raise this uncomfortable question for some in our diocese: Why do we need to celebrate Black History Month (and now beyond)? The month is a great start, but recognition needs to continue the remaining 11 months, as we do not disappear and are still contributing to our churches and communities. We celebrate because we know that despite our presence from the landing of Champlain, our history has been camouflaged—or in most cases omitted. Lack of inclusive storybooks for youngsters, appropriate textbooks in our schools and academic institutions, and the lack of public recognition of movers and shakers have mostly made us seem like we have just arrived and made no contributions to this great country built by enslaved and free Blacks.
You may have questions such as: Why would we celebrate when we have no Black people in our parish? We only have a couple of Blacks, so why bother? I’ve asked—and Black members feel uncomfortable with me asking. Do I really want to highlight and possibly embarrass a specific ethnicity in my parish? I therefore ask this question: Have you ever been in a situation where you felt that you had contributed so much, but never got the recognition in the past—or present—and the future looks just as blank? This is a deflating, demoralizing, and demeaning life experience.
I remember reading an American classic, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. It was one of the most confusing, unsettling, but memorable books I have read. It’s a story of a young, university-educated Black man who struggled to survive and succeed in the swirl of twentieth-century racism. He struggled because he was deemed invisible. That’s what it feels like to many Blacks who have struggled to be successful, and made contributions only to not be “seen” in society, in education, in business, and in our churches.
Recognition of Black History Month helps to undo some of that systemic structural anti-Black damage. Recently we have seen large corporations and other businesses re-examining their exclusive hiring practices and policies, and recognizing that anti-Black racism has existed and continues. They aim even in the smallest step to change. Regrettably, sometimes the church is left behind in matters of social injustice.
But what a way to take a lead in your communities of whatever ethnicity! Whatever affects one of us affects us all. We have been pondering this at our church. Last year, for the first time, we celebrated Black contributions in Oakville. There are few Blacks. It was the White members who introduced me to the town’s rich Black history. Buildings were identified, names called. Then we had the person who piloted the bill through the House of Parliament, Canada’s first Black female MP, Dr. Jean Augustine, join us virtually and tell her story during our Sunday service. It was then that we started to extend our community connections, which continues today.
Of course, our music director, Dr. Charlene Pauls, was intensely involved. She relayed to me the impact of this event: “Each of the musical selections chosen impacted me as I created, searched, and curated so many inspiring, passionate, and challenging [pieces] to include each week. The impact of the music during Black History Month provided a moment not only to pause and remember the past, but also to serve as an active call to seek a more just future in our own neighbourhoods and beyond.”
The parish became actively involved in readings and recommending materials. Last year’s events made this year easier as we again celebrated the month in a variety of ways: music, readings, inviting community connections to speak, and more. We ended the month’s focused celebrations—but not our recognition of Black history and involvement!—by hearing from our local MP, Anita Anand, who spoke about Black History and shared some of her own story as a brown woman whose family immigrated to Canada. None of this would have been possible if it were not for the support of Michael Patterson, our rector. He led simply by giving consent.
We share this not to brag, but to encourage you that you can never start too small. Every bit helps in being inclusive. Is that not what the gospel is about? God’s unconditional love and recognition for all. The tagline for my previous parish means so much to me: “Bringing the community together for good.” Oh, that we would! But in many ways, our communities need our churches to lead. Godspeed as you do.