February is Black History Month. This month-long observance in the US and Canada is a chance to celebrate Black achievement and provide a fresh reminder to both take stock of where systemic racism persists and give visibility to the people and organizations creating change. Community leaders such as Jean Augustine, who introduced the Black History Month legislation in the Canadian Parliament, Lincoln M. Alexander, Viola Desmond, and others have changed Canada through their lives and actions, sometimes at great cost. Writers and artists — from George Elliott Clarke to Dionne Brand, from Esi Edugyen to André Alexis — have changed the character and colour of the country’s literature.
Although February has been chosen to mark Black history, Black history and Black stories have long been part of the fabric of this nation. But Black Canadians have also endured historical and contemporary injustices resulting from racism, Canada’s participation in the slave trade, the erasure of Black history from Canada’s history, and systemic discrimination that to this day extends from healthcare to housing, from employment to policing.
We are marking Black History Month by highlighting a collection of books by Black writers and about Black history, including poetry collections by celebrated writers Claire Harris, Kwame Dawes, and George Elliott Clarke, who in addition to writing works of genius, mentored a generation of poets and writers; the paintings and constructions of Mickalene Thomas, whose most recent exhibition opened simultaneously on three continents; and Mark V. Campbell’s deep dive into the photographic archives of Toronto’s Hip Hop Culture, to name but a few.
We’re also introducing It Was Dark There All the Time: Sophia Burthen and the Legacy of Slavery in Canada by Hamilton author, artist, and activist Andrew Hunter, a new release that examines an uncomfortable chapter in the history of this country. Telling the story of Sophia Burthen, a woman brought into pre-Confederation Canada in the late 18th century and enslaved by Joseph Brant and later by Samuel Hatt, the book opens with Sophia’s oral testimony, one of the few personal accounts of life as an enslaved person in Canada. But Sophia was not alone, she was one of many men, women, and children enslaved by the founding fathers of this country, whose story has been largely erased from our history.
As we head into Black History Month, let us remember that while casting ourselves as the “saviours” of African-American fugitives fits neatly into our national identity, the Underground Railway is only a 30-year chapter in a much longer story. Canada was also founded on exploitation. Says Charmaine Nelson, who leads the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery at NSCAD University in Halifax, "Canadian slavery transpires over 200 plus years. So what does it take to erase 200 years of history from the collective consciousness of a nation, but to enshrine three decades?"