III: The Acclaimed First Steps
Black Power Art | Graffiti and image by author
I find the beginning is always the hardest part. Sitting in front of a pile of raw ingredients, mulling over an empty canvas or even gawking at a blank page. Inspiration comes from odd places at the most inopportune times, and more often than not I find when I need it the most it is nowhere to be found. It’s been weeks of me sitting at my laptop searching for my muse. Will it be a weight loss revelation, the discovery of a newfound literary hero or commentary on the imminence of spring? With the way the world turns around us and our environment affects us, it’s hard to predict exactly what the hell I’ll write about or where any attempt at a literary endeavour will take me.
I started off contemplating writing about Women’s month, March is here and the flavour of the month is inspiring women doing incredible things. But it seems like everyone is talking about it, hash tagging it and already discussing how to acknowledge the contributions of women, as they should be. So instead of writing about what’s to come I want to take a look at what’s passed. In this political climate, the themed month at the tip of the lips and yet somehow at the back of brains is Black History Month. As most folks are probably aware, February marked yet another edition of Black History Month. Though most people don’t know its origins, this month is used as a chance for society to sort of acknowledge the historic contributions of the Black community and celebrate Black excellence and the notion of Afrofurturism.
Before I derail myself too much, here’s a quick history lesson. Black History month first started in the mid-70s in the United States. It was developed to build upon Negro Week, a 1920s celebration designed to recognize the contributions of Black Americans in society. The first instance of Negro Week dates back to 1926 when historian Cater G. Woodson basically said “why the hell has it taken so long to recognize the contributions of African Americans in this country?” Surely enough society was embarrassed, this week continued to grow and before long colonial cultures across the world began observing this celebration.
Call me a nay-sayer, call me an angry Black woman, I don’t care. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again, Black History Month was a distraction designed to limit knowledge and recognition of Black society to 28 (and sometimes 29) days a year. The content that is so rapidly shared should be taught within our educational institutions and yet somehow we’ve normalized only talking about certain token Black folks 4 weeks a year. While I am thankful that there is some knowledge being shared:
A) Why is it always in an American context?
B) Why are the same handful of folks always the focus? And...
C) Don’t we deserve better?
While Black folks and allies alike are fighting the ongoing battle for true recognition of historical Black contributions, in the interim it is important to discuss how we can meaningfully celebrate and participate in Black History month initiatives. Yes, I am aware February is behind us already this year, so think of this as a guideline for next year, a playbook to memorize and follow next year when those well known 4 weeks roll around. All things considered though, what I’m going to share should be practiced year round and not held exclusively in the context of BHM.
The easiest thing you can do to contribute it to be nice to Black people. As dumb as it sounds you wouldn’t believe how hard that is for some folks. Now being nice doesn’t mean sharing a fake uncomfortable smile, re-sharing a post you’ve half read, or pretending to listen while your head remains too far up your own ass to understand, being nice means, first and foremost, to truly listen. As members of the Black community, all too frequently our voices are drowned out, lived experiences are ignored and we are made to feel bad for feeling uncomfortable in racist, oppressive or discriminatory situations. If you claim to be an ally, then BE AN ALLY! Listen to Black coworkers, friends and family members. Don’t question experiences and commit yourself to listening with an open mind and heart.
Another thing that appears to be so incredibly hard for society to grasp is to PAY US WHAT WE ARE OWED! Now, I am not talking about reparations in this context, if you want me to go on about that I’ll need a 1.5L bottle of wine and about 2 hours of your day. What I mean is, if you are going to take the time to find a Black speaker, presenter, workshop facilitator, focus group participator, or whatever else, especially during BHM, pay them what they are owed. The days of the misconception of “do this for clout” are so far behind. Well Ra’anaa, you may say, that can’t possibly still happen, and to that I say incorrect! In February 2021 alone I was asked to participate in numerous performative ally events, one in particular in which they didn’t offer payment, they minimized my part to less than a 30-minute round table discussion and the entire shebang was being messily planned less than 2 weeks in advance.
While I am not the leading expert on many things, I have come to know my worth. Sharing my expertise and insight from my lived experience, academic background and my immense work with Black Lives Matter Sudbury is worth something, hell it’s worth a lot. After the resurgence of BLM in 2020, society wants to capitalize on this. Since becoming involved in the movement it is all too clear. Everyone wants us to give lectures, talks and workshops, everyone wants a seat at the table we’ve built. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to share the wide breadth of my knowledge, but for the right price. And hey, if you don’t want to pay me directly, the least you can do if offer to make a donation to our organization.
One of the biggest annoyances that I experience as a Black woman is folks asking me for resources. “Can you recommend books that talk about…? What do I say if someone says BLM is…? How do we eradicate…?” I’m going to stop you right there. I AM NOT A RESOURCE. I am a human being, with emotions, a personality and better things to do. It is important for allies to recognize that although you may have good intentions, asking Black people for information is not the best way. Living in the 21st century we have access to innumerable resources on the internet, so use them.
The number one thing for allies to remember though is DO NOT BE A PERFORMATIVE ALLY. A performative ally is not an ally, full stop. This is not said to attack folks to don’t know how to contribute, but more so to inform those who are not taking action on how you can be productive members of the movement. Dealing with a racist person is awful, don’t get me wrong, but do you know what’s absolutely disheartening? Seeing yet another person who claims to be an ally sit there and do nothing.
This summer unlike any time before, social media experienced a mass shift. People were creating content, re-sharing it and bookmarking it like there was no tomorrow, which was great. The worse thing was when the summer passed, the trends faded and those who had the privilege to stop pretending to care did. Blackout Tuesday came and went and it is honestly enlightening to see how many “allies” shared a black square and have said zilch else. Pascale Diverlus wrote an absolutely incredible article about this called Eight Months After #BlackoutTuesday, Have White “Allies” Actually Kept Their Promises? and if you haven’t read it you should. I won’t go too in depth about it all since her article is so much more eloquent than I could ever be, but my bottom line is; just sharing a Black square does not make you an ally. Read her article, learn about performative allyship and make a positive change (or keep up the kick ass work if you’re already doing it).
I’m not saying to go out there, overstep and become the face of something you don’t understand. What I’m saying is read a book, learn some new terminology, participate in a workshop or event. Take the time to inform yourself so you can be part of the movement to inform others. I know I said I wasn’t a resource, and I stand by that, however I will help you get started and share another resource near and dear to my heart. As aforementioned I am a member of Black Lives Matter Sudbury, an organization I put my heart and soul in. At the end of February, we held a free virtual conference called Here to Stay Baby: A Northern Intersectional Caucus. This 2-day conference consisted of 8 incredible panels ranging from numerous polarizing topics like the Northern queer experience, fascism and everyone’s favourite, defunding the police. We brought experts on board from across Northern Ontario and it made for a stellar weekend and an indispensable resource.
So dear reader, my gift to you this month is connecting you with this resource. You can access footage of all these great panels here.
I know it can be intimidating and difficult to decipher where to begin. There are so many moving parts and the world is ever changing, but what’s important is to take the first step. Nothing worthwhile is every easy and the first step is rarely the simplest. I encourage you all to try something new and participate in a cause you believe in. If you’re unfamiliar with it, read up. If you’re scared to begin, join with a friend. If you haven’t a clue how to start, know that I too feel that insecurity and am there alongside you in spirit, applauding your every step.