Honouring an underrepresented legacy

McGill Students, Staff, and Faculty, join with the greater Montreal community to celebrate Black History Month.

McGill is now in its third year of hosting an organized Black History Month on campus. With each iteration aspiring for stronger bonds between McGill and the community, and the precedent set by hosting events at McGill which commemorate the significant and underrepresented contributions of Black individuals in Montreal, the organizers of this year’s BHM envision the project as collectively working towards making 2019 “a year of justice” for Black people nationwide.

The institutionalization of Black History Month at McGill signals a turn in this direction. Shanice Yarde, Equity Education Officer and the architect of Black History Month at McGill, says this commitment from the University is foundational to building greater capacity in McGill’s establishment to routinely, and without tokenization, recognize “the labour of Black folks in the University, who for years have been taking up this work and doing it in their pockets with little appreciation”.

But part of this recognition and appreciation comes from having an already cultivated awareness on campus of Black presence, and understanding there are experiences particular to being a Black person at a university and in Montreal. The Black Student’s Network at McGill (BSN), another core organizer of BHM 2019, is both a vital resource and active community space for people of all backgrounds to gain awareness of the lived realities of Black people on campus and around Montreal. BSN President Christelle Tessono stresses that one of the goals of the BSN, and of BHM as a whole, is to inspire “people to be more curious and stand in solidarity” with the issues affecting Black students. Having more visibility on campus is an encouraging step in promoting knowledge about Black lived experiences to all members of the McGill community.

The theme underlying this year is focused on envisioning 2019, in Tessono’s words, as “a year of justice” for the Black community. Yarde, who believed that the theme should centre around developments happening outside of McGill, suggests that “linking the McGill events with the community continues the thread of honouring the ways that Black communities have always been fighting for justice and against injustice”. A large number of BHM’s events are hosted by Black Montreal community members, not necessarily tied to McGill but whose insights and experiences offer valuable teaching opportunities for the McGill context.

The emphasis on justice is in a broad sense, not limited exclusively to police brutality or the criminal justice system. As an organizer, Yarde wants to inspire thinking about the importance of community and how to meet one another across different lines and backgrounds, as well as what justice looks like as part of relationships, love, support, and fighting against cruelty.

A number of this year’s events bring this to light. The 2019 BHM brings the third edition of Community and Family Day to McGill, a Sunday that brings together individuals onto campus for a day of restorative community-building, as well as group activities in painting, storytelling, yoga, dance workshops, and meditation, and a public discussion surrounding mental health among the Black community.

Art and creativity are a common thread in the community building program; campus-community radio station CKUT aired 12 hours of special Black-centric programming on February 1st, Speak Black, a spoken word event, as well as an art exhibit on Indigenous-Black solidarity, are happening across the city, at various venues around Montreal.

Academic and McGill-specific events are on the program as well. An event commemorating the Congress of Black Writers, a historic event that took place in the 60s at McGill, will feature a panel and performances that honour this era in Black intellectual thought. The prodigy Kenneth Melville will be honoured in an event dedicated to highlighting the life and career of McGill’s first Black medical student and the only Black Chair of McGill’s Department of Pharmacology & Therapeutics. Black students will also get a chance to come face to face with Black faculty in a personal setting at a Staff-Student-Faculty gathering.

BHM 2019 events are already well underway, and yet the month is just getting started. In recognizing and commemorating the work of Black communities, Yarde, the BSN, McGill’s Social Equity and Diversity Education Office, and participants from the Montreal community at large are laying solid groundwork for institutional cultures to recognize other marginalized communities. The creation of McGill’s first LGTBQ+ History Month in 2018 on the heels of BHM at McGill is one example. As for BHM, Yarde’s vision is both forward-looking and community-centred: “My eventual goal is that BHM wouldn’t just be coming through me. I want to be a part of it running, but not necessarily leading. I want to build capacity to bring people in who have the time and resources to offer for it, so it can be sustainable”.

For a full list of events related to Black History Month, click here

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