Black History Month, acknowledged recently in Winnipeg, is dedicated to recognizing the achievements of African Americans.
The event started out in 1926 as Negro History week and was commemorated during the second week in February. The second week of February is symbolic, as both runaway slave and slavery abolitionist, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, celebrated birthdays during this week.
Since 1976, February has been deemed as Black History month. US President Gerald Ford was the first president to make this designation.
Racism has existed since time immemorial and it certainly reared its ugly head in times of slavery. The concept of owning someone who was ‘lower’ than you was commonplace especially in America. Large ships, filled to the brim with so called ‘savages’ from Africa, had people packed wall to wall for the long journey. Many did not survive the long trip and would be thrown overboard.
Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 helped pave the way for the abolition of slavery.
Being a music fan all my life and studying the origins of music, I was always in awe realizing the roots of most of the music I loved came from black communities.
The blues was born from people like Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters. Many slaves working in the fields would sing songs to pass the time. The songs they sang praised God and from this emerged great gospel music.
It was amazing to me how these people could even believe in God when they were treated so poorly and inhumanely. But, it was probably faith that helped many of them endure.
Drums originated out of Africa and apparently this is where the banjo came from as well.
I remember listening for the first time to Paul Simon’s Graceland, an album on which Ladysmith Black Mambazo plays; an amazing album with a great sound. Not everyone was happy with this groundbreaking album that married African music with rock music.
The American Federation for Musician’s Union blacklisted Paul Simon for not hiring union musicians. Mr. Simon hired Ladysmith for an authentic sound that he believed he wouldn’t have found anywhere in America.
Before my first trip to Jamaica in 1987, I only owned one reggae tape, Bob Marley’s Legend. After spending two weeks there, the music grew on me.
I must admit it was quite the culture shock visiting that beautiful paradise and seeing the conditions residents lived in. However, what I also saw there were some of the happiest and friendliest people I’ve ever met in my life.
Young and old were doing the Reggae thing. I met genuine people, happy with what they had and making the best of it. They didn’t seem to take much for granted.
When I returned home, I read a great book, Reggae International, which traced the roots of not only Reggae music but also the roots of slavery. It was very enlightening. It eventually cost me a lot of money; being the music collector that I am, I just had to check out the wonderful African music that I read about.
The book’s section on slavery was horrifying in it’s portrayal of how a human being can treat other human beings so poorly. Reverend Jesse Jackson once said, “The only time you should look down on a person is when you are helping them get up.”
Race is just another way of separating people, so I try not to look at people in terms of race. I like to think of everyone as being part of the human race where each has something to share and learn from one another, regardless of race, colour or creed.
Winnipeg celebrated Black History Month with many events throughout the month. One of the events I attended was the screening of the Justin Simien film, Dear White People, which looks at the issue of racism at a university campus. The film deals with “being black in a white world,” and follows Sam White, a student of mixed race who has a campus radio show called, Dear White People.
Her radio show criticizes white people and talks about racism on campus. Indeed, Sam gets a reaction from both the school administration and the student body. Things get heated when the son of the school’s president decides to throw a ‘blackface’ party.
The film screening was followed by a panel discussion which included, Bubba B, Kemlin Nembhard, Paul Lawrie and Tina Opakele.
The emcee of the evening, Alexa Potashnik, spoke at the beginning of the film and asked questions of the panel. Issues of race were discussed in front of a packed audience, where more chairs were needed to accommodate the overflow of attendees.
At the beginning of the evening, Potashnik joked that Black History month is celebrated every February, “the shortest month of the year, but it’s a start.”
We’ve come a long way since slavery was abolished but racism is still prevalent in our society.
When I visited the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, I noticed the exhibit displaying an evening gown worn at the first integrated school prom at Wilcox County High School in Rochelle, Georgia. I thought there was a typo on the exhibit card where it mentioned the date of the prom – 2013. Before this, the school would have a ‘black’ prom and a ‘white’ prom.
I remember reading about a meeting of police chiefs in America in the 1990’s where police admitted that indeed racial profiling was a reality. The odds were higher of being questioned by police if you were a person of colour (or aboriginal). Tensions in this regard have heightened with many unarmed black people being killed at the hands of the police in recent years.
I grew up in in Winnipeg watching shows like, All In the Family, where the star of the show, Archie Bunker, was a bigoted, racist shmuck. Not a very politically correct show but the issues dealt with were real. In the end, Archie’s wife Edith would turn the bigot around with her wisdom.
It was also one of the first sitcoms to introduce black characters – their neighbours, the Jeffersons. George Jefferson was just as bigoted and racist as Archie but again, the show dealt with real issues. Groundbreaking stuff for the 1970’s.
In the year 2000, I watched a video called, Channel Zero, by Stephen Marshall. In the video, a young boy in South Africa is interviewed and is asked the question, “Is there racism in your school?” He responds by saying, “Yes we have running races at school.” I thought that this was such a beautiful moment. This young, innocent boy didn’t have a clue what the word meant. It brought tears to my eyes.
I met Stephen Marshall at a Guerilla Video Making seminar in Winnipeg a few years later and mentioned this to him and he also said it was one his favourite moments in the video.
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful place if no one knew the meaning of this word. It would be good if we could see beyond skin colour and race, and look at everyone as another human being who has something to share. Diversity is a wonderful thing, and so is unity.
“I look to a day when people will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”- Martin Luther King Jr.
All photos by Doug Kretchmer
Listen to the panel discussion here: