By Professor David Divine
Claiming our future and practically shaping it, informed by our Heritage, should be our day- to- day goal. The month of February each year, African Heritage Month, is, in essence, a call to account for members of African descent in the Maritimes to take particular note of the contributions of our forebears to pave ways for the present generation to walk upon and develop further. Each of us has an important role to play.
It is a moment of reflection and celebration; a brief institutionalized, nationally recognized moment of time in the calendar year in Canada since it received unanimous approval and adoption in the Senate following a motion by the now retired Nova Scotia Senator, Donald Oliver, on March 4th, 2008. This marked the final parliamentary procedure required for Canada’s permanent acknowledgement of African Heritage Month.
The Provincial and Global recognition of our Black presence, such as the United Nations declaration of 2015-2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent, was not granted out of generosity. It was carved out of the granite stone of oppression and our collective, diverse resistance to it. Our histories are littered with colonization, death and destruction, slavery, resistance, lost cultures, denigrated religions, and distorted ways of living. The transport of 12.5 million individuals who looked like me from their home to distant parts of the globe created, unintentionally, a living, enduring and a potentially revolutionary network of Black souls – our diaspora carried within us, awaiting recall. In time coming to terms with it and taking whatever actions deemed appropriate for sustaining ourselves and moving forward.
History is not only about memory but about deliberate forgetting, as well. History is also about changing the story of what occurred at certain periods of time and the reasons for those events to suit the oppressor’s arguments and explanations at later times. Deliberate, officially orchestrated attempts were made to erase our individual and collective worth. Our contributions prior to colonization and enslavement to political science, art, medicine, physical sciences, astronomy, philosophy, and governance, to name a few, were subject to officially sanctioned removal.
Dr. Sylvia Hamilton, renowned African Nova Scotia poet and filmmaker, echoes in her poem “The Passage” the importance of knowledge of our history based on factual evidence and the impact of that at the time of actual occurrence and on subsequent generations of Black people. A view repeated in the published work of Dr. Harvey Amani Whitfield, a leading scholar on slavery in the Maritimes, who dedicates himself to uncovering the silence in the historical archives on the individual biographies of Black slaves. They were not ‘perpetual victims’ buffeted by any prevailing current of prejudice, physical and mental violence, re-written history of our past (s) and consigned to being forever silenced.
They were men, women and children who were indeed slaves, but they demonstrated agency, resistance, passion for freedom, commitment to family, engaged in religious traditions, believed in the value of community and in themselves. ‘Slave lives matter’ argued Dr Harvey Imani Whitfield in a public lecture at the University of King’s College, Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the 10th of January 2019. The impact of their presence and contribution must not remain in silence.
Dr James Walker, one of our foremost researchers of African Nova Scotia History echoes this plea when talking about the Black Loyalists in his body of work. ‘People act according to the history they believe has happened’. How you approach history will determine the lessons you derive from it. (James Walker, 2007)
In conclusion, James Baldwin (1924-1987) makes the important point that the images of us as Black people of African descent used by those who are not Black have a purpose. Our energies should be devoted to understanding ‘the way that a country and its society works. How to find my way around it, not get lost in it, and not feel rejected by it’. Come as you are, those who are Black and of African descent and those who are not Black and from varied ancestry and use this special time to learn from each other.