February is Black History Month (BHM). It is a time to honour, to acknowledge, to listen and to learn. The University of Lethbridge is celebrating the achievements of students, staff and faculty by creating spaces for the voices of Black people to be heard. This year’s theme is Building a Culture of Authentic Black Inclusion: Moving from resistance to change.
Maleeka Thomas is a fourth-year sociology student and international student representative and volunteer coordinator for the University of Lethbridge Students’ Union.
During the BHM Opening Event on Wednesday, February 1, Thomas shared a passionate speech about why it’s important to honour and celebrate Black history, not just for one month, but for always. Her words created an impact on the audience. Her speech is shared here in its entirety so that her words may reach many more.
How do you see, define, celebrate and honour Black History Month? These are all questions I was asked before coming here today and I want to challenge you to think about these questions as I continue.
Good morning. My name is Maleeka Thomas, and I am a fourth year sociology major here at the University of Lethbridge. I am pleased to have been invited to speak here today and it is truly an honour to join all of you in recognizing Black History Month and the rich history of Black peoples around the world, in Canada and within our campus community. The theme last year for Black History Month was: “February and Forever: Celebrating Black History today and every day,” which aims to focus on recognizing the pivotal role that Black Canadians have played and continue to play in the development of what we now know as Canada. This year the theme is focused on the importance of creating an authentic sense of Black inclusion moving from resistance to change.
For you to understand my lens on why Black history matters and why it is so important, you have to take a little glimpse in my lived experience. Growing up in a predominantly Black country my experience with my Blackness is never one that equates erasure. Yet it seems to be the norm here.
Erasure is another way of saying that your story or experience does not matter here. But it does.
Black History Month is a recent celebration in Canada which highlights the great erasure of the role of Black Canadians and our communities have played in Canada. For far too long, Black Canadian history has largely been ignored as a key part of Canada’s development and historical strides. I urge us all, that as we celebrate this Black History Month, let's flip this and highlight the collective success for Black Canadians.
When I think about the meaning of Black History Month, it means focusing on the resilience and brilliance of Black people while reflecting on the strides made that have led us to this moment.
It is about commemorating and celebrating the efforts and achievements of Black Canadians who've made tremendous strides like Violet King, but also the everyday people whose names don’t always get printed in the magazines and history books - those who have done and continue to do exceptional work but are not always recognized. Most importantly it is about centring Black joy.
As February 1 marks the beginning of the Black History Month celebration, I would like to remind you not to treat this month as something that is distinctly separate from the collective Canadian and world history.
Black History is everyone’s history.
This month was created to recognize, to celebrate and learn about Black Canadian stories, not just the stories that are always highlighted of Malcolm X or Rosa Parks or Dr. Martin Luther King or even Harriet Tubman. While these heroes are important to know about, it is important to also know the stories that reflect the Black Canadian experience, for people like:
- Mary Ann Shadd Cary who was an activist, educator, publisher, and journalist. She was the first Black woman to publish a newspaper – The Provincial Freeman.
- Mifflin Gibbs was a businessperson, politician, and community leader. Gibbs was elected to Victoria City Council and used his public speaking and community organization abilities to encourage racial integration and to fight against segregation in churches and theatres in Victoria.
- Businessperson Viola Davis Desmond owned and operated a beauty parlour and beauty school in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1946, she went to a movie theatre and chose to sit on the ground floor, a section of the theatre reserved for white patrons only. She was arrested, tried and convicted for tax evasion for not paying the one-cent tax difference on the ground floor ticket. It wasn’t until 2010 that Nova Scotia granted Desmond an official pardon and apology for the racism that she and other Black Nova Scotians were subjected to. In 2016, Desmond became the first Canadian woman to appear on a Canadian banknote.
- Air force veteran, lawyer and politician Lincoln Alexander was the first Black member of Parliament and the first Black federal cabinet minister. In 1985, he was appointed as Canada’s lieutenant-governor, becoming the first visible minority to hold this position.
- Violet King went to law school and became the first Black person to earn a law degree in the province of Alberta. After passing the bar, she became the first Black woman lawyer in Canada.
I could go on and on, but these are only a few of the historical figures that have made massive contributions to Canada’s history and helped to shape our history and collective identity and stood proud as leaders in communities across this country.
As I close, I would like to thank all the contributors for their continued work and effort in creating a space that allows us to celebrate Black excellence and joy in this year's honouring of Black History Month. I would also call to action that the University of Lethbridge, senior administrators, faculty, staff, students and everyone in the campus community not just celebrate Black history for the 28 or 29 or 17 days of February but that we continue to centre, honour and celebrate Black culture, excellence and joy for the remaining months and years to come. I challenge you that after February 28, 2023, 11:59 p.m. that you will not forget about us or ignore us until February 1, 2024. I urge you to see us for all that we are - not just athleticism or entertainment. Yes, we are great at that, but see us for all our unique and rich experiences and accomplishments in all areas. Do not just talk about slavery or segregation but discuss the steps to mend these relationships between Black peoples and the greater community.
As we move forward to continue the equity, diversity and inclusion work, I ask that Black students, faculty and staff have more than just a seat at the table but are given a voice that is heard and is incorporated in all areas of this university, so that we can truly honour the definition of inclusivity. I will continue my efforts by bringing my whole Black self to spaces that historically were not made for me and do the work that has yet to be done for the Black community of this campus.
Thank you and let’s honour Black history today and forever.
To learn more about Black History Month and upcoming events, visit the website.