Presentation: Black History Month

By Michael Embaie

February 28, 2013


Where Does The Concept of Race come from?


According to Sean Hier and Singh Bolaria (2007):


– There is a scholarly consensus that race is neither a natural nor a biological feature of groups of human beings


– Biologists, physical anthropologists, and population geneticists generally agree that there is little empirical value to be derived from using the race concept to infer the social, intellectual, moral and political aptitude of groups of human beings.


– What this means is that there is no convincing evidence that biological or genetic inheritance constitutes the parameters for one’s social or cultural capabilities


–        Influential thinkers in the social sciences and humanities contend that the category of race is a social construct whose significance is bound up with history, Western European science, and the cultural signification of diverse groups of people.


– Race in other words, is neither a natural nor scientifically accurate way to classify and order the world’s human population; it is a cultural signifier that hides more than it reveals about human variation.


–        Contrary to popular belief, the concept of race is not very old. The first recorded use of race in the written English language traces to 1508 AD (Banton 1998).

–        What this means is that, race as one of the many discourses used to represent human diversity, is no more than 500 years old (significantly less than 1% of the time of human existence in the planet).


–        It is important to note, although race appeared in the English written language in the 16th century, it did not become popular or ubiquitous until the 19th century (less than 200 years ago).



–        For much of the 16th to 18th centuries, the race concept was not commonly used to classify and order human beings.


–        Based largely on colonial and imperial interactions, Western European writings were more likely to classify the peoples of Africa, Asia, and the Americas using concepts such as pagan, heathen, uncivilized, barbarian, and, particularly non-Christian.


–        By the mid 19th century, there were discernable changes in the ways in which discourses of race were deployed in scientific and popular analysis.


–        A movement generally recognized as scientific racism began to develop around 1850 that conceptualized race in terms of discrete natural biological differences between groups of human beings based on the signification of certain human physical features (most commonly skin colour).


–        That is, after 1850 certain Western European writers and politicians increasingly used a limited range of human bodily features to signify fixed group characteristics such as morality and intelligence.


–        The significations used to delineate different and discrete races, based on the belief in inherent differences or attributes, involved hierarchical social constructions that dialectically pitted the Western European self against non-Western European other as, respectively, superior and inferior socially, culturally, and/or intellectually.


–        For this reason, arguing that the only “race” is the “human race” actually negates the process by which racial representations are formed.


Origins of Black History Month


The celebration of Black history month tends not to promote propaganda, but to counteract it by popularizing the truth. It is not so much interested so much in Negro history as it is in history influenced by Negro; for what the world needs is not a history of selected races or nations but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate and religious prejudice. There has been therefore, no tendency to euologize the Negro nor to abuse his enemies. The aim has been to emphasize important facts in the belief that facts properly set forth will speak for themselves.

Dr. Carter Woodson


Carter G. Woodson obtained his PhD. (Doctorate degree) from HarvardUniversity in 1912. In late summer of 1915, Dr. Carter Woodson and many of his friends travelled from Washington, D.C to participate in a national celebration of the 50th anniversary of emancipation sponsored by the state of Illinois. Thousands of African Americans travelled from across the country to see exhibits highlighting the progress African Americans made since the abolition of slavery.


Inspired by the three-week celebration which was attended by about 12 thousand African Americans, Dr. Woodson decided to form an organization to promote the scientific study of Black life and history before leaving town.


On September 9, 2015, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) was formed at the YMCA in Chicago, Illinois. In 1916 the first journal of Negro History was published.


In February 1926, Woodson launched the Negro History Week. Woodson chose February for reasons of tradition and reform. It is commonly stated that Woodson selected February:


a)   To encompass the birthdays of two great Americans who played a prominent role in shaping Black history, namely Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, whose birthdays are Feb. 12 and 14 respectively.

b)   Since Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the black community, along with other Republicans had been celebrating the president’s birthday; and since the late 1890s, Black communities across the country had been celebrating Douglas’ birthday as well.


Even though Woodson admired both Lincoln and Douglas,   Woodson envisioned the study and celebration of the Negro as a race, not simply as the producers of great men.   Therefore he believed the focus should be placed on the countless black men and women who had contributed to the advancement of human civilization.
Urbanization and industrialization brought over a million African Americans from the rural South into big cities of the nation. The expanding black middle class became participants in and consumers of black literature and culture.  Black history clubs sprang up, teachers demanded materials to instruct their pupils, and progressive whites stepped and endorsed the efforts.

As black populations grew, mayors issued Negro History Week proclamations, and in cities like Syracuse progressive whites joined Negro History Week with National Brotherhood Week.

Well before his death in 1950, Woodson never viewed black history as a one-week affair. He believed that black history was too important to America and the world to be crammed into a limited time frame. He spoke of a shift from Negro History Week to Negro History Year.
In the South, black teachers often taught Negro History as a supplement to United States history. One early beneficiary of the movement reported that his teacher would hide Woodson’s textbook beneath his desk to avoid drawing the
wrath of the principal.


During the Civil Rights Movement in the South, the Freedom Schools incorporated black history into the curriculum to advance social change. The Negro History movement was an intellectual insurgency that was part of every larger effort to transform race relations.
As early as 1940s, blacks in West Virginia, a state where Woodson often spoke, began to celebrate February as Negro History Month. By late 1960s, as young blacks on college campuses became increasingly conscious of links with Africa, Black History Month replaced Negro History Week at a faster pace. Within the Association, younger intellectuals, part of the awakening, prodded Woodson’s organization to change with the times and they succeeded.


In 1976, fifty years after the first celebration, the Association used its influence to institutionalize the shifts from a week to a month and from Negro history to black history. Since the
mid-1970s, every American president, Democrat and Republican, has issued proclamations endorsing
the Association’s annual theme.
Daryl Michael Scott
Professor of History
Howard University




lacks in Canada: A Long History


Canadian Social Trends

Spring 2004: Statistics Canada Catalogue No. 11-008


First Blacks came to Canada 400 years ago


The first black person in Canada, who served as an interpreter under governor de Monts in Nova Scotia, was reported in 1605.


From 1628 until the early 1800s, Black slavery existed, particularly in Eastern Canada where Loyalists who immigrated from the US often brought slaves with them.


In the late 1700s, Canada also became home to some Black Loyalists who were promised land grants for supporting the British during the American Revolution.


Many early Black settlers chose to remain in Canada and founded settlements in Nova Scotia, Ontario and later in Western Canada with the opening of the frontier in the mid-1800s.


In 1901 the population Census reported 17, 400 Blacks (or what the early census referred to as Negro) living in Canada, or 3% of the population.


In 2001, Blacks were the third largest visible minority group in Canada, behind Chinese and South Asians.

The 2001 Census enumerated 662,200 Blacks representing just over 2% of Canada’s total population and 17% of the visible minority population.


The 2001 census showed that, nearly one half (45%) of Blacks were born in Canada, second only to Japanese (65%), and much higher than South Asians (29%) or Chinese (25%).


The same census showed that, about 48% of Black immigrants who came to Canada in the 1990s were born in Africa, virtually the same proportion as those born in the Caribbean, Central and South America (47%).


Compared with Black immigrants from earlier decades, the source regions have shifted dramatically.


Among foreign-born Blacks who came to Canada before 1961, only 1% were born in Africa, and 72% came from the Caribbean, Central and South America.


In 2001, Blacks had a much younger age structure than the total Canadian population. Children under age 15 accounted for nearly 30% of the Black population, compared to 19% of the total population.


According to the 2001 census, although Canadian-born Blacks aged 25 to 54 were just as likely to be university educated as all Canadian-born persons in the same age group, in 2000, Canadian-born Blacks’ average employment income was substantially lower than all Canadian born persons ($29, 000 versus 37,200).


Blacks in Canada have diverse backgrounds and experiences. Some Blacks can trace their roots in Canada back several centuries, while others have immigrated in recent decades or even the last few years and just putting down roots.


As is the case with every other group in Canada, Blacks have helped shape the political, economic and cultural mosaic of the local and national landscape in many ways.



















Julie McMullin (2010) Box 4.1 Fact Sheet #7: Understanding the Racialization of Poverty in Ontario in Justice and Policing 2007


How does the criminal Justice system affect and impact racialized communities?


Racialized persons refer to people of colour who are Canadian-born and to newcomer communities of colour.


Racism refers to the individual attitudes and behaviours as well as the built-in ways in which social policies and societal institutions discriminate.


Facts and Challenges


Racialized families are from 2 to 4 times more likely than White families to fall below the Low Income cut-off (LICO), Canada’s unofficial poverty line.


Research shows that crime and violence in communities are very closely linked to the despair and loss of hope that come from inequality and poverty.


With the growing poverty among racialized communities in Ontario, gangs and gun-related crime have also grown. Government and law enforcement agents tend to treat racialized persons as criminals and use the justice system to punish them, rather than addressing poverty, unemployment and inequality in these communities.


Racial profiling—targeting of racialized personsby policing authorities—is all too common.


For example;


–        African Canadian students in Toronto are 4 times more likely to be stopped and 8 times more likely to be searched than white students in the same places.


–        In a large sample of Toronto youth who had no police records, more than 50% of Blacks had been searched by police in the previous two years, compared to only 8% of Whites,


–        A study in Kingston showed that police were 3.7 times more likely to stop Black people


–        In Ontario, Black suspects are 5.5 times more likely to be killed or seriously injured from police use of force than White suspects, and they are 10 times more likely to be shot by police.


–        African Canadians represent over 6% of the federal prison population even though they comprise only about 2% of the Canadian population


–        The so-called “war on drugs” targets racialized communities. Police focus on low-level street dealers instead of powerful drug-lords because it makes for high arrest records and publicity.


–        Many dealers are poor, racialized youth with few opportunities.


–        A study of more than 10,000 arrest records in Toronto showed that:


a)   Whites arrested on drug charges were more likely than Blacks to be released at the scene.


b)  Blacks were twice as likely as Whites to be held for a bail hearing.


c)   Blacks were more likely to be charged for offences that could only be detected after being pulled over in traffic by police.


Research in Toronto also shows that White men are less likely to be stopped by police as they grow older and have higher incomes, but these factors make no difference for Black men.


Racism is the most common reason for hate crimes in Canada with 57% of such crimes against Blacks and South Asians.








Some questions and issues to think about


a) What are the lessons learned from how the concept of   race evolved


b) Why do we need Black History Month?


c)   What are some of the messages and lessons from the origins and history of Black History Month?


d)   What are some of the messages and lessons from the origins and history of Blacks in Canada?


e)   What are some of the things we can do as Calgarians, Albertans and Canadians in order to create an environment of understanding, acceptance and social cohesion? And why do we need to do this?


f)     Can we think for a minute or two of racial and other biases we harbour in us as individuals and as a society?


g)   Where do these biases come from? Or how are these biases shaped and nurtured?


My favourite quote: When I dream alone, it is just a dream but when we dream together, it is the beginning of a better tomorrow.


Keep hope and peace alive!!!