It was a full house last night for the Opening Ceremony of the 2023 Black History Month at McGill. Held in Tanna Schulich Hall of the Elizabeth Wirth Music Building, the seventh edition of BHM was the first to be held in person since before the COVID pandemic shut down much of the world.
So quiet over the past several years, the atrium was filled with the sound of steel drums and the voices and laughter of some 100 people connecting and reconnecting with each other during the reception cocktail. Dozens of others joined the celebrations virtually.
Leading up to the keynote address by University at Buffalo Professor Rinaldo Walcott, a series of speakers – students, staff, faculty and administrators addressed the audience. A recurring theme throughout was community – past, present and future.
Resisting, organizing and creating
“Thank you again for joining us today, whether you are here or in person, somewhere across the city, or somewhere further,” said Shanice Yarde, Senior Advisor: Anti-Racism & Equity Education, and one of BHM’s organizers to open the ceremony. “It is so important for us to stay connected to each other, and one of the things that fortunately have learned to be able to do over the past few years is how to do that a little more creatively and safely. I am honoured to be here today and grateful to be connected to all of you.”
“As always, we must remember that for as long as there have been Black people here at McGill, there have been Black people resisting, organizing and creating,” said Yarde. “I am indebted to all those Black people who came before me… and to those who are still present today for their commitment and their love.”
Toward a more equitable environment
Travelling abroad, Interim Principal Christopher Manfredi addressed the crowd via a video message. While BHM is a time to celebrate the many and diverse experiences, scholarship, and accomplishments of McGill’s Black community, it is also “an opportune time to reaffirm our commitment to confronting anti-Black racism,” said the Interim Principal.
“In 2020, McGill launched its Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism, in which we set out a series of actions intended to enhance the representation and flourishing of McGill’s Black students, faculty, and staff,” said Manfredi. “As we work towards meeting these commitments with humility and respect, we recognize that institutions, such as universities, have a direct impact on Black lives and experiences – and that they, in turn, hold the potential for transformation in advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion.”
“Together, let us celebrate the excellence of McGill’s Black community, acknowledge the progress achieved thus far, and recommit our efforts towards the important work that still lies ahead, as we endeavour to create a more welcoming, equitable environment for all.”
Black Students Network (BSN) president Ashley Jonassaint spoke about belonging.
Jonassaint, in her final semester majoring in Economics with a minor in International Development Studies, began her undergraduate career during COVID.
“I told people I went to McGill University, but I never set foot on campus,” she said. “How could I feel included?”
The first step, she said with a chuckle, was to buy a McGill hoodie. Then, on the advice of a friend, she signed up as the VP Social for BSN before becoming President this year.
“I am so happy and proud to be working with 24 amazing, passionate Black students to create events and workshops for our community so that we can have a sense of belonging. We belong on this campus,” she said.
“It is bittersweet because this is my last semester and I’m leaving behind so many friendships,” said Jonassaint. “I hope in a month like this, that we recognize everything we have achieved and want to achieve. Hopefully it will inspire people to continue the work that we do.”
Creating a stronger campus
Angela Campbell, Co-Acting Provost, spoke of power of community and the “critical work” being done by students, faculty, staff and alumni.
In particular, Campbell praised the “outstanding work” of student associations such as the Black Students’ Network, the McGill African Students’ Society, and the Caribbean Students Society of McGill, and by members of staff and faculty, including those who are part of the Dr. Kenneth Melville Black Faculty and Staff Caucus.
The Co-Acting Provost expressed her gratitude to the team that helped bring BHM 2023 to fruition.
- Antoine Samuel Mauffette Alavo, Black Student Affairs Liaison
- Shanice Yarde, Senior Advisor, Anti-Racism and Equity Education
- Lynda Bulimo, Equity Education Advisor (Anti-Racism & Anti-Oppression Education)
- Karen Diop, Program Manager for the anti-Black racism Action Plan
- Dilson Rassier, Dean of the Faculty of Education
- Claudia Mitchell, Distinguished James McGill Professor, Depof Integrated Studies in Education
- Lisa Starr, Chair, Depof Integrated Studies in Education
- Nanre Nafziger, Assistant Professor, Depof Integrated Studies in Education
- Philip Howard, Associate Professor, Depof Integrated Studies in Education
- Emmanuel Tabi, Assistant Professor, Depof Integrated Studies in Education
“Their work, as well as the work of all members of the anti-Black racism Working Group, leads all of us at McGill to a place of greater understanding and action in relation to equity and anti-racism,” said Campbell. “We are a stronger campus because of their work, and I want to thank you so much for this.”
Why Black studies now?
The evening ended with Professor Rinaldo Walcott’s keynote address. Walcott, Professor and Chair of the Department of Africana and American Studies and Carl V. Granger Chair of Africana and American Studies at the University at Buffalo, explored the question Why Black studies now?
Walcott discussed the founding of Black studies in the U.S. in the 1960s, led, in large part, by Austin Clarke, a Barbadian-born Canadian writer and educator. It took decades after that, however, before Canadian universities formally included Black studies programs.
Instead, says Walcott, courses on Black culture and history were “smuggled” into the Canadian academy as part of various multidisciplinary humanities and social science programs.
That black studies did not officially “take hold” in Canada for so long, “tells us the story of the Canadian nation-state and its relationship to blackness,” said Walcott. “The long delay toward Black studies in Canada is symptomatic of the deeper denial and malaise toward Black people and blackness as constitutive of Canada and Canadianess.”
Different world views
Walcott says Black studies is not an attempt to create a niche for Black people within the Euro-American world view. It “is not an inclusion and diversity project.”
“Black studies is a contestatory project,” he said. “The minute we say Black studies, we question the Euro-American view of the world [which is] offered to us as the only legitimate view of the world. But what does it mean when you see the world from another perspective?”
“There’s not one way to order life, but the predominant way has been the Euro-American narrative that we all are told we must fit into – and most of us fail at fitting into because it’s only a partial view of the world.”
“Our task is to take that narrative of condemnation [in which] eurocentrism says that Black people have contributed nothing to the world and to bring that to an end,” says Walcott. “We’re in universities, producing knowledge – whether it’s pharmacology, whether it’s English literature, whether it’s education and curriculum studies, whether it’s engineering. Our task is to [show] that the point of view and the world views of Black people as another way of ordering life.”
It was a very important and critical speech that should give us pause and deep reflection as the McGill community.