“The most revolutionary thing you can be is a scholar,” Clarke says at Black History Month opener

Award-winning poet delivers stellar keynote that was part history lesson, part spoken word performance, part sermon and completely captivating

McGill’s third annual Black History Month (BHM) was launched on a frigid January 31 evening at the Faculty Club. Those who braved the wintry winds and icy sidewalks were treated to a fiery and fascinating keynote address by Parliamentary Poet Laureate and University of Toronto Professor George Elliott Clarke, along with music  by harpist Christelle Saint-Julien and pianist Daniel Clarke Bouchard of the Schulich School of Music.

Poet and scholar George Elliot Clarke delivered the keynote address at the opening ceremony for Black History Month

Shanice Yarde Equity Education Advisor (Anti-Oppression & Anti-Racism Education), was MC for the event. Three years ago, Yarde, newly arrived at McGill, had been tasked with organizing the first BHM and she spoke about how that inaugural event was, in many ways, the logical extension of a process that had been long in the making.

“[When I started planning the first BHM] I learned that we have a long, long history of Black folks organizing at this University, taking up space and making space for each other,” Yarde said. “I am honoured to have been able to create a little bit of infrastructure, a little bit of a foundation, for all this work… It’s been really exciting for me to help bring this to life.”

Sedalia Kawennotas, elder of the Mohawk nation, opened the proceedings with a prayer and a welcome address. Kawennotas was followed by Provost and Vice-Principal Academic Christopher Manfredi.

“Since the beginning of my term as Provost, I have identified equity and inclusion as my priorities, knowing that the pursuit of these goals is crucial to the intellectual openness and academic excellence for which McGill constantly strives,” the Provost said. “This commitment to equity bears fruit in different important ways, and tonight is a striking example of this.”

Anne Farray: Four decades at McGill

As part of the proceedings, Anne Farray was honoured for her dedication to the University and the community. Letting the audience in on the secret to her 40-year career at McGill, the Administrative Officer at the Institute of Islamic Studies said “Two of my guiding principles are making connections and being an eternal optimist. These principles continue to serve me well.”

Farray said another important component to her longevity is that throughout her time at McGill, she has taken every opportunity to learn.

“I attend lectures, plays, films – at the University and in the wider community. Especially those that spoke to our fight for liberation and justice. One pearl taken from these was that to move forward, we have to be in positions where we can make decisions and effect change,” she said. “When I attain positions and promotions, I use the opportunity to help my community and to move things forward… Remember, we can each make a small change here and there, and the cumulative effect can be monumental.”

A move to move BHM to August?

Clarke closed the evening with a stellar keynote that was part history lesson, part spoken word performance, part sermon and completely captivating. “It’s all going to be political, it’s all going to be mashed up and mixed up with these other asides and observations as a way to keep us warm on this cold evening,” said Clarke early into his hour-long address.

“I want to begin by recognizing that it is such a cold and discomforting evening, and I begin my remarks by commenting on the fact that Black history month should not be in February,” he said, garnering laughter and applause from the full house.

But more than just a funny ice-breaker, Clarke used the idea to highlight the central theme of his address – the importance of knowledge.

“We are all guilty to a certain extent of not knowing our history enough or even understanding the roots of Black History Month – which began in the United States in the 1920s, thanks to that great historian Carter G. Woodson,” continued Clarke. “He understood that part of the oppression of people of African heritage, particularly in the United States, had to do with a lack of knowledge of history and a lack of knowledge of culture. In the 1920s, he proposed that there be a Negro History Week. That’s really where Black history month started.”

Woodson chose a week in February that included the birthdays of Frederick Douglas (Feb. 14) and Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12), in an effort to bring together Blacks and their white allies. “But in terms of Canadian history, [Black History Month] should be August,” argued Clarke, “because the abolition of slavery in the British Empire occurred on August 1, 1834. That’s why in certain communities like Owen Sound, Windsor and Chatham they still celebrate August 1 as Emancipation Day.”

Clarke continued by outlining the history of slavery, the slow and gradual process of its eventual abolition, and the modern debate around restitution and reparations for the families of former slaves, particularly those from Caribbean nations. Why is it important to know such things, asked Clarke? Because knowledge is the true power.

 “We should never accept the idea that change has been accomplished”

“I just want to say that it is extremely important for you to be here at university – no matter what your own family may or may not think about it; no matter what your own neighbourhood may or may not think about it; no matter what your own cultures may or may not think about that,” said Clarke, launching into one of the more spirited sections of his keynote. “Because to be an intellectual, to be someone who is schooled in history and in the fundamentals of the society, makes it possible for you to be transformative in a roots way; in a way that may lead to transformation for your communities.

“Never let anyone deny you the importance of doing scholarship, the importance of doing research, the importance of knowing your history – all of it – and all the impinging histories, all those history of other peoples that impinge on your own that helps to determine who you are and what you are and what your station may be,” continued Clarke. “The most revolutionary thing you can be is a scholar. The most revolutionary thing you can be is a researcher. The most revolutionary thing you can be is a teacher. The most revolutionary thing you can be is a writer, an artist who is in tune with their history. Because the basic history of our country, the basic history of Montreal, the basic history of Quebec, the basic history of Turtle Island, the basic history of North America, the basic history of the Americas is about struggle for equality and a struggle for liberty which has not ended.”

Clarke warned against complacency, noting that seminal moments like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and Barrack Obama’s presidency are but signposts along the road to something greater.

“The March on Washington in ‘63 was not the end,” Clarke said. “If anything, it was just the beginning, a beginning which remains in process. All of us still have a duty to press for equality, still have a duty to press for liberty, for all of the marginalized, down-pressed communities that we have all over this country. We should never accept the idea that change has been accomplished.”