For Black History Month, LAC worked with Silence Genti, Writer-in-Residence, to develop a series of honest, thoughtful, and inspiring stories highlighting the experiences and perspectives of Black artists in our community. Throughout the month of February, we will be publishing one story each week on our Cultivating Allyship webpage.
Silence Genti is a former Zimbabwean journalist now living in London. Silence has written for publications such as Toronto Star, The Beat and NOW and also co-founded The Insider, a now-defunct community newspaper. A father of two, he is an avid community builder dedicated to building a better world for his children. He can be reached via iamsilence.ca.
Several containers of curry and jerk chicken are being passed around. Three artists are enjoying a meal together on a Thursday afternoon. The conversation is flowing freely like early winter rain. JagHuligin and Amsa Yaro are debating the good and bad of having/not having kids, leading the youngest member of the trio, 23-year-old Asante Deluy, to playfully declare he may be too scared, and scarred, by the conversation to ever have kids.
Several half-sliced beef patties remain untouched on the table. As a container of the Caribbean staple of rice and peas is passed around, someone comments that in the Bahamas, they religiously call it “peas n' rice.”
The conversation eventually veers towards the month that marks the end of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Every February, Canada seems to dedicate a minute to everyone Black. Artists, speakers and other Black folks receive abundant requests to ‘represent’ - much more than any other month.
“Black History Month (BHM) feels like an excuse to jam-pack everything black into one month,” says visual artist Amsa Yaro.
Toronto was the first municipality in Canada to proclaim Black History Month in 1979.
Almost 20 years later, the rest of Canada followed suit in 1995, after a motion introduced by Dr. Jean Augustine. Augustine was the first Black Canadian woman to serve as a federal Minister and Member of Parliament.
“I do tend to get more opportunities, or well, more organizations and ‘people’ tend to reach out more in February,” says Amsa.
Born in Nigeria, Amsa has been a London resident for the last few years. She participates in different BHM events. In 2022, she co-hosted a local artist-led art exhibition.
“I personally don't see it as an added value to me as I understand mainly why the reach out takes place. It's meant to represent intentional ‘representation or investment towards Black people, black businesses and such'."
Music artist Asante is in agreement. As an artist, he welcomes the increased focus on his creative work around February. However, “I definitely don’t feel more valued. I take all the extra opportunities with open arms…but I definitely don’t feel more valued or loved.”
The trauma surrounding Black History Month troubles the Richmond-Hill-raised artist.
“Black History Month feeds off of trauma. They glorify the lowest points of Black culture and flash it in our face. They focus on slavery and oppressed black people rather than focus on us being Kings and Queens, or us having one of the richest men in history, or even all the inventions our cultures brought to the world.”
Bahamas-born artist and performer JagHuligin has been in London for almost a decade. He sees Black History Month as an important tool to learn.
“We need to educate ourselves. We need to learn more about Black history.”
Jag says being an artist who is also Black can come with being pigeon-holed. “Sometimes there is pressure to tell certain stories.”
Asante shies away from being defined through a single lens. “I used to do a lot of events for the Black Students Association. I was careful with what kind of songs I chose. But I never was like ‘let me write a song for that [BHM] event’.”
While Black History Month often suggests more opportunities for creators, Asante reminds us that there are usually limited opportunities for Black artists all year round. “We are always competing against one another for the one spot reserved for Black people.”
Amsa sees a need for artists and the community to come together. “Historically, we have been taught not to come together as a group. We have to understand: numbers are power."
She hopes for less tokenism, and more sincerity when it comes to BHM.
“I think the focus of Black History Month is to push the actions, the attention and everything surrounding it beyond the month itself.”
Jag says Black artists and other players need to come together. “What do we want London to see during Black History Month? If we take all our BHM ideas and create one big thing, we can make an impact.”
Asante, on the other hand, wishes for a bigger and diverse celebration of Blackness. “We need to have African Week and Caribbean Week, food festivals…”
Asante is hinting at an issue that many grapple with. How do we unravel and acknowledge the diversity of the Black community? Or more succinctly, what is Black?