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  • Writer's picturevilmablenman

Black History Month: BitterSweet

It was 25 years ago that Jean Augustine, the first Black female MP, stood up in Parliament and introduced a milestone motion: Declare February Black History Month in Canada.

Now it is official, de facto. Following our southern neighbour, “We the North” celebrate Black History month in February, in the deep of winter.

While there is no debate that the trials and triumphs of Blacks still need to be recorded and applauded, I often arrive at February 1st with a mixture of anticipation and anguish. This ambivalence, this tension, I’ve come to realize, is because of the bittersweet nature of Black History Month-- bitter because of the battles to get here but sweet because of the successes we celebrate, despite the jarring journey.

First, the Bitter:

· Slavery and its atrocities inform part of that history. A big part, though not the sum of all the parts. Generational trauma lingers long.

· So much has changed for the better, yet so much hasn’t in the fight against anti-Black racism. So many more hills to climb, Amanda Gorman reminds us.

· Some people, even good people, still don’t get it—why more than a month is needed to memorialize, to mourn, to dance, to declare truth and dispel lies.

Next, the Sweet:

· We hear, we share stories of Black resilience and excellence and in the process we educate and inspire all—Black and non-Black alike.

· We discover new heroes and “sheroes” and we honour old ones.

· We access amazing entertainment and art, often for free.

· We continue the critical conversations on anti-Black racism.

· We celebrate with food, festivities, and great fanfare as we hear Bob Marley’s beats. “Lively up Yourself.” We sing “Redemption Song” and we share “One Love.”

· We affirm our identity, unashamedly as Black people. “We big up we self.”

Sugar cane growing in my motherland, Jamaica.

There’s an adage that says: “If life gives you lemons, then make lemonade.” Maybe that’s what we do with Black History Month. We take the bitter and the sweet of the whole sweep of history --the past and the present and we make a cocktail of sorts. Then we sip it slowly as we celebrate, knowing the tongue will take and taste both the bitter and the sweet.

The poem below speaks of sugarcane and sorrow--the bitter and the sweet.

Sugar Baby

For the love of sugar

Someone sold my mama’s great

Great grandmother as land labourer

Untrained to cut canes in hot sun then bind them

Tightly and bear the bundles sprightly on her head tied

With a red plaid handkerchief, then stack green canes, then walk

Barefoot five miles on the dusty white marl road from the cane fields

Uphill to her hut while the child inside her pushed down hard and wailed

Wanting to be born that night, eager to see her mama's sugar-brown eyes,

To taste her warm milk, not knowing it was not sweetened

With reaped cane sugar.

-Vilma Blenman

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