Inclusion: Reflecting on Black History Month at Augustana


I have always imagined Black History Month at university to be a somewhat grand affair. If not grand, then it would involve quite a bit of reflection, workshops, representation and events to showcase, bring awareness and celebrate contributions and lived experiences of all Black people. It would be considered as a time to look and reflect at where we have been and where we might be going. 

Universities, as teaching institutions, have an obligation to celebrate achievements and contributions of Black Canadians during Black History Month. MacEwan University in Edmonton celebrated the month of February by exploring the often-forgotten histories of Black communities across Canada as well as how Blackness impacts aspiring entrepreneurs and creators of all kinds. 

Augustana’s Black History Month celebrations felt somewhat lacking to me.

This year, the Augustana library put up a beautiful display of books written by African authors in the library, celebrating African literature. Celebrating Black History Month in the university is about creating a space where it is not only safe but encouraged to have important conversations. However, by merely issuing a statement acknowledging Black History Month, I don’t think we are doing enough to create a space for these conversations.

I had an opportunity to sit down with my friend Octavia Mashabane, who also happens to be the president of the Afri-Youth club, for an animated discussion about Blackness and what it means to be Black on our campus and in today’s society as a whole. The conversation was riveting, and could have gone on for hours had we not had obligations to attend to. We talked about opening up and welcoming conversations that surround Blackness. 

“Obviously, I do think that our club could have done more in increasing the visibility and awareness towards BHM, but at the same time, during our meetings where we were trying to organize programs and figure out what events we could do, it became increasingly demoralizing. We realized there was literally nothing going on in terms of initiative on our campus. There was no initiative outside of our club from faculty or fellow students to open up discussions. We were so happy when the library reached out to us about the display!” 

Opening up a conversation about the history of Black History Month and what it accomplishes on campuses shouldn’t solely fall on the shoulders of the Afri-Youth club. The university and its faculty have an obligation to educate and welcome conversations surrounding Blackness and its impact on our society and its institutions in order to work towards a more inclusive, equitable and diverse community. We all need to work together in advancing Black inclusion in Canadian higher-education. 

The lack of initiative during Black History Month on our campus was disheartening and we should strive to do better. 

During Black History Month and beyond, we all need to understand and celebrate the complexity and diversity of the Black historical experience. 

The Afri-Youth club is a safe and inclusive space on campus open to all students. According to Octavia, “most students take ‘safe’ to mean ‘only for Black or African students,’ but a safe place just means that we do not tolerate bigotry. We welcome kindness and understanding. It is a safe place for dialogue to happen so long as it is respectful.”

To close out Black History Month, the Afri-Youth club had a meeting and asked its members what Black History Month meant to them. I’ve included some of the responses from members below.

“BHM is about centering conversations about Black joy just as much as–if not more than–the Black trauma that we often see in the media. Celebrating the achievement of all Black folks, as well as Black pride and joy.” 

“BHM is about celebrating historical Black figures who have overcome hardships to ensure that we today can live the life that we dream of.” 

“BHM is about unity within the diaspora. Black unity in spite of, if not because of, what Black people had to go through in history. It’s about celebrating and advocating for our rights for freedom.”

“It is about celebrating art by Black artists. It is about acknowledging how far we have come and how far we still have to go. Working towards the future.”

The University of Alberta Black Students Association is open to all and provides a safe environment for Black students to connect culturally, socially and contribute to one another’s success academically. Visit the Black Students Association to learn more and support their mission to “discuss issues affecting the Black community, as well as aiming to encourage them to become more aware and involved with the movement of overcoming social, economic and racial inequalities in our world.”

Photo by Oladimeji Odunsi on Unsplash.

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