Black History Month through the eyes of the Foundation community

As Black History Month draws to a close, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation is sharing insights from three members of our community whose contributions have helped to build and tell this story. 

 

Mary Anne Chambers – 2018 Mentor 

 “It was Black women and men who invented the Artificial Heart Pacemaker, the modern gas mask, the 3D graphics technology used in movies, the modern microphone […]. The impact that those inventors and many others have had on the lives of people of all races, makes Black history everyone’s history.  

“History is being created every day. And there are impressive contributions and achievements that we hear little about. In every sector of society in every industry, trade and profession, black people are helping to make life better for everyone.” 

Mary Anne Chambers remembers facing barriers throughout her career.  

“My first 26 years in Canada were spent in the financial services sector where I grew from the position of computer programmer to Senior Vice-president at Scotiabank. I had no difficulty securing employment with the bank upon arriving in Canada in 1976. But within a few weeks, a colleague told me that I should not be disappointed if I didn’t get very far despite my competence and work ethic because I was a black woman, not Canadian born, Jamaican, married, a mother and Roman Catholic. As a young executive, from time to time I would be told I was an exception. My response was always that the person who was referring to me as being an exception simply didn’t know enough of us”.   

She believes Black History is everyone’s history. “It’s everyone’s history because the experiences, actions and achievements of black people do not exist in isolation of the broader society. But here’s the reality check: the hope that emanates from being able to build on the achievements and progress that have already been made must not be undermined by complacency. It would be dangerous to assume that progress already achieved cannot be eroded or reversed,” Chambers warned.  

 

Adelle Blackett – 2016 Fellow 

In an essay published in 2017 entitled “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, Adelle Blackett reflects on the experience of teaching courses on critical race theory, slavery, and law at McGill University. “I started my academic career schooled in Derrick Bells’ ‘race realism’, a wide-eyed awareness of systemic exclusions and the challenge addressing them. Over time, I came to appreciate the depth of that challenge, including how it operates in competitive contexts, to make solidarity between historically marginalized communities both more necessary, and more challenging.” 

Courses like these are integral to “the Collective Project of cultivating jurists who live rooted, multilingual, and layered lives-in-law.” The course was also contextualized and historicized. “This early approach disrupted commonly held myths about Canadian racial innocence.” While academic and social contexts have changed over time since she first arrived at McGill, “We still have homework to do, and that includes the redemptive work of transforming the institutions we inhabit, including our universities and law faculties,” Blackett concludes.  

 

Sarah Mason-Case – 2017 Scholar 

“The context of Black History Month ought to remind scholars to reflect on their politics, disciplinary assumptions, stylistic forms, theoretical vocabularies and citations, which delimit how we approach and reproduce contemporary problems. There is, for example, growing momentum around the world to seek reparations for the legacies of colonialism (genocide, access to education, climate change). What might this say about liberal discourses of history, law, the individual, community and justice?” 

This Black History Month, I find myself in Massachusetts for my doctoral work. “As a Canadian of Guyanese-European ‘descent’, this month of remembrance and celebration, here, feels distant and familiar. Members of my black family trod a worn path from the Caribbean through England to Canada, apart from the experience of African American slavery. Still, the Case family name was assigned to us in the practices of transatlantic slavery that profoundly defined Turtle Island and lands and peoples to the south. Black History Month is, of course, about turning our gaze forward as well, and I often find myself overwhelmed here by pernicious violence. I am in black history, and it is in me. 

I agree with those who say more needs to be done to remember and celebrate black history in its particularity to Canada. After all, statehood defines community experiences as much as transnationalism does. These are bound up in one another and in ideas and practices of blackness.