DIGBY – The theme of African Heritage Month – ‘Our History is Your History’ – played a prominent role during a southwestern Nova Scotia launch of the month as people in attendance shared history, reflected on those who have made history and encouraged others to promote history.
But February’s African Heritage Month isn’t just about looking back, it’s also about celebrating the present and looking ahead to the future.
“In the last five years I’ve seen a change in the climate of this community and the black community as we start sitting together at the table and talking about things,” said Brenda Francis of the Black Educators Association. “That comes about through education, from events like this, and from having opportunities to sit and talk.
“We need to talk about racism and discrimination, discriminatory practices. We need to move forward,” she added, saying there is room – and a need – for education, for celebration, for admiration, for co-operation and for realization.
“The dryer you put your clothes in. The furnace that kept you warm last night. The fridge that you put your food in. Those were all credited to the design of African people, they were the inventors,” she said. “What I tell people, especially young people when I’m speaking with them, is, we were not slaves. Slavery was a condition that was imposed upon persons of African ancestry. They brought . . . us out of Africa, they didn’t bring the village idiot. They brought the brightest of the best. Those who could do what needed to be done. To create. To develop.”
The African Heritage Month launch took place in Digby on Jan. 24. Next year – and if not next year, then by the year afterwards – organizers hope to hold the launch event in a newly constructed Jordantown-Acaciaville-Conway Betterment Association Community Centre – a dream that is finally being realized after decades of community work.
The launch saw municipal leaders in Digby and Yarmouth counties, along with provincial and federal representatives, members of the RCMP, members of the education system and members of the community in attendance.
African Nova Scotia Affairs Minister Tony Ince was also in attendance.
“There is no question that our communities are richer and stronger thanks to the ingenuity, hard work and leadership of African Nova Scotians, both past and present,” he said.
Ince mentioned a few of these remarkable people from this region, including the legendary Sam Langford of Weymouth Falls, one of the greatest boxers of all time who is also an inductee in the Nova Scotia Sports Hall of Fame; leader, educator, mentor and coach Bradford Barton from Jordantown, who received the Order of Nova Scotia in 2017 for his work in the region; Brian Fells of Digby, who was the first African Nova Scotian teacher at Digby Elementary School when he started teaching Grade 4 there in 2017; and Hazel Johnson from Upper Granville, who received her high school diploma this past June from the Bridgetown Regional Community School at 99 years of age.
“We know there are amazing things happening in this part of the province due in part to the strength, perseverance and dedication of African Nova Scotians who believe in themselves, their children and families, their communities and our province,” Ince said. “We are further advancing our work to address systemic racism and discrimination, and to ensure all African Nova Scotians see themselves reflected in the institutions that help shape our province.”
Joe Bishara, the co-ordinator of race relations, cross-cultural understanding and human rights with the Tri-County Regional Centre for Education, noted African Heritage Month is a time to reflect and renew.
“We reflect on where we’re at in the narrative and how we can stop and take stock of where we’re at and where we still need to go. We also reflect on the contributions and the achievements of members of the black community… and we highlight those, we celebrate those,” he said.
The renew factor, he said, comes from, as educators, engaging students in a culturally responsive way in sharing our common history – again, there’s that theme: ‘Our history is Your History.’
But more powerful than learning in a classroom – or perhaps equally powerful, he said – is when children learn in the context of the community.
“If children don’t see reflected in communities the value of African Heritage Month, if children don’t see it celebrated outside of the context of school, it becomes compartmentalized in such a way that they only see it as part of the curriculum,” he said, issuing a challenge to the civic leaders in the room.
“Ask your chamber of commerce, your local businesses, ask your service clubs, your faith communities, your industries, what are you doing to join us in celebrating African Heritage Month?” he said. “I think if everybody does a little something, it’ll create a big something.”