Every February in both Canada and the United States, we celebrate Black History Month. Originally a one-week affair in the second week of February to celebrate the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, it is now a month-long series of festivities and activities to commemorate the contribution of African Americans and Black Canadians to North American society. This year, the celebrations coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.
While serious issues and problems affecting African American communities remain, Barack Obama has just been reelected for a second term as president of the United States—not a small accomplishment. For those of us who cringe at the subtle and not so subtle racial overtones in the attacks against Obama (the birther issue is an illustration), we should take comfort in the fact that Obama is the first president since 1956 to receive more than 51 percent of the popular vote twice, and his party received over 1 million more votes than the Republicans in the congressional elections. Moreover, no one can deny the progress made in racial equality in the past few decades, especially since the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Already, some historians are questioning whether the progress of African Americans remains fundamentally cosmetic with Obama in the White House. After all, unemployment within black communities is way above the national average, poverty is at record levels, and gun violence is still at epidemic proportions. Yet, Obama carried the vote among African Americans at the level of 94 percent. Are African Americans just voting for one of their own and giving Obama a pass in terms of gains for their communities?
It is simplistic to expect that in a mere four years the first African American president would be able to reverse realities and tendencies that have existed for years. In addition, Obama took office during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
To his credit, Obama has always seen it as his mandate his responsibility to govern on behalf of all Americans. Well, he should. Those who support him and those who may not vote for him cannot claim that Obama has governed for just one segment of the electorate. Yet, African Americans are understandably proud about both Obama’s achievements before entering office and his achievements now as president.
In Canada, our history is different. While our Black Canadian citizens have experienced prejudice and discrimination, we have the tendency to highlight individual contributions like Mathieu Da Costa, a multilingual early explorer of Canada in the 17th century and the first census-recorded Black man in Canada; the great modern jazzman Oscar Peterson; as well as the contributions of Black communities to the well-being of Canadian society and specific events in history. In this regard, we in Montreal recall the celebrated baseball legend Jackie Robinson, who played only one baseball season in Canada but went on to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
Black History Month in Canada will soon take on new meaning as a new motion picture depicting the life of Jackie Robinson will hit the screens shortly. We remember Robinson as the first African American player to play in the National League, but we should also be reminded that he played in AAA baseball with the Montreal Royals just prior to joining the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Royals were the Brooklyn Dodgers farm team and Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, who saw Robinson primarily as a talented baseball player and knew he could someday make history, wanted Robinson’s character tested before promoting him. Tested he was, as he faced animosity around the league in U.S. cities.
But this was not the case in Montreal. Here, Robinson was an instant star with Montreal fans and they adored him for his talent, his success and the man he was. With Robinson, the Royals won the Little World Series in 1946 and he was promoted to the Major Leagues. Today, we have designated as part of our cultural patrimony the house he lived in while playing for the Royals.
Obama’s path to the presidency and his achievements as president, as well as Robinson’s strength of character, represent what Black History Month should be highlighting. It has to do with confidence, attitude, education, character, and achievement. As a society, we still have a way to go to reach what Dr. King called the “promised land,” but the emerging leadership of black citizens in North America in various fields of human activity has shown that merit and seizing opportunity are replacing symbolism and tokenism. We are better for this. This is something we should all celebrate.