A Zimbabwean perspective on the month-long celebration of Black history and success
Black History Month, also known as “African Heritage Month,” is something which never used to cross my mind. It was a foreign concept I only ever saw being celebrated on TV by American citizens, and even then I could not tell you at all what it was really about.
“How could you choose to be so ignorant?” one might say, especially since the month is a celebration of the events and the history behind people of the same colour as my own skin. Let me shed some light on this thought by giving you a little bit of background, in hopes that you will come to understand.
I was born and raised in Zimbabwe, Southern Africa. Zimbabwe was colonized (like many other countries) by the British and achieved independence in the year 1980. Needless to say, I grew up around very many people who look like myself, only differing in their skin tone and the amount of melanin bestowed upon them. I realize that this may not come as a shock to you, and what will instead surprise you is that there are, in fact, white Zimbabweans and white Africans.
Now that I’ve got my ‘wow’ factor out of the way, I will go on to say that us Zimbabweans did not live in a bubble where we chose to ignore the history of slavery and the trials and tribulations of our beloved African ancestors. We simply chose and were more exposed to a celebration of a different victory. Our history texts were fraught with narrations of the white minority-rule government of (then-known-as) Rhodesia, which stripped the black people of their rights; of the segregation that did not allow people of colour to settle in particular areas designated for whites only; of the guerrilla warfare that turned into a civil war which crippled the country and ultimately culminated in a new constitution and the birth of Zimbabwe. Sound familiar?
I have known only one president of Zimbabwe since the time I was born. I am only two decades old, but Robert Mugabe has been in power since 1980 and is said to run again in the upcoming 2018 elections. I laughed out loud in a political science class I took here at StFX, where it was required for the final exam to know all of the prime ministers who have been in power in Canada since WWII. Let’s just say this necessitated a long acronym to be constructed before I was able to remember each of the 13 Ministers by name – a question about Zimbabwe of that nature would easily be considered a bonus point.
Many do not sing Mr. Mugabe’s praises at this point, but he has certainly made efforts to empower the people of colour through land ownership, reform laws, and the Indigenization Act, which will transfer over fifty percent of the country’s businesses into local African hands.
The point of this history trip is to highlight that I have grown up seeing black people succeed. It is not awe-striking to have people of colour running companies as CEO’s and it is not jaw-dropping to see a black Zimbabwean man making international headlines as a business founder, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. And this is not just because black people are a majority back home and therefore I have a multitude of examples to provide on the subject. It is more to do with how we are raised to be fighters and not to take no for an answer, how bringing back a “B” or “C” grade from school leads to disappointed looks of disapproval, how we define our own potential as a people and do not leave it to be decided by others. It is even in the names given to us by our parents: the international businessman, entrepreneur, and philanthropist aforementioned is named “Strive Masiyiwa” (Google him). He is the definition of what it is to strive.
I want to tell you of how my coming to Canada enlightened me on the significance of Black History Month in more ways than one. Still immersed in my African mindset of natural success, I did not fully understand that in this land, where people did not look or sound like me nor reflect the core values in which I believed, things would be different. I knew I was privileged, but coming to Canada to further my studies showed me just how much.
It is here that I learned my privilege does not equal the freedom to apply for any job posting I wish for with a certainty that I will be considered, let alone get it. My privilege does not give me credibility and assure the customers I serve that I am knowledgeable and great at my job in spite of having a different accent than theirs. My kind of privilege does not allow my brothers in the United States the freedom to drive on the roads without fear of being pulled over by the police and maybe losing this thing called ‘life’, so suddenly.
I quickly learned how much harder people of colour in this part of the world have to work just to prove themselves or to be recognised as a worthy member of society. In my books, hard work is what gets most successful people to where they are now. I say most, and not all, because some simply have it handed to them.
As unfair as it may be, the only way this can be countered is through ambition and genuine sweat, late nights and early mornings, goal setting, inspiration, and intelligent conversation with minds greater and wiser than our own. You understand it, hard work. When your reality is that nothing is going to be handed to you for free, you wake up and work for it. And sometimes even hard work is not enough to get you to where you want to be! But your mindset, your perspective, your ability to bounce back after you suffer a loss is what matters.
I did not write this piece to be a motivational speaker, nor to tell you what you may or may not already know. I am simply telling you that I have had to adapt and to adjust. I have had to learn new ways of life to be a valuable member to this society. I have taught myself how to style my own hair because there are no professionals in this town who are accustomed to dealing with thick, coarse black hair types.
I started teaching African Zumba classes during the month of February every year to bring more diversity and cultural sharing to this campus. Just last semester, the African-Caribbean society was started, which I am heavily involved in. I am not the only one to make an effort to diversify StFX, but I realize that my contribution counts for something. When something doesn’t come to you, you go to it and make it happen.
Our own black history is a great reminder of this. No historic figures ever made history by sitting back and conforming to a pre-established culture. Viola Desmond’s face is not going to be on the Canadian ten-dollar note because she accepted the rules and limited potential which society imposed on her. There have been several improvements to the historical timeline of the people of colour in the United States particularly.
An article published by Truthout on whether Martin Luther King’s dream has been realized says that in 1964, only 25.7% of blacks aged 25 years old had completed four years of high school, but in 2012 that figure changed to 85%. In 1963, there were just five African-Americans in Congress; by 2013 that number had jumped to 44, not to mention the election in 2008 of the first black President of the US. While the dream has not yet fully come to fruition, progress has been made and we are well on our way there.
Dr. King looked forward “to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”, and it is worthwhile at this point to self-examine what our characters are really like. The truth is, we are all human: we eat, breathe, bathe, love and laugh at memes all the same. But what is offered by our characters is different. We should all be striving to appreciate each other’s histories and cultures and backgrounds because those are the important facets of everyone’s lives.
This month is a reminder that each person’s history should be celebrated every day of the year and not just in one month. It is a time to look back at what was started by our ancestors, look at the present to establish what we as individuals can do to contribute to these foundations, and to look forward to the breaking of barriers and creation of more powerful history which will inspire the generations to come.