Elghawaby: How celebrating our histories are a form of resistance

Sometimes, these are forms of resistance, sometimes more forms of recognition and celebration. As most of these are now part of government programs or sponsored partly by governments, business and others (arguably co-opted), I doubt that all of the participants in the various events view them from a resistance perspective.

Certainly that was not my experience when I routinely attend these events when running the multiculturalism program a number of years ago.

Events involve others outside the particular community improve awareness and understanding of community specific heritage and issues across a broader range of Canadians compared to those that do not:

There may come a time when celebrating Islamic Heritage Month, Latin American Heritage Month, or Women’s History Month, will seem quaint and unnecessary. Yet, marking these three commemorations this month, and countless other similar occasions throughout the calendar year, are in fact acts of resistance and defiance.

As American academic Jessica M. Parr noted last year in the digital magazine Public Books “ [ …] the choices a society makes in terms of how and what it chooses to remember and acknowledge of its past beg important questions: What do the choices say about a society’s identity and values? What do they imply about who belongs within that society, and whose experiences matter?”

Oftentimes, it takes visionaries to persist in telling stories that are undervalued, silenced, or simply forgotten. 

Take Afua Cooper, a multidisciplinary artist and scholar at the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Dalhousie University. She had to fight to study Canadian Black history when she first started work on her PhD over two decades ago. Cooper would eventually be vindicated.

“I persevered and I didn’t listen to [those who told me not to study this area],” she told me by phone earlier this month. We spoke days before she would be accepting an honorary doctorate from Simon Fraser University and just weeks after receiving the J.B. Tyrrell Historical Medal from the Royal Society of Canada, the highest honour available in the field. Her work has been instrumental in advancing Black Canadian studies and which preceded an eventual “explosion in Black history and Black studies as a whole.”

Cooper, who is also a dub and spoken word artist, has previously served as poet laureate of Halifax Regional Municipality for the 2018-2020 term. Her career draws from intersectional identities and is informed by her varied histories. 

“We have to take oral cultures as seriously as we take scribal cultures, the written cultures,” she explained to me. “That resonated with me as a Muslim because the early culture of spoken word was so important to the early history of the Arabs and of the first Muslims [ …] having this oratory among the diverse African nations and communities was so important.”

It isn’t enough for people like Cooper to do the work to bring recognition to the histories that underpin our societies, even as they are too often skipped in history textbooks. There is a heavy responsibility on many of us to create space in our workplaces, schools, universities, associations, to mark these histories and join communities in interrogating the historic experiences and contributions made. The burden shouldn’t solely depend on communities’ themselves to take the opportunity that special government designations offer, but on fellow colleagues, supervisors and leaders to encourage collective sharing and learning.

Furthermore, encouraging communities to bring positive light to their presence helps to dispel dangerous stereotypes and encourage robust civic engagement. Among the key activities at the Toronto-based Hispanic Canadian Heritage Council is an eight-week School4Civic program, which encourages greater participation in our democratic institutions.

This month also marks the 30th anniversary of Women’s History Month, with Person’s Day falling on Oct. 18. The month’s theme, “She Did, So Now I Can,” is an apt nod to those who break barriers to defy expectations, serving as inspiration to those coming afterwards.

And earlier this fall, the House of Commons voted unanimously to designate November as Hindu Heritage Month. Each designation, each recognition affords all of us the chance to resist harmful and divisive narratives that risk fraying a social fabric that requires constant effort to hold together.

So ask yourself: how are you marking these special months? How are you advancing your learning about the struggles and triumphs experienced by those with whom you share space?

Don’t let your answers disappoint.

Source: How celebrating our histories are a form of resistance

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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