Greg Frankson is a poet, community activist and the editor of the new book AfriCANthology: Perspectives of Black Canadian Poets.
There’s a well-worn expression in pop culture, 15 minutes of fame, that provides an apt metaphor for the socio-cultural moment in which Black Canadians now find themselves.
For the past 20 months, issues affecting the Black community have been at the top of public consciousness in a way that has no parallel in our national history. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in May, 2020, the words “Black Lives Matter” were suddenly on everyone’s lips. It seemed like everyone supported Black-focused initiatives for social change. Attention on endemic socio-cultural challenges negatively affecting the Black community exploded.
There is ample data that empirically exposes growing anxieties in the Canadian population during this time frame while clearly demonstrating the urgent need for action.
As just one example, the May, 2021, interim report of the first-ever Black Canadian National Survey provided these bleak findings: “Almost all Black Canadians surveyed (96 per cent) say that racism is a problem on the job, with 78 per cent believing that it is a severe problem. In contrast, less than one in five white Canadians are of the same belief. According to Statistics Canada, Black men earn 66 cents to every dollar compared to white men.” The growing accumulation of grim statistics clearly lays out the problems Black Canadians are facing. The story they tell is alarming – and it is damning.
But as the desire for change crested after Mr. Floyd’s death, some folks got to work. New programs such as the BlackNorth Initiative went, virtually overnight, from low-key twinkles in their creators’ eyes to nationwide prominence enrolling the titans of Canadian industry. The establishment of confronting anti-Black racism and equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) units in governments and corporations accelerated. Funding programs, community-based initiatives by charitable and not-for-profit organizations and investment-mandated money pots such as the Black Opportunity Fund sprang up with unprecedented rapidity. As if by magic, it seemed like every online job board under heaven mushroomed with EDI employment opportunities. Huge numbers of people suddenly had a burning need to be seen aboard the “let’s help Black people” bandwagon.
That explosion of energy in the second half of 2020 managed to carry us all the way through 2021. Now, with George Floyd fading into history, and corporate EDI boxes checked off, Black Canada’s 15 minutes are almost up.
The Black community has always known this moment would come.
Eventually, it was said in community circles, people will tire of talking about our issues and sick of actively confronting our challenges. They simply don’t have the stamina that our history and experiences have forced us to develop. It’s easy for people who aren’t Black to walk away from a cause that doesn’t affect their daily lives, then relegate those concerns to the fringes of their awareness in favour of the latest hot topic. For us, focus is a means of survival, advocacy a vital necessity and silence a death sentence. We will keep at it, but will they be willing to listen, much less act, once our cause is no longer fashionable?
To give credit where it’s due, we’re experiencing a good moment in the national conversation when Black folks have a spotlight shone on them in a spirit of active listening, discovery and alignment of purpose (even if it proves to be only temporary). From that perspective, the past couple of years have been positive. However, now is the worst possible time for the narratives that Black people contribute to the Canadian story to be consigned to the inattentive fringes. It cannot be permitted to happen. Doing so at the exact moment these stories are finally helping to produce a constructively critical re-evaluation of our national impression of ourselves is fraught with more peril than ever.
Now that Canadians have shown they can pay attention to the Black community’s concerns, going back to ignoring their issues is no longer tenable. Now that we’ve seen that positive action can be rapidly co-ordinated across a wide cross-section of institutions and industries, attempts to slow-walk future change are unlikely to be tolerated. Now that governments, corporations and charities have found ways to elevate the stature of Black contributors and honour Black achievements, stifling the creativity, intelligence, ingenuity and ambitions of Black folks cannot and will not be passively endured.
Any renewed effort to shove these realizations back into the bottle is likely to create another sort of explosion – the type that causes serious social damage, not the kind that can propel further positive progress. The Black community is in no mood to go back to accepting those increased pressures as a matter of course.
A rupture under such conditions is inevitable.
Instead, we should redouble our efforts to support the gathering, contextualization, sharing and preservation of Black lived experiences, socioeconomic contributions, cultural impacts and political achievements. We should continue to not only support individuals and organizations engaged in this work, but also take positive steps to permanently weave their contributions into the fabric of the mainstream of Canadian society. We must ensure our education system teaches these stories to current and future generations as part of the core curriculum and not simply as underfunded and neglected elective studies. Current efforts to reform the workplace, the health care system, policing, politics, schools, the courts and any other institutions where anti-Black racism has found safe harbour must unwaveringly persist.
In short, we should solidify the gains of the Black community over the past 20 months, reflect upon and respond to our communal failures and commit to keeping Black Canadians in their rightful central place of what historically and presently defines our national identity.
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