This month at the Castle we’re celebrating 25 years of black history in Canada. Actually, we’re celebrating more than 150 years of black history but it was 25 years ago when Jean Augustine, or to be precise The Honourable Jean Augustine Queen’s Privy Council, Companion of the Order of Canada, introduced a motion in Parliament in December 1995. The proposal to officially honour black history nationwide was initiated by the Ontario Black History Society, and with the help of Jean Augustine, the first black woman elected to the House of Commons (1993) and the first black woman appointed to Cabinet (2002), Black History Month was officially celebrated across Canada for the first time in February 1996 (so I guess next year will be recognized officially as the Big 25!)
I was an elementary teacher in the late ’90s in Toronto and recall a box of curriculum materials being delivered to the staff room in our school. It held posters, lesson plans, videos and other resources to help students (and teachers) learn about the richness of Canada’s black history. As a few of us looked through the box, one teacher sarcastically asked why we didn’t have Male History Month. (Yes, the teacher was male). A female teacher quickly replied, “Because every month is Male History Month. Get over it.”
I remember that interaction so clearly because at the time I was taking a critical theory course for my Masters in Education in Sociology and Equity Studies, and was immersed in challenging readings and uncomfortable conversations about race, gender and cultural identity. The course was slowly deconstructing and deepening my understanding of society, and it was during this time that I learned the terms “hegemony” and “agency” and “critical race theory.” I remember struggling to find my voice during discussions that were frequently emotionally charged and always grounded in the lived experience of my fellow graduate students. Our seminar group was small – a cultural, racial, religious and gendered mishmash of individuals guided confidently and sensitively by our young, white, female, Jewish American professor (who later became my doctoral supervisor) – but we were an earnest group that tried collectively and individually to wade through centuries of privilege and pain in the hopes of forging deeper mutual understanding and respect.
It was during that course that I learned I had (and continue to have) a lot to learn. I came to see that my beliefs about how society operates are shaped, in part, by society’s response to and treatment of me, and that assuming my way of understanding society to be “right” is both entitled and damaging. I learned from listening to the experiences of my classmates that society responds differently to different groups of individuals depending upon how they are seen. I recognized that saying we should all be “colourblind” actually minimizes race and makes it more difficult to challenge inherent and systemic discrimination. But most importantly, I learned that while I do not live the experience of others, I need to acknowledge the implications of that fact and work to become an allay by watching, listening and learning. As an educator, this belief resonates deeply because I want to be the type of Head of School that actively works to understand the beauty, the challenges, the hopes and frustrations that every child in our school experiences. I want to be a fierce defender of equality within our school, and an allay and supporter of those working to challenge the inequality that continues to exist outside the walls of our Castle.
Our students are celebrating Black History Month and broadening their horizons by identifying, researching and telling others about the incredible achievements of black girls and women in Canada and around the world. I plan to add to our list of remarkable black women by sharing with the girls a story of my own.
In the late 1990s, I was a community member in the University of Toronto Chorus. The choir was made up of Faculty of Music vocal students and amateurs (i.e. me) from the community who loved to sing. One day in April, we were preparing for a year-end performance of Fauré’s Requiem. It was our final rehearsal so we were joined for the first time by the two soloists. I don’t remember the baritone although I’m sure he was superb but I do remember the soprano. Boy, do I ever remember the soprano!
I was seated on stage in the mezzo-soprano section of the choir when the soprano soloist walked out from the wings. She was stunning, regal in stature, and (in my opinion) remarkably calm for someone so young about to perform Fauré. She was also black, something not particularly common in the world of opera and classical music. This young woman stood poised on the stage, leaving me and the rest of the choir to see only her back. The music began and I watched her ribcage expand impressively as she took the ever-so-important first breath that launches a vocalist into the music. And then I waited for that first note. I am no music critic, but I know a good voice when I hear one, and what I heard in that moment from that young women, barely into her twenties, was artistry – lyrical, powerful artistry. I was mesmerized.
That young woman was Measha Brueggergosman. I didn’t know her name until years later when I saw her perform in Toronto. Her voice had matured, she looked a few years older and was coming off of performances at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Centre, but there was no doubt in my mind it was the same person. Once again, she stood out not only because of her immense talent but because she was black in a field that was (and remains) largely white.
For anyone interested in learning more about Measha’s fascinating journey, her autobiography, written in 2017, is a wonderful read that explores her childhood growing up in New Brunswick and touches on her family’s history as Black Loyalists who arrived in British North America after escaping slavery during the American Revolution. She is also a spokesperson for the Heart and Stroke Foundation and raises awareness about the risk of heart disease in women by sharing her story of two open-heart surgeries, the first at age 31 following an aortic dissection. Measha also gives her time to AMREF Health Africa, a non-profit African-led organization that supports health care projects across the continent, along with World Wildlife Fund and Learning Through the Arts. She is, for so many reasons, a remarkable role model for our girls and an important part of the black history that continues to be written everyday here in Canada.