Special year for Black History Month

By 
  • January 23, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - As millions converged on Washington to see Barack Obama swear the oath of office and begin a new chapter in black history Jan. 20, schools and parishes in Toronto were preparing for a month of celebrations to commemorate African-Canadian contributions to Canada and the world.

Even if Black History Month or African Heritage Month are annual events with a history stretching back to the 1920s in the United States, the inauguration of the first black president of the United States makes this year special.

“History is happening like yesterday and the day before yesterday and tomorrow,” said Grade 12 student Shandel Shand on the eve of Obama’s inauguration. “We have more to talk about this year.”

Shand is helping to organize events that will highlight black history through the month of February at Senator O’Connor College School in east Toronto. The organizing committee has chosen themes to key the school events, including “Deliverance From Ignorance,” “Marking History Books” and “Hallway of Heroes.”

The committee of students working on the events rejects the title Black History Month, choosing instead to emphasize the common, African heritage of all the students.

“We call it African Heritage Month for a reason,” said Grade 12 student Dominique Bennett.

Bennett is working on an event which will help students learn about AIDS in Africa and how the church is responding to 22 million Africans living with HIV and more than 10 million AIDS orphans on the continent.

But not all the events at Senator O’Connor will be so grim. Some students will take advantage of discounted tickets to a travelling production of The Colour Purple, the school’s senior boys basketball team will take on police roundballers and the month will end with a showcase of student talent.

When the month is over the committee wants students to be surprised by what they learn about the history of the African diaspora in Canada and around the world, said Bennett.

“We want people to say, ‘I never knew that!’ That’s our main goal,” she said.

Our Lady of Good Counsel, the West Indian parish in the west end, has been celebrating Black History Month for 23 years. The focus has shifted over the years to making sure the children of the parish are aware of their culture and heritage, said organizer Joan Pitt.

Though the events, from a parish trivia contest to a Mardi Gras celebration, are mostly fun, the parish is serious about its focus on outreach. In past years funds raised during Black History Month at Our Lady of Good Counsel have bought mosquito nets in Sierra Leone, supported a Sierra Leone orphanage and gone to help the poor in Haiti. The month also raises money for a scholarship and bursaries to help university- and college-bound students from the parish.

The old timers are finding that young people of the parish want to expand the focus of Black History Month, said Pitt.

“A lot of the youth say black history shouldn’t be just February,” she said.

Last year the parish youth group organized a summer trip to the Sheffield Park Black History and Cultural Museum in Collingwood, Ont.

The Obama effect will resonate for parishioners who have taken as much pride when their young people are elected to student councils as when parishioner Jean Augustine was elected to Parliament. Some parishioners headed to Washington for the inauguration and Obama’s key themes of hope and change are everywhere in the parish, said organizer Matthew Boah. During the parish’s third annual Dimanche Gras, which features parishioners parading in traditional costumes of their home countries, there will be an event called Barackamania.

At Our Lady of Lourdes, now the official host parish to the African community in the archdiocese of Toronto, the celebration of Black History/African Heritage Month is linked to the Year of St. Paul. The 4 p.m. Feb. 1 Mass to kick off the month will feature Jesuit Father Luc Amoussou from Benin in West Africa as celebrant and English Canadian Jesuit Superior Fr. Jim Webb as homilist. Webb served many years in poor rural parishes in Jamaica.

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