Black History Month marks an important time in Canada and the United States to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of Black people throughout history – to honour the trailblazers and barrier breakers, and to learn how we can strive to make change and create a more inclusive and diverse society.
The theme for Black History Month in Canada this year is: “Black Excellence: A Heritage to Celebrate; a Future to Build.” The theme intends to celebrate the rich past and present contributions and accomplishments of Black people in Canada, while aspiring to embrace new opportunities for the future.
Calgary Stampeders’ defensive lineman James Vaughters explicates the importance of Black History Month by acknowledging Black History, shedding light on social injustices, sharing a list of those in the Black community that he is inspired by, and offering ways in which we can take action to celebrate the legacy of Black people and learn about Black history not only in the month of February, but all year round.
“I should start by saying it’s kind of unfortunate we have to have one to begin with, but it’s a great thing that we do have one,” began Vaughters. “The most important thing to acknowledge when talking about Black History Month is the fact that Black history is American history, and that Black history is also African history because the majority of Black people that are in the Americas, whether it be South America or it be North America, at some point came from Africa.
“So, just as important as it is where we came from, it’s important the part that we’ve played in the advancement of American society, whether it be U.S. or whether it be Canada and I also think it’s important to acknowledge how far we’ve come from and where we started.”
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Black History Month is more than changing your social media avatar to include a BHM frame, more than wearing a Black History Month t-shirt or ballcap, and it’s more than a decal on the back of your car.
While those things are still significant in displaying solidarity and spreading awareness, it’s vital to acknowledge the ongoing injustices that occur within our society, whether that be in the workplace or in social situations.
“It’s one of those things where until we’re seeing not necessarily equality, but until we’re seeing an overarching feeling of justice among Black people, whether it’s in Canada, or whether it’s in the U.S. there’s always more that we can do,” said the Stanford alum.
“In a lot of situations unfortunately it’s something that with civil rights or social movements around oppressed demographics, a lot of what happens is it becomes very commercial. (For example) selling Black History t-shirts or making statements about donations to prop up your business in the midst of something that is about informing without any actual work, mental work, being done – when you try to have the actual conversation it ends up falling short.
“These large companies that committed to donating multi-millions, hundreds of thousands of dollars to certain organizations for the advancement of Black people and committed to large diversity hires, but when you look at a lot of the layoffs that happened with these companies two years later a lot of that staff were those diversity hires. They were the first to go right, and yes, we play football, but I think most football players went to college and we all have families, so most of us know a lot of Black people that work corporate jobs, or work jobs in general, and there’s a laundry list of people that I know who have still been fired or laid off without pretense. And they have appealed against it and a lot of them have won in a lot of situations because if you don’t appeal it, for some reason they think that you’ll still be docile at (the situation) and you’ll take on the chin.
“To sum it up, it’s something that is still a part of the somewhat intangible and innerworkings of a lot of the ways a lot of companies operate that is still is just as disadvantageous to Black people,” said the 30-year-old Atlanta product. “Giving light to that is far more important than wearing a t-shirt, it’s far more important than a black square, and it’s far more important than empty promises of donations.”
During Black History Month, Canadians and Americans alike take the time to celebrate the works and achievements of those in the Black community, whether they be athletes, artists, authors, or political figures.
The 2018 Grey Cup champion shares a list of those who have influenced him:
“It’s interesting that the older I get the more people that you find between the ones that are originally presented to you that you really think highly of,” said Vaughters.
“I think really highly of James Baldwin. I think really highly of Marcus Garvey, I think very highly of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. I think very highly of Fela Kuti, a Nigerian musician. I think very highly of Burning Spear, a Jamaican musician.
“I want to think of an example of someone more so in business rather than art, but even of thinking of someone like Jean-Michel Basquiat, the painter. Even Denzel Washington, you think of people that break barriers that are very visible, not necessarily people who are behind the scenes, but people that have a platform that represent themselves in an unapologetic way that inevitably makes people face things that they don’t want to look at or don’t want to hear.”
What action can we take to become more inclusive, more understanding, and/or to be better allies?
There is not one clear linear answer.
But Vaughters shares some suggestions:
“One thing I think would be beneficial from my experience in Canada in general, and not to say that America is the center of the world, but as an American I think that our culture is very available to people in Canada and people elsewhere.
“The biggest issue I saw on both, and not necessarily just white people, with Black people too, is that a lot of people don’t understand the family history and pathways that go along with it. At least for me, personally, I would love to say reading a book but honestly, it’s just reading or looking at a YouTube documentary that’s not necessarily about Black achievement, but more so about Black family history.
“So if I read a book or watched a documentary, that’s about how the slave trade occurred in Haiti or how the slave trade occurred in Jamaica or why you see so many Jamaicans in Canada and ask why is that the case? Asking really simple questions that are right there in front of you, if you just googled that or look it up on YouTube, there’s a lot to learn.
“Just seeing something peculiar and asking a simple question about it, that is something you can do. If you say I’m going to do that once a month instead of just once a week in Black History Month. But once a week in Black History Month is a start.
“One thing that I’d say that is a little bit more specific to my experience, is everybody has something they’re interested in that Black people have had a large contribution to, and whatever your topic or subject of interest is, the more you can understand about how Black people have affected your field, the better you can be towards Black people in your field.”