Black History Month - River Bookshop & Amherstburg Freedom Museum
“Black History Month isn’t just in February. To me it’s every month. It’s year around.”
~Willie O'Ree - Canadian, first Black player in the NHL
People of African descent have been a part of shaping Canada’s heritage and identity since the arrival of Mathieu Da Costa, a navigator and interpreter, whose presence in Canada dates back to the early 1600’s. African descendants came to Canada as Loyalists after the American Revolution, some serving as soldiers in the War of 1812. And much closer to home, Amherstburg was a crossing point for the Underground Railroad that helped freedom seekers escape enslavement and become free people once they arrived in Canada.
The origin for Black History Month dates back to 1926, when African American historian Carter G. Woodson proposed setting aside a time devoted to honour and build awareness of the accomplishments and contributions of African Americans. This led to the establishment of Negro History week in 1926. Celebrations of Black History began in Canada shortly thereafter. In December 1995, the House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month in Canada following a motion introduced by the first Black Canadian woman elected to Parliament, the Honourable Jean Augustine.
Founded over forty years ago by Amherstburg resident Melvin “Mac” Simpson, the Amherstburg Freedom Museum has told the story of African Canadians’ journey by preserving stories and presenting artifacts that educate and inspire. Today the mandate of the Museum is to continue to tell the stories of Amherstburg’s role in the Underground Railroad and the contributions and legacies Black Canadians have made in Canada and our region.
When we started thinking about opening a bookshop in Amherstburg one of the first people we reached out to was Monty Logan, President of the Amherstburg Freedom Museum. We knew that our values - to educate, inspire, and engage - aligned with those of the Museum. Plus, we strongly believe that the Museum was a town jewel that too few people knew about. We let Monty know that we were going to curate titles that told the story of Black people, their histories, contributions, and importantly the challenges they face, and that we would be hosting speakers to talk about Racial Justice. We also agreed to help them champion Black History Month.
Personally, I had a strong interest in the month as the Toronto Raptors, with their spokesman, Wayne Embry, have been supporting it for years. Accordingly, we agreed that we would amplify their initiatives and add our own. But ... unfortunately then came COVID-19!
However, despite the lockdown we are teaming up to support the Museum’s February celebration as follows:
Our bookshop window displays will feature Black authors and books that talk about racial equality. Look for the moving artifacts that the Museum has loaned us for our displays.
We are championing a broad range of titles (see below) that we have curated for the event. Readers that purchase any of these books during the month will qualify for a draw to win one of three Amherstburg Freedom Museum t-shirts.
While the River Bookshop cannot host live speakers due to COVID-19 restrictions we are going to host a virtual one on February 16, at 2:00pm. Author, speaker, and storyteller Bernice Carnegie will talk about her families’ historical journey and the lessons they passed down about being “born Black in Canada”. This event will be available on Zoom - free to anyone. Please request a link for this free event at riverbookshop.com or www.amherstburgfreedom.org.
Also please order Carnegie’s about book her dad Herb Carnegie who carved out a distinguished hockey career and made hockey history by being part of the only Black line in semi-professional hockey. “A Fly in A Pail of Milk: The Herb Carnegie Story” which can be ordered at www.riverbookshop.com and we will send it to you or you could use curbside pickup.
To continue its important work, Amherstburg Freedom Museum counts on your generosity. Please click here to donate www.amherstburgfreedom.org/donate.
Originally, we had a number of live events planned for this month. Excellent events that will be rescheduled for a later date, around Emancipation Day which is celebrated on August 1st. Watch for these upcoming details in our future Newsletters.
Black History Month is important to celebrate across Canada, but with our Underground Railway history and our very own Amherstburg Freedom Museum it needs to take on even more importance in our community.
“The time is always right to do what is right”
~Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
P.S. maybe ... just maybe, if we will all follow the guidance to control COVID-19 we will all have the ability to visit Freedom Museum later this month. When it does reopen please visit and bring friends.
As you can see from the stacks of fiction and non-fiction books above, there is a remarkable pool of amazing, award-winning, critically acclaimed works by Black authors and about Black issues. Black History Month doesn't only focus on Black history - it's also an opportunity to highlight authors, artists, activists and more who are making history right now.
Just to speak to a few, Esi Edugyan appears twice in the stack and that is a real testament to her amazing writing. Both of her books, Half-Blood Blues and Washington Black are historical in nature - one taking place during World War II and one taking place during slavery. Butter Honey Pig Bread by Canadian author Francesca Ekwuyasi, a story about family, forgiveness and consequences told within the African diaspora, was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and is a 2021 Canada Reads selection
Non-fiction titles like We're Better Than This, The Fire Next Time and The Autobiography of Malcolm X give voice to a few of the great names of the civil rights movement - Elijah Cummings, James Baldwin and Malcolm X in the form of memoirs or biographies. Canadian voices pick up the torch in more modern times - David Chariandy with I've Been Meaning to Tell You, the inimitable activist Desmond Cole with The Skin We're In and Willie O'Ree and Michael McKinley with Willie - the story of the NHL's first Black player.
When educating yourself and exploring the history and experiences of Black people don't hesitate to include your children. Learning and listening is what helps to build allies and move forward in the quest for equality and respect for all and that learning and listening can happen early thanks to the many exceptional books available.
Books for young adults or middle grade readers that offer Black characters and Black experiences serve to show representation and to give us stories that allow us to see from another's perspective. Christopher Paul Curtis' The Watson's Go to Birmingham - 1963 tells the story of the Watson family as a family with the historical event that happens around them. It's sure to spur discussion. Dear Justyce, the sequel to Dear Martin, is an unflinching look at the discriminatory practices in the American justice system and those that we just might find here in Canada as well.
We here at the River Bookshop never forget the littlest of littles so we do have picture book selections for Black History Month and our WhoWas/WhatIs series for young readers. Whether read for pure enjoyment or to use as a teaching moment some of the best books ever for children have come out in the last few years.
Hair Love by Matthew Cherry was first released as a short animated film that garnered an Academy Award. The Scholastic Canada Biography series offers books on important Black Canadian trailblazers like Viola Desmond and Willie O'Ree. All of these books offer what was historically lacking in literature - representation - both for those who see themselves in these characters and for those of us who need to see diverse characters to round out our perspective.
Be sure to swing by our windows during the month to see these books and many more that we have chosen to highlight and don't miss our upcoming virtual events shown below.
Stay safe and keep reading,