Black History Month in full swing across the island

Anthony Abbondanza
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Perception of annual event always evolving, says founder of Overture with the Arts in Q & A with The Chronicle

Akilah Newton (right) and members of  Overture with the Arts’ ‘Songs of Freedom’ group have performed educational and musical numbers at many West Island schools the last four years as part of Black History Month.

Every month of February is devoted to Black History Month (BHM), with schools across Quebec celebrating everything from black history to black culture. This year on the island, the Lester B. Pearson School Board (LBPSB) has invited celebrated guests from various academic, artistic, and cultural backgrounds to mark the month.

Overture with the Arts is one such esteemed guest, performing for the fourth consecutive year their popular high school tour, ‘Songs of Freedom: Music as reflection, expression and a tool for social change,’ an educational and entertaining look at African cultures.

Akilah Newton, founder of the West Island-based non-profit organization that provides after school arts programs to unprivileged students, spoke to The Chronicle about the rising importance of BHM.

Why is Black History Month so important today?

Black History Month brings us closer together as human beings living in a tolerant society. It's important because we’re entering into a new age of where identities and cultures are mixing like never before. Knowledge of our shared human history allows us to respect each other and celebrate our similarities and differences.

How do you think it has evolved over the years?

I think we’re pushing forward the evolution of how it is perceived. Black History has been traditionally ignored. Now that is it recognized in the month of February the goal is to let everyone realize that Black History is a part human history and it’s a part of our collective heritage as human beings. As our society, morality and identities evolve, so does the way we understand and teach out history.

What roles does Black History Month play within schools in terms of curbing racism?

It provides a cross-cultural understanding. Jonathan Emile underlines in Overture with the Arts’ “Songs of Freedom” presentation that race is an illusion. There is only one race - We just have different skin colours and hair textures. Fortunately, today’s youth have grown up in a more socially and culturally tolerant society where a person is judged based on their character, not the color of their skin. Black history month and Overture with the Arts continue to underline and promote this.

What are some of the important valuable lessons students can take from BHM?

Black History Month is about celebrating the past, present and future. It’s about moving forward, not as Blacks and Whites, but as human beings with a distinct Canadian identity that embodies tolerance, coexistence and social justice.

Have Quebec and the province’s school boards done enough to highlight the importance of BHM?

They are doing quite a bit, and should be commended and even praised for what has been done so far. However, there is a lot more to do as the face of our nation changes and new generations of Canadians are born into a new ethnic reality in which their Canadian and Quebecois identity is evolving. The final step would be to see Black History examined and understood as part of Canadian history throughout the year with specific celebrations taking place in February.

The Overture with the Arts will perform ‘Songs of Freedom’ at Beaconsfield High School and Lindsay Place High School Feb. 17, St. Thomas and Pierrefonds Comprehensive high schools Feb. 24, Lakeside Academy Feb. 25 and at Riverdale High School on Feb. 26.

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Organizations: Beaconsfield High School, Lindsay Place High School, Lakeside Academy Riverdale High School

Geographic location: Quebec, St. Thomas

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  • Chris Eustace
    February 20, 2014 - 10:19

    February 20, 2014..........Allow me to complement this Chronicle article, featuring the Overture with the Arts group, performing ' Songs of Freedom,' at many West Island high schools, with another school setting story from over 100 years ago. ....Traditionally , February is Black History Month and, undoubtedly, there will be celebrations with some singing, at various venues, to commemorate this month........Although many of us are familiar with the Black rallying cry of the 60’s: " We Shall Overcome," it seems there are more of us who are unaware of the existence of what is called the " Black National Anthem." ......The song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing," was written by James Johnson, a school principal, and set to melody by his brother, John, in 1900 to celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the father of Black Emancipation.....It was first performed by the choir at the ' Colored High School' (name given then) in Jacksonville, Florida. It became quite popular and eventually became a hymn of solidarity, known as the Negro National Hymn, and then the Negro National Anthem. ....Finally, today it is referred to as the “Black National Anthem” and is known and sung by many.....Ironically, James Weldon Johnson, who died accidentally in 1938, said it was never his intention for his song to become an anthem..... However, he did say the song “not only epitomizes the history of the race, and its present condition, but voices their hope for the future”......The poignant lines from his lyrics say it best: “We have come out from the gloomy past / Till now we stand at last.".....Indeed, " stand " they do.......Think of U.S. President Barack Obama ; former Governor General of Canada Michaëlle Jean , and Montreal Canadiens hockey player P.K. Subban, who is playing for Team Canada, in Sochi, Russia, in the 2014 Winter Olympics..... Chris Eustace