Celebrating Canada's Black History Today: People, Books, Free Library Events

February 11, 2016 | Iana

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"All I wanted was to see a movie"..."I can't sell downstairs tickets to you people"...Viola sits in the lower section anyway, before she’s pulled out and thrown into a jail cell. Meet Viola Desmond, a woman who insisted on keeping her seat at a Halifax movie theatre in 1946 rather than moving to the section normally reserved for the city's black population. Viola's pride and courage remind us that racial segregation was still part of Canadian social history throughout a third of the 20th century. Her story is featured in Heritage Minutes, a series of sixty-second short films, by Historica Canada, each illustrating an important moment in Canadian history.


The Government of Canada officially celebrated Black History Month for the first time in 1996, and this year is its 20th anniversary. Every year in February, Canadians are invited to participate in Black History Month festivities and events that honour the legacy and important contributions of black Canadians in Canada's history and present.

20th anniversary of Black History Month


Free Library Events:

BHM Qultign imageToronto Public Library also honours Black History Month by offering various cultural events for all ages across the city's 100 library branches. Attend book talks, lectures on history and politics, and National Film Board Mini Film Fest film screenings. Families are invited to participate in programs featuring African and Caribbean music, crafts, stories, movies and puppet shows. Those library events are always free and everyone is welcome to join!


In addition, the 2016 Toronto Urban Book Expo (TUBE) takes place this year at North York Central Library on Saturday, February 13 from 12 noon to 4:00 p.m. and admission is free! This is the only Canadian event dedicated to celebrating urban fiction and urban writers. Urban fiction (also known as "street lit" and "hip hop" lit) is a growing genre in Canada and is more and more recognized especially for its reach to youth.


Black History Month Reading List 2016

Browse the library's annual list of recommended books for adults, teens and children, selected by librarians to include some recently published excellent reads by mostly Canadian and some American authors. Place a hold or borrow a copy from your local library branch. Here are some highlights:

Black History Month Reading List - books for adults:

  • Cafe Babanussa Fifteen Dogs The Great Black North A brief history of seven killings Position As Desired Membering

  • Fifteen Dogs: An Apologue by Canadian author Andre Alexis (born in Trinidad and Tobago) was the novel winner of the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2015 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. The novel tells the story of a group of fifteen dog at a veterinary clinic in Toronto, who are suddenly gifted by the gods with human consciousness and language.   
  • The Great Black North: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry - the first national anthology to focus solely on poetry by over 90 African Canadian poets working in many poetic styles. The Great Black North is a valuable resource for the preservation of culture that is written and/or performed as dub poetry, spoken word and slam. 
  • Cafe Babanussa by Karen Hill. Café Babanussa is a moving portrait of a young woman's experience of life, love and the shifting tides of mental health in 1980s-era Berlin. On February 23, you can also attend a special event at Parkdale Branch with acclaimed Canadian author Lawrence Hill who will discuss this new book by his late sister, Karen Hill. 
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James is a masterful novel that explores the events and characters surrounding the attempted assassination of Bob Marley during the political turmoil in Jamaica during the late 1970s. The celebrated Jamaican novelist and 2015 Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James will also be a special guest and speaking about his book at a special event at the Reference Library on February 18, but at this point only rush seats are available.
  • Position As Desired: Exploring African Canadian Identity: Photographs from the Wedge Collection - this collection reflects on what it means to be African Canadian. It includes depictions of largely unknown or uncelebrated African individuals in Canada as well as works that celebrate the growth and diversity of the African Canadian community today. 
  • 'Membering - in this unforgettable memoir, Giller Prize-winning author and poet Austin Clarke shares his experiences growing up in Barbados and moving to Toronto to attend university before becoming a journalist.


Black History Month Reading List - books for teens and children, highlights below:

  • Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War by Jessica Dee Humphreys - this moving and unsettling graphic novel is told in first person by Michel Chikwanine who was five years old when he was abducted from his school-yard soccer game in the Democratic Republic of Congo and forced to become a soldier for a brutal rebel militia. Against the odds, Michel managed to escape and find his way back to his family, but he was never the same again. After immigrating to Canada, Michel was encouraged by a teacher to share what happened to him in order to raise awareness about child soldiers around the world, and this book is part of that effort. For ages 10-14.
  • Lullaby for a Black Mother: A Poem by Langston Hughes - a beautifully illustrated picture book (illustrator Sean Qualls) based on Hughes' poem that he wrote more than 80 years ago, playful, fresh and modern. The poem's images of night and innocence are well suited for a picture book, too: “My little dark baby, my little earth-thing, my little love-one, what shall I sing for your lullaby"? Ages 3-8.
  • A Desperate Road to Freedom: The Underground Railroad Diary of Julia May Jackson by Karleen Bradford. "Sunday, April 26th, 1863: TORONTO, CANADA! We made it! We’re here, safe and sound!" - This story is part of the "Dear Canada" children's series of historical fiction and is gripping and exceptional. It not only provides a useful tie-in to the topic of the Underground Railroad, but also reminds us of the early roots of multiculturalism in Canada. For ages 9-13, excellent read for adults too.


Click on the full Black History Month booklist to see all suggested titles and place a hold on the books that interest you. 


More Recommended Book Resources (pictured, a display at Palmerston Branch):


BHM display at Palmerston Branch 2016Just in time for Black History Month here is another great diverse selection 28 Black Picture Books That Aren’t About Boycotts, Buses or Basketball by American librarian and writer Scott Woods who blogs at Scott Woods Makes Lists. The books have been published in the last 10 years, feature African American children and help fill a need for diverse cultural representation in characters and authors in children's literature. Multicultural books should be part of library displays, programs and storytimes throughout the year, not only during Black History Month.


Did you know Toronto Public Library houses one of the most important literary Black and Caribbean literary collections in Canada? The Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection has over 16,000 print and audiovisual materials for adults, children and teens, and is located at Malvern, Maria A. Shchuka, Parkdale, and York Woods branches in Toronto. It is an invaluable resource for the Black and Caribbean community, for students and researchers, accessible to anyone interested, you are welcome to visit those branches to browse the resources or place holds online with your library card. The collection was named in honour of Canadian icon Dr. Rita Cox - a community activist and admired leader in the Black and Caribbean community, who worked for many years as a children's librarian and storyteller at Toronto Public Library.


And if you find yourself in the Annex neighbourhood - take the time to visit the independent multicultural bookstore A Different Booklist - specializing in books from the  African and Caribbean diaspora and a real community hub, just steps from the Bloor/Bathurst intersection in Toronto. You will be warmly welcomed and their book collection is impressive and in-depth.   





And last but not least, take a look at two recent thought-provoking TV programs produced by Asha Tomlinson on CBC News Network during Black History Month in 2015 and 2016. They raise important questions:

  • "Being Black in Canada" (CBC, Feb. 5, 2015) - a CBC special presentation in celebration of the Black History month. "The program highlights the work of two Windsor teachers who show their students what's missing in many of their history books. Asha speaks with Book of Negroes author Lawrence Hill about how the TV mini series is bringing Canadian Black history to a wider audience and we hear the story of Western Canada's Black Pioneers and how they're preserving their ancestors' history."