Tuesday, June 3, 2014


"A lot of people don't realize that just about all Negro spirituals are written on the black notes of the piano. Probably the most famous on this slave scale was written by John Newton, who used to be the captain of a slave ship, and many believe he heard this melody that sounds very much like a West African sorrow chant. And it has a haunting, haunting plaintive quality to it that reaches past your arrogance, past your pride, and it speaks to that part of you that's in bondage. And we feel it. We feel it. It's just one of the most amazing melodies in all of human history."
Quote from gospel singer Wintley Phipps during his performance at Carnegie Hall in 2002
Wintley Augustus Phipps is an African American gospel singer who was born in Trinidad and Tobago on January 7, 1955 and grew up in Montreal, Quebec where his family moved when he was about 5 years old. Phipps is one in a long line of talented inspirational African American gospel singers and has performed for several US Presidents including Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Hussein Obama at National Prayer Breakfast events and other celebrations. He also performed at the 1984 and 1988 National Democratic Conventions, Rosa Parks' 77th Birthday gala at the Kennedy Center and for the late South African President Nelson Mandela.
Phipps’ quote in 2002 during his performance of Amazing Grace at Carnegie Hall not surprisingly has garnered both praise and condemnation. Comments from some White people included that he was racist because he expressed too much pride in his Africanness. Phipps’ comment was pertinent because many people do not know the history of African contribution to popular contemporary music. That is why it is so important that we continue to celebrate/observe Black Music Month. June has been recognized as Black Music Month since 1979. In June 1979 then US President Jimmy Carter designated June as “Black Music Month.” Carter made that declaration at the urging of songwriter and producer Kenneth Gamble of Gamble and Huff and broadcasters Ed Wright and Dyana Williams who lobbied for the official recognition of a Black Music Month. Huff, Wright and Williams were members of the “Black Music Association.” In an interview with Hillary Crosley of “The Griot” published on May 30, 2013 entitled: “The Economic Origins of Black Music Month” Kenneth Gamble explained the need for the recognition of Black Music Month: “The Black Music Association was a trade association at the time, and it was an educational forum for young producers and writers -- African Americans in particular -- where they could discuss the benefits of the music industry. History says that most African Americans in the industry were robbed of their songs and their property. The Black Music Association spoke to the marketing of black music. The whole theme was "Black Music Is Green," and it dealt with the economics of African-American music. It was very helpful not only to us but also the industry at large. Then the Black Music Association created Black Music Month, which was another original, because October was Country Music Month. What happens when you have a music month? You get additional marketing dollars, and it helps to market and promote the artists. It's still working, because right now we're talking about something that started 34 years ago.”
In an interview published in the July 2013 edition of Ebony Magazine under the title “Dyana Williams: Godmother of Black Music Month” the woman who many consider the “Mother of Black Music Month” is quoted: “While it was declared by President Carter in 1979, as far as the US government was concerned, it didn’t become official until 2000. People refer to me as the “Mother of Black Music Month” because of my work in getting Black Music Month legislatively recognized by Congress. I also established an organization called the International Association of African American Music Foundation (IAAAMF). Through this foundation, we enacted this legislation. It was a very proud moment when they called me and said the bill was going up for a vote. Congressman Chaka Fattah from Philadelphia was the individual I worked with to get the legislation passed. He was the one, who introduced it on the floor of the House of Representatives.” In that interview Williams was asked about the relevance of celebrating/observing Black Music Month today and her reply was: “It is important to celebrate Black Music Month because it’s a recognition and ownership of our culture. It’s something that we need to be proud of. If you ask artists from different cultures, they’ll tell you how influential black music has been to them. Ask Mick Jagger. Ask Paul McCartney. Ask Eric Clapton. Ask Kid Rock. Ask them how much black music influenced their careers. The Rolling Stones got their group name from an old Muddy Waters record. In some cases, most White artists know our music better than we do. It’s important to know because it’s a source of inspiration and a motivating factor. It enhances our overall life experience and that’s why I’m so passionate about this music. It serves as a source of pride and a source of great history as well. How can you not be proud when you look at the timeline of our musical history? We’ve struggled and our music has paralleled those struggles in America. It tells our stories of enslavement, our desire for freedom, and our victories and defeats. It’s the soundtrack to our experience in this country.”
Making music was one of the few pleasures that enslaved Africans enjoyed, that helped them to retain some of the culture that was brutally torn from them by the White slave holders in their attempt to dehumanize the Africans. The spirituals that were used as a coded language by many enslaved Africans when planning their escape is a testament to the power of our music.
Music has sustained Africans dealing with myriad oppressions as expressed by the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 - 1906) in his poem “Sympathy” (published 1899) I know why the caged bird sings, ah me, When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,— When he beats his bars and he would be free; It is not a carol of joy or glee, But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core, But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings — I know why the caged bird sings!
At his soul stirring rendition of Amazing Grace which he delivered at Carnegie Hall in 2002 Wintley Phipps explained some of the history: “Just about all Negro Spirituals are written on black notes of the piano. This is absolutely true, you can go home tonight and play almost any Negro Spiritual, just play the black notes on the piano. There are five black notes on the piano, and those same black notes just keep occurring. And you can go home tonight and play almost any Negro Spiritual just play the black notes. That’s because the slaves didn’t come to America with: “Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do”. That’s somebody else’s scale. All they had in their musical scale were the five black notes we know as the Pentatonic scale and they built the power and the pathos of the Negro spiritual on five notes. When you study music you also come across what are known as: “White spirituals.” Did you know that? And there are white composers who work with that scale, in early America they used to call it “The Slave Scale.” And I’m gonna play for you what some musicologists think is the most famous white spiritual built on the slave scale with just the black notes.”
Amazing Grace was published in 1779 with John Newton credited as the author but the melody is documented as composed by “Unknown.” There is no official recognition that the melody is a West African mourning chant. However we know that over the centuries the music of Africans has been appropriated by White people who made a fortune from that music and refused to acknowledge the source or compensate the composers/originators.
Newton reportedly had his spiritual conversion in 1748 when a violent storm battered his ship so severely that he called out to God for mercy and his ship and life were spared however he continued his slave-trading even after this “Road to Damascus” epiphany!! In the introduction to the 1962 published book “The Journal of a Slave Trader (John Newton), 1750-1754, with Newton's Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade’ authors Bernard Davis Martin and Mark Spurrell write: “When Newton began his journal in 1750, not only was slave trading seen as a respectable profession by the majority of Britons, its necessity to the overall prosperity of the kingdom was communally understood and approved.” Today the descendants of enslaved Africans are demanding reparations for the unpaid labour of their ancestors that enriched White people for generations. During Black Music Month we can begin to consider who is reaping riches from the talents of African musicians and demand reparations there also!


The African Union (AU) is an organization which was established on May 26, 2001 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The AU has a membership of 54 African states. The AU replaced the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The most important decisions of the AU are made by the Assembly of the African Union, a semi-annual meeting of the heads of state and government of its member states. The AU's secretariat, the African Union Commission, is based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) the forerunner of the AU was established on May 25, 1963 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The OAU Charter was adopted on May 23, 1963 by representatives of 32 governments. Other African states joined the organization over the years, with South Africa becoming the 53rd member on 23 May 1994. Since then with the establishment of the Republic of South Sudan on July 9, 2011 there are now 54 member states of the AU. The OAU was postcolonial Africa’s first continent-wide association of independent states. Many of these states came into being after the arbitrary division of the African continent by European colonizers following the infamous “Scramble for Africa.”
The “Scramble for Africa” began after the abolition of chattel slavery by some European nations including Britain (August 1, 1834) and the impending abolition by others including the Spanish (Cuba, October 7, 1886) and Portuguese (Brazil, May 13, 1888.) Not being satisfied with the centuries of exploitation of African bodies and labour and the subsequent devastation of the African continent, greedy Europeans planned to continue the exploitation. In his 1974 published book “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” Guyanese scholar and historian Walter Rodney wrote: “From the beginning, Europe assumed the power to make decisions within the international trading system. An excellent illustration of that is the fact that the so-called international law which governed the conduct of nations on the high seas was nothing else but European law. Africans did not participate in its making, and in many instances, African people were simply the victims, for the law recognized them only as transportable merchandise. If the African slave was thrown overboard at sea, the only legal problem that arose was whether or not the slave ship could claim compensation from the insurers! Above all, European decision-making power was exercised in selecting what Africa should export – in accordance with European needs.” Much of the wealth that gives European dominated nations the status of “developed” countries was derived from the unpaid labour of generations of enslaved Africans who were routinely worked to death so that the Europeans could accumulate undeserved wealth.
The “Scramble for Africa” and the decades of colonization of the African continent began with a diabolic meeting of the minds on November 15, 1884 at the Berlin Conference. This meeting lasted until February 26, 1885 and when the dust cleared the African continent had been carved up by the representatives of several European nations. The masterminds of this atrocity included representatives of Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway (unified from 1814-1905), Turkey and the USA who decided to carve up the African continent for their benefit. At the time Britain, France, Germany and Portugal had colonies on the African continent so the other European tribes wanted the opportunity to exploit Africans and Africa. Chattel slavery, the European four hundred year plunder and brutalization of Africans was almost at an end (at least on paper) so these parasites were seeking another method of leeching off of the human and other resources of Africa. With no regard for African culture or history, no consultation with any African, this group of White men drew borders that separated families and forced together groups that traditionally lived separately with a delicate balance of keeping peaceful relations by living separately. At the launch of the OAU on May 25, 1963, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I the late Emperor of Ethiopia spoke about the European ravishment of Africa and the effects: “The events of the past hundred and fifty years require no extended recitation from Us. The period of colonialism into which we were plunged culminated with our continent fettered and bound, with our once proud and free peoples reduced to humiliation and slavery; with Africa's terrain cross-batched and checkerboarded by artificial and arbitrary boundaries. Many of us, during those bitter years, were overwhelmed in battle, and those who escaped conquest did so at the cost of desperate resistance and bloodshed. Others were sold into bondage as the price extracted by the colonialists for the "protection" which they extended and the possession of which they disposed. Africa was a physical resource to be exploited and Africans were chattels to be purchased bodily or, at best, peoples to be reduced to vassalage and lackeyhood. Africa was the market for the produce of other nations and the source of the raw materials with which their factories were fed.”
The idea for an organization of African nations came out of the process of decolonization in Africa. For decades after the infamous “Scramble for Africa” the continent was occupied by Europeans who stole African land and not only kept the most fertile land for their use by displacing the Africans but they also passed laws forcing Africans to provide cheap labour on the farms/plantations the Europeans established. Africans were brutalized by Europeans who were protected by well-armed European military personnel provided by the various European nations. The struggle for decolonization gained momentum after the second European tribal conflict which lasted from 1939 to 1945. Many Africans were forced to fight in what was a battle between mostly European nations at war with each other. Following that conflict which was mostly fought in Europe the Africans who returned to their continent realised that White men were not all powerful or immortal and died from bullet wounds just like the Africans the Europeans routinely killed.
The 1950s witnessed the victory of several African nations regaining their independence from the colonizing Europeans. Many of the freedom fighters were inspired by the Pan-Africanist philosophy of the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey. After gaining their independence these African nations united to preserve and consolidate their independence as a political collective. His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I said on May 25, 1963 in his greetings to the delegates of the first gathering of the independent African nation states at the launch of the OAU: “We seek, at this meeting, to determine whither we are going and to chart the course of our destiny. It is no less important that we know whence we came. An awareness of our past is essential to the establishment of our personality and our identity as Africans. This world was not created piecemeal. Africa was born no later and no earlier than any other geographical area on this globe. Africans, no more and no less than other men, possess all human attributes, talents and deficiencies, virtues and faults. Thousands of years ago, civilizations flourished in Africa which suffer not at all by comparison with those of other continents. In those centuries, Africans were politically free and economically independent. Their social patterns were their own and their cultures truly indigenous. The obscurity which enshrouds the centuries which elapsed between those earliest days and the rediscovery of Africa are being gradually dispersed. What is certain is that during those long years Africans were born, lived and died. Men on other parts of this Earth occupied themselves with their own concerns and, in their conceit, proclaimed that the world began and ended at their horizons. All unknown to them, Africa developed in its own pattern, growing in its own life and, in the nineteenth century, finally re-emerged into the world's consciousness.”
May 25 is African Liberation Day and has been observed as such since May 25, 1963 with the launch of the AOU. It is well for us to remember what we have suffered and what we have achieved. As May 25, 1914 approaches let us remember the words of The Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey who said: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” And also keep in mind the words of His Imperial Majesty Haile Sellasie I: “An awareness of our past is essential to the establishment of our personality and our identity as Africans.”


All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Excerpt from the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution adopted on July 9, 1868, as one of the Reconstruction Amendments.
On May 17, 1954 (60 years ago) the Supreme Court of the United States of America issued its landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling declaring that racially segregated public schools were unequal. The 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution was used as the argument to end the practice of forcing African Americans to attend segregated and inferior public schools. The argument against desegregation was that the schools for White Americans and the schools for African Americans were separate but equal. Every African American who had attended those racially segregated schools knew that was not true. African Americans including Maya Angelou, Mildred Taylor, bell hooks and Richard Wright wrote about their experiences attending segregated schools. In the 1976 published book “Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry” African American author Mildred D. Taylor writes about a separate but unequal school for African Americans in 1930s Mississippi: “The Great Faith Elementary and Secondary School, one of the largest black schools in the county was a dismal end to an hour’s journey. Consisting of four weather-beaten wooden houses on stilts of brick, 320 students, seven teachers, a principal, a caretaker, and the caretaker's cow, the school was located near three plantations.” In “Roll of Thunder” Taylor also writes about the textbooks that were provided to the African American students after White students had used the books until they were dirty and falling apart. These textbooks were considered suitable to be passed on to African American students after the Board of Education had deemed them unsuitable for use by White students. In the 2003 published book “Brown V. Board of Education: The Case Against School Segregation” White American author Wayne Anderson writes: “The attitude of most policy makers in the South (and many in the North) was that education was wasted on African Americans, whom they regarded as not being much more than a cheap source for labor. Accordingly, the southern states spent comparatively little on public education for blacks. Black schools were inferior in every way. Typically they were housed in rundown buildings that lacked adequate heating and plumbing.” On December 8, 1953 African American lawyer Thurgood Marshall in his argument for the plaintiffs in the Brown v. Board of Education said: “They can't take race out of this case. From the day this case was filed until this moment, nobody has in any form or fashion, despite the fact I made it clear in the opening argument that I was relying on it, done anything to distinguish this statute from the Black Codes, which they must admit, because nobody can dispute, say anything anybody wants to say, one way or the other, the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to deprive the states of power to enforce Black Codes or anything else like it. It can't be color because there are Negroes as white as the drifted snow, with blue eyes, and they are just as segregated as the colored man. The only thing can be is an inherent determination that the people who were formerly in slavery, regardless of anything else, shall be kept as near that stage as is possible, and now is the time, we submit, that this Court should make it clear that that is not what our Constitution stands for.” Marshall’s argument in this case is considered one of the great Civil Rights speeches and is included in the 2003 published book “Ripples of Hope: Great American Civil Rights Speeches” edited by Josh Gottheimer.
This landmark case is considered the official beginning of the modern Civil Rights campaign which eventually led to legal (at least on paper) desegregation of American society. Although African Americans were at the forefront of this fight and countless African American lives were lost in this struggle African Americans are not the main beneficiaries of the Civil Rights struggle and the resulting laws. Other racialized people have benefited to such an extent that some of them have become proponents of White supremacy and target African Americans. Some of the more infamous of this ilk are Ted Cruz, Dinesh D’Souza and Geraldo Rivera. The other group that has benefited tremendously from the sacrifices of African Americans during the Civil Rights struggle/movement and the subsequent Affirmative Action laws are (http://www.ncsu.edu/project/oeo-training/aa/beneficiaries.htm) White women: “According to the United States Labor Department, the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action are white women. The Department of Labor estimated that 6 million women workers are in higher occupational classifications today than they would have been without affirmative action policies.” North Carolina State University is just one of many sites where the information about White women being the main beneficiaries of Affirmative Action is available.
When the decision to desegregate public schools in the United States was made on May 17, 1954 Canada had not desegregated all its public schools. The myth of a non-racist Canada makes it surprising to many people that at one point African Canadians were forced to attend separate and unequal schools in this country as in the USA. It was not until the 1960s after concerned African Canadians took up the challenge of desegregating these schools that they were closed. The last segregated school in Ontario (Merlin, Ontario near Chatham) closed in 1965 and the last segregated school in Canada closed in Nova Scotia in 1983. In his 1980 published book “A History of Blacks in Canada: A Study Guide for Teachers and Students” White Canadian author James W. St G. Walker wrote “Blacks were denied equal use of public schools in Nova Scotia and Ontario, and this division was recognized by the law. The most important manifestation of colour prejudice in Canadian history is in education.”
White supremacist ideas in public education is alive and well here in the Great White North in the 21st century. On March 5, 2007 an African Canadian teacher teaching in a French Language School (École Francois Buote) in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island (PEI) was vilified by a group of White “colleagues” in a video where one of the White staff was in blackface. The video was shown at a staff meeting. A complaint was made to the P.E.I. Human Rights Commission which took 6 years (January 2013) to make a decision. The School Board apologized! “The French School Board acknowledges that the skit was inappropriate and unacceptable and regrets that the comments made by Mr. Gilles Benoit, the school principal, may have given the impression that the incident was not a serious matter. The French School Board wishes to ensure no person or group feels discriminated against.”
Just last week on May 6, 2014 I read this on the website of “Citynews Toronto” and watched the accompanying video: “Warning: contains disturbing content. Here’s video of a schoolyard fight that reportedly took place at Sutton District High School in April. Source: YouTube.” In the video a 17 year old African Canadian student is defending himself in a physical attack by a White student who is encouraged by a group of other White students making blatantly White supremacist remarks. Eventually some of the other White students become involved in the physical altercation.
In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education when African American students were finally allowed to enter “White” public schools, the mental, psychological, physical and spiritual injury to which they were subjected by White adults and children was horrendous. In the 21st century the physical abuse and White supremacist taunts to which the 17 year old African Canadian student was subjected is mindboggling. A friend who lives in the Southern USA called me to verify that this really happened in Canada. It has been 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education was decided in the USA. What is happening in Canada in 2014? The culture of denial and blame the victim has been the response from the White community where this child was physically and psychologically abused.


As Mothers Day approaches I think about my mother who transitioned more than three decades ago. It seemed as if one minute we were a family (mother, father, and children) and the next minute without warning we were motherless. My mother was still a young woman when she transitioned and her nine children (the oldest barely out of her teens the youngest just 7 years old) were in shock never imagining life without “Mommy!” My father was inconsolable at losing the woman who he first met when they were both children and who had been his wife since he was barely out of his teens. Today my sisters and I are mothers and some of us are grandmothers. We have celebrated Mothers Day together and commemorated the memory of our mother. The discussion always includes the fact that our mother did not live long enough to see and touch any grandchildren and how grateful we are to have experienced that joy. I still miss my mother and find myself thinking about her whenever I look at my three sisters Carol, April and Coralee wondering what my mother would look like if she was alive today. We have all lived past the age my mother was when she transitioned. Sometimes my daughter and my nieces remind me of my mother as a young woman. It is amazing how genes are passed down from generation to generation.
On Saturday I attended the 8th annual “Decolonizing the Spirit” conference at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) where Dr. Helen Pearman Ziral spoke about “Intergenerational Spirit Injury and Healing.” There were several presentations and speakers but this topic resonated with me I suspect because of losing my mother when I was barely an adult. I was reminded of how losing my mother affected my siblings and I, the confusion in the aftermath of her burial. The denial in which we indulged because we did not want to believe our mother was really gone from our lives never to return. I learned that spirit injury can be passed down through generations and wonder how that may have affected my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother stretching way back to that first African woman ancestor who was kidnapped and enslaved. I wondered how spirit injury stretching back generations affects who we are today and our reactions to various incidents in our lives. As mothers do we through “blood memory” (another term used by Dr Ziral) transmit our life experiences, both positive and negative to subsequent generations? If our reactions to situations today are affected by the experiences of those women who went before us then we today should be fighting against White supremacy including racial profiling because our “mother” ancestors never gave up the struggle against slavery and colonization.
The stories abound about those “mother” ancestors who fought their enslavers and colonizers. Throughout the enslavement of African people African women always played a part in resisting and ultimately ending the institution of chattel slavery. Some are well known while others are only known within the specific communities where those women lived. One of those lesser known women ancestors is Solitude from Guadeloupe. The story of this enslaved African woman in Guadeloupe “A Woman Named Solitude” was published in 2001 written by Andre Schwarz-Bart a White Frenchman. In 1802 Solitude was involved in the enslaved Africans’ struggle for freedom on the island of Guadeloupe. She fought alongside other enslaved Africans in a quest to gain their freedom from the French who enslaved them. Unfortunately Solitude was captured and sentenced to death along with her comrades at arms. In their 2002 published book “In Praise of Black Women: Heroines of the slavery era” authors Simone Schwarz-Bart and André Schwarz-Bart wrote about the fate of the other freedom fighters: “The others died strung up on Constantin Hill, in the heights of Basse-Terre, and their bodies exposed to wind and rain “for all eternity,” in accordance with the ill justice dealt at the time.” Solitude was pregnant when she was captured so her sentence was postponed for a few months until after she had given birth. Her child was the property of the family who had enslaved her so the new mother was hanged on November 29, 1802 the day after she gave birth to her child. In 1999 a sculpture in memory of Solitude was installed at the De la Croix roundabout intersection on the Boulevard des Héros, in Abymes, Guadeloupe. Ironically in 2007, the French erected a statue in her memory in Hauts-de-Seine, Paris, France. In their 2002 published book “In Praise of Black Women” the authors write: “What can one say about Solitude of Guadeloupe who is known to us thanks largely through the dry court records kept during her trial? What about the millions of mothers, our mothers, whose names are written nowhere, except as chattels on yellowed auction certificates, listed in between a couple of bulls and a few chickens?” It is this devastating history coupled with the “blood memory” and “Intergenerational Spirit Injury” which has never been addressed that contributes to the state of our communities regardless of where we live.
It is very sad to lose your mother regardless of your age but it is devastating for a mother to lose her child. Recently we have read about a group of mothers in Nigeria whose daughters were kidnapped from their school by a group of men. Not only are these mothers suffering because of the disappearance of their daughters they have the added suffering of imagining their daughters crying out for help and being unable to help their daughters. These mothers have gathered together for weeks pleading for their government to help in finding and returning their daughters with no discernible results. What torture these women must be going through as they protest and plead for help in rescuing their daughters from their kidnappers. On Sunday, May 4 I attended a demonstration in front of the Eaton Centre organized by the group African Women Acting (AWA) to bring attention to the plight of the kidnapped girls, their families and community. Although all family members of these girls must be grieving and suffering from this brutal action of kidnapping these school girls, in many of the videos (http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/01/world/africa/nigeria-abducted-girls/index.html) and photographs the faces we have seen are the suffering faces of the mother pleading for the government to intervene and rescue their daughters.
As we prepare to celebrate Mothers Day on Sunday, May 11, please become involved in supporting the families of the girls who have been kidnapped in Nigeria and are still missing. Happy Mothers Day to all the mothers and also to the fathers who are sole support parents!!

MAY DAY 2014

May 1 is recognized internationally as International Workers Day or in some cases May Day. May 1 is also Labour Day in several countries including Argentina, Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela.
May 1 as International Workers Day is recognized as the commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago. On May 1, 1886 workers in Chicago held a parade and rally with over 80,000 participants as part of a national strike for an eight-hour work day. According to the Massachusetts American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO): “Over 65,000 workers rallied again in Chicago on May 3rd. This demonstration, like those two days earlier, advocated for workers’ rights and was completely peaceful. Eventually a large group of police officers arrived at the location. They drew their weapons and charged the workers. As the strikers tried to flee the scene, police opened fire. The shots struck men and boys in the back while they attempted to escape. Six were killed in the brutal police action, and many suffered serious injuries. The next day 3,000 people came together in Chicago’s Haymarket Square to protest police violence. Several speakers voiced their disgust at the actions of Chicago’s police force. The demonstrators were not alone as 180 police officers were on the scene, standing in military formation. After several speakers, the police drew their batons and demanded that the demonstrators disperse immediately.” Stories abound that an agent provocateur planted in the workers ranks threw a bomb at the police which gave the police the excuse to attack the workers. When the dust cleared on the May 4 debacle there were 7 police and 4 workers dead while 70 workers and 60 police were wounded. Eventually 8 labour activists were put on trial for the “Haymarket Riots.” The trial lasted from June 21 to August 11, 1886 and 7 of the men were sentenced to death by hanging while one was sentenced to 15 years in prison. On November 10, 1887 the sentence of two of the men was commuted to life in prison, one of the remaining 5 condemned men committed suicide later that day and on November 11, 1887 the four remaining men were hanged. This is what is commemorated on May 1 as International Workers Day or Labour Day.
As a child growing up in Guyana, May 1 was more than Labour Day and a celebration for workers. There were Labour Day parades but that was not interesting for children. Dressed in our new, special for May Day clothes, we gleefully danced around the Maypole during May Day celebrations as we plaited the colourful ribbons attached to the Maypole. The crowning of the May queen was also a part of the celebration which was replicated across the country in various community centres. Surprisingly, I can remember feeling very proud and pleased looking at the Maypole after we finished plaiting as I saw the intricate pattern we had formed on the pole with the brightly coloured ribbons. The plaiting of the Maypole and the crowning of the May queen are part of the pagan spring rites from the British Isles that became part of British Guianese culture and subsequently Guyanese culture. So in Guyana May Day was also a day when the descendants of enslaved Africans and the descendants of indentured labourers imitated the antics of their former colonizers.
May Day in countries where it is observed as Labour Day, usually is a public holiday to honour workers and celebrate the social and economic achievements of the labour movement. Britain is said to have the oldest trade union movement in Europe, supposedly beginning in the 17th century with the organizing of workers in skilled trades like printing. The idea apparently gained momentum in the early 18th century with more categories of skilled workers, including tailors, shoemakers, weavers and cabinetmakers. Of course, none of these workers saw the irony of them fighting for improved working conditions and wages while the enslavement of Africans was a British institution. Similarly, in Canada, where the first trade union was founded by printers in Quebec City in 1827 White men organizing for better working conditions and wages did not see the irony of keeping a whole group of people working without pay. (Slavery was a Canadian institution until August 1, 1834.)
In the United States, where slavery was abolished on January 31, 1865 with the passing of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Mechanics’ Union Trade Association organized skilled workers in 1827. White workers were so incensed at the idea of Africans competing with them for jobs that there were several incidents of African-Americans being lynched and their homes burned. One of the worst cases occurred over a three-day period from May 1 to May 3, 1866 in Memphis, Tennessee. In his 1988 book “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877” Eric Foner a White American historian wrote of the Memphis Massacre: “It is difficult to say which proved more threatening to local Whites – the large number of impoverished rural freedmen who thronged the streets in search of employment or the considerable group that managed to achieve modest economic success.” (Many of the African American victims were robbed of cash, watches, tools and furniture.) The many documented sources of this period of domestic terrorism against African-Americans emphasize that the victims of these crimes could not expect any help from the White, mostly Irish, police force whose members were, in many cases, also the perpetrators. On May 3, 1866 in the aftermath of the Memphis Massacre, it was documented that White Americans had raped and murdered many African-Americans, and destroyed four churches, 12 schools and 91 homes of African-Americans.
There are fewer recorded incidents of White Canadian workers murdering African Canadians and burning their homes. However, what they may have lacked in quantity, the Canadians made up for it in quality. Beginning on July 26, 1784, African Canadians in Shelburne, Nova Scotia were attacked and had their homes destroyed by their White neighbours. Those who managed to escape the 10-day reign of terror by fleeing to nearby Birchtown, were still the targets of attacks from the White mob, which continued the racially motivated attacks up to one month later. In his 1976 published book “The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone 1783-1870” White Canadian professor James W. St. G. Walker writes about the plight of African Canadian David George who fled to Birchtown: “Along with others of his colour, George sought refuge in Birchtown, but even here they were unsafe. While the force of the riot continued in Shelburne for at least 10 days, incursions into Birchtown were reported for up to one month.” The attacks were blamed on the inability of White men to compete with African Canadians in the job market as employers could exploit the Africans by paying them less than the White men were willing to take as wages. Whether in Canada or the U.S., these attacks were erroneously called race riots when White people attacked communities of Africans. These were not “riots” because one group with superior numbers and weapons was bent on eliminating another group based on skin colour. Competing for jobs may have been used as an excuse but these were racially motivated attacks on clearly outnumbered and vulnerable African communities. If the White people were interested in fighting for jobs, they should have recognized that who they needed to fight were those who could withhold employment or exploit their labour. The Africans in their midst were not in positions of power and were also being exploited by those who held power. The labour movement and worker solidarity has come a long way since those days when Africans in North America were brutalized and murdered because they dared to seek waged employment. Today, Africans in North America are members of unions alongside White co-workers.
Unfortunately although racialized workers pay the same union dues and should have the same access to services and leadership roles in their respective unions, this is not the case. It continues to be a struggle for Africans and other racialized people in the labour movement; hence the need for organizations such as Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU,) Asian Canadian Labour Alliance (ACLA) and Latin American Trade Unionists Coalition (LATUC.) While working in unionized workplaces may offer more security for racialized workers than in workplaces where workers are not organized, racialized workers sometimes do not have the same access to services from their unions as White workers do. Looking at the leadership of the labour movement, from the individual locals to the national bodies, it is quite obvious that we still have a long way to go for equity and equality in the labour movement. We need Employment Equity as much as we need Pay Equity!


Mastering their thoughts and forgetting our own and we wonder why we always feel alone, from the media to academia hanging brothers like coats and in their schools. I always take two sets of notes, one set to ace the test and one set I call the truth, and when I find historical contradictions I used the first set as proof- proof that black youths’ mind are being polluted, convoluted, diluted, not culturally rooted.
Excerpt from the poem “Two Sets of Notes” published in his 2009 published book “It's Bigger Than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post-Hip-Hop Generation” by M.K. Asante Jr.
We are approaching the time of year when the weather is warmer, we can put our winter coats and spring coats in storage and for many students in post-secondary institutions the text books and note books are also packed away. It is that time of year when final exams have been done, marked and students know whether or not they have passed or failed a course. By the end of April every student in a Canadian post-secondary institution would have written the final exam for the 2013-2014 academic year. Meanwhile many 17 and 18 year olds are preparing from now to enter post-secondary institutions in September. There are also “mature students” (anyone over 21 years old) returning to post-secondary education or entering for the first time. People strive for/pursue higher learning/post-secondary education for various reasons. For some it is expected/family traditions while for some others it is a means to qualify for better job prospects. The experts tell us that: “Education leads to numerous benefits for the individual, for business, and for government. The expected returns on an investment in education take the form of higher earnings for the individual, increased productivity for business, higher taxes for government, and an improved standard of living for society as a whole. Canada has one of the highest rates of postsecondary-education completion in the world.” A study done by a unit of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) states that: “According to the 2006 census, six out of every 10 adults between 25 and 64 years of age had completed some form of postsecondary education. In 2005–06, more than one million students were enrolled in universities in Canada, a record-high enrolment rate. Statistics Canada reported about 781,300 full time and 266,400 part-time students, with 64 per cent of them between the ages of 18 and 24. In 2004–05, there were more than 514,266 full-time students at public colleges and institutes. Participation in postsecondary education has grown significantly in recent years, driven more by increasing educational demands in the labour market than by population growth. Women continue to be the majority on both university and college campuses.”
What has not been addressed in any of these studies is the effect that racism in post-secondary institutions has on the educational experience of racialized students studying in those institutions. Since the development of critical thinking skills is an expectation of post-secondary education it stands to reason that racialized students would have to deal with significant cognitive dissonance.
In his 2009 published book “It's Bigger Than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post-Hip-Hop Generation” African American author M.K. Asante Jr. gives some advice in a poem entitled “Two Sets of Notes.” As an African American in academia this young man felt that his survival depended on taking two sets of notes to deal with the cognitive dissonance of being a conscious African American. In his book “It's Bigger Than Hip Hop” Asante Jr. reminds “students of color” that it is imperative that they take two sets of notes if they wish to gain a clear and healthy understanding of the world, because: “We must understand that as James Baldwin told his students, ‘American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anyone has said about it.’” African American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet and social critic James Arthur Baldwin who lived from August 2, 1924 to December 1, 1987, is credited with the quote: "To be Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage."
This truth is also a daily reality for many African Canadian post secondary students. I have experienced and have had conversations with African Canadian students who have suffered from subtle racism and blatant racism while pursuing post secondary education. Racialized students need strategies to cope with the seemingly clueless professor whose White skin privilege blinds him/her to the White supremacist “throw away” or “off hand” remarks or to the images presented for class viewing. I was surprised to find a book that was published in 2009 that documents the experiences of racialized staff and students at Canadian universities. Edited by White Canadian authors/professors Frances Henry and Carol Tator the book “Racism in the Canadian University: Demanding Social Justice, Inclusion, and Equity” includes 6 chapters written by racialized faculty at Canadian universities. One chapter contained the experiences of racialized students in postsecondary education (written by Ryerson University professor Camille Hernandez-Ramdwar) and that chapter resonated because the students were either born in the Caribbean or were born in Canada to parents from the Caribbean.
Of course not every racialized student is conscious enough to realize the subtle variations of White supremacist rhetoric during their postsecondary study. Professor Hernandez-Ramdwar writes: “As a professor of undergraduate students, and one who teaches on issues of racism, I have noticed that many students who come into my classroom are unaware of the entrenched levels of racism operating within society and the university, as well the insidious way in which racism operates.”
While it is desirable to procure postsecondary credentials to at least have the opportunity to access better paying jobs racialized students need the knowledge and skills to cope with the White supremacist attitudes that exist in academia. Be prepared as you enter the hallowed halls within the ivory towers of postsecondary institutions. During the Spring/Summer hiatus read at least one book on the subject to be prepared and not suffer culture shock. This is a description of the book “Racism in the Canadian University: Demanding Social Justice, Inclusion, and Equity” that appears on amazon website: “The mission statements and recruitment campaigns for modern Canadian universities promote diverse and enlightened communities. Racism in the Canadian University questions this idea by examining the ways in which the institutional culture of the academy privileges Whiteness and Anglo-Eurocentric ways of knowing. Often denied and dismissed in practice as well as policy, the various forms of racism still persist in the academy. This collection, informed by critical theory, personal experience, and empirical research, scrutinizes both historical and contemporary manifestations of racism in Canadian academic institutions, finding in these communities a deep rift between how racism is imagined and how it is lived. With equal emphasis on scholarship and personal perspectives, Racism in the Canadian University is an important look at how racial minority faculty and students continue to engage in a daily struggle for safe, inclusive spaces in classrooms and among peers, colleagues, and administrators.”
Being aware and prepared to cope with the White supremacist attitudes, course materials etc., of postsecondary study might mean the difference between dropping out or gaining that diploma/degree