Arts·Point of View

Writing our own history: In celebration of Black writers and the endurance of our stories

"This is what art does: it creates permanence. You can quell revolutions and people, physical artifacts of time, but you can't destroy ideas."

'You can quell revolutions and people, physical artifacts of time, but you can't destroy ideas'

W.E.B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk. (Penguin Classics)

My connection to Black History Month, as a Black woman, should be obvious — inherent, even. But besides the fact that my skin is dark, I never truly understood its significance while I was growing up.

Beyond the tepid acknowledgement that February was its designated month, I don't really recall Black history being taught to us in school. Always being the only Black kid in the classroom, the umbrella of childhood innocence protected me from understanding the gravity surrounding this experience. But what I did know from an early age was that the idea of a month (the shortest of the year, no less) dedicated to the collective history of Black people felt very odd, like an impossible needle to thread.

As a kid, I had a surface level understanding of the wretched history of slavery, but the curriculum seemed to begin and end there. Wasn't there more? Surely, Black people have more stories to tell beyond their damnation. There had to be more.

Photos on the wall of Toronto bookstore A Different Booklist, one of the city's most important Black spaces. (Dave Morris)

As I grew up, I struggled to reconcile what Black History Month meant to the world, and what it meant to me. A pressing question pursued me: how do we condense and compress the history of a people that have spent thousands of years seeking to expand beyond the boundaries of the stories told about them?

I believe that access to your own history correlates to your investment in your future. It wasn't until university that I began to seriously study the history of Black people, and by then my appetite was insatiable. I read any and everything written by Black thought leaders I could find. My African studies reading lists were more than homework — it was my own precursory version of It was blood work.

I was reading slave narratives, taking in every word of W.E.B Du Bois's description of the "double consciousness" in The Souls of Black Folk and finally feeling understood. I read about a great Canadian named Lincoln MacCauley Alexander. He was the first Black Member of Parliament, the first Black federal Cabinet Minister, the first Black Chair of the Worker's Compensation Board and the first Black Lieutenant-Governor. I cried the day I first learned about him. How could this remarkable man have been omitted from my school's curriculum? Discovering the first Black Canadian to achieve greatness as Alexander did was to also be reminded that he was, indeed, first Black.

Lincoln MacCauley Alexander. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

My relationship to Black History Month has been one of creating links. How do I seam my singular body to legacies literally thousands of years thick? I think of my dad in the Ethiopian revolution of the late 1970s. He would often recount to me how they would have to write their pamphlets in the dead of the night, using carbon paper to make copies. The act of writing was their rebellion, their resistance made plain through ink on paper. Their defiance was in believing that their history deserved to be documented, deserved to be read and studied for generations to come.

This is what art does: it creates permanence. Like my dad and the many Black writers before me, they forged ideas into the Black ethos — an enduring marker on our DNA. You can quell revolutions and people, physical artifacts of time, but you can't destroy ideas.- Gloria Alamrew

In beautiful ironic fashion, writing — which I had hitherto viewed as a way out, an escape — was now revealing itself to be the way in. Writing was the channel through which I could enter into my history that I found inaccessible for most of my life. If I could write the stories of my parents, of myself, of the world that I occupied today, I was doing the work of expanding what "Black history" meant. By writing, I could do away with the previous false constraints of how our stories were told: that is, always in comparison, as lesser than, or living and dying in grief.

I know that no history can fit into a single month, and who would want it to? But it should still fit somewhere. Room needs to be made for our stories to be told, for our legacies to grow. This is what art does: it creates permanence. Like my dad and the many Black writers before me, they forged ideas into the Black ethos — an enduring marker on our DNA. You can quell revolutions and people, physical artifacts of time, but you can't destroy ideas. Words are containers of memory that promise to persist long past earthly bodies; all they ask is to be written.

So this is how I choose to acknowledge and honour Black History, past any single month. I study, amplify, listen; and I unravel the varied, textured stories of all those before me. I connect to my parents, my ancestral land of Ethiopia, my infinite Black heroes — to myself. I celebrate their stories. And I write new ones.


Gloria Alamrew is a writer based in Edmonton. A passionate advocate for the intersectionality of Blackness, she takes up the mantle of writing as righting. Her work has been featured in the Huffington Post, Avenue Edmonton, FLARE, and CBC.


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