Black History Month inspires a father to think about the world his daughter will grow up in
'I hope that she'll learn to embrace her not-so-typical family history and, maybe, that society will, too'
February is Black History Month. To mark it, The Road Ahead has asked several Black Albertans to share their personal stories and their hopes for the future of this province. Today's column is by Washington, D.C., lawyer and former Lethbridge resident Julian SpearChief-Morris.
This year, Black History Month has a special significance for me.
Last Sunday, my wife and I were blessed with the arrival of a healthy baby girl — our first child. Like me, she has light brown skin and dark curly hair. She's also inherited my long last name and a not-so-typical family history.
But while I was born in a small hospital in Lethbridge, Alta., she was born in Washington, D.C., a place that has been at the very centre of a renewed global conversation on race.
Though I hadn't met her yet, I thought about this baby girl a lot last summer, when the streets of D.C. were filled with people from all walks of life protesting racial injustice.
I thought that, perhaps, because of this moment and all of the things that had led up to it, the world my daughter will grow up in might look a little different, and the conversations she'll inevitably have about race might be a little different, too.
I was also heartened to see similar, if not smaller, demonstrations taking place all over the world, including in my hometown.
Growing up different
Growing up in Lethbridge, I don't remember the exact moment I discovered I was different from the other kids in the neighbourhood, but I do recall it coming as a surprise. Because in my house, everybody looked different.
My mom was Indigenous, my dad was Black, and I was apparently something different, too, because I didn't quite look like either of them. But at home it never mattered. We were a family and that was it.
At school, though, it was usually just me that looked different. And as I'd come to learn, my responses to the questions "So, what are you?" and "Where are you really from?" required a slightly longer explanation than most.
Coming to terms with what it meant to be Black was a particular challenge because, especially as I got older, I learned that being Black had all these other ideas attached to it.
Some of these ideas were perhaps positive: that I should be naturally good at sports (I actually was) or could inherently dance well (not so much). But some of these ideas weren't: that I was dumb, untrustworthy or even dangerous.
My dad talks about how, when he first moved to Lethbridge from Los Angeles, the number of other Black people walking around town was in the single digits. So they all knew each other.
Perhaps needless to say, as a kid, my curly hair was a novelty at school.
Eventually, though, like all Black kids, I figured out how to navigate these sorts of things.
What was harder to deal with was how some people would say I wasn't really Black, because my skin wasn't dark enough, or my hair wasn't curly enough, or worse, because I was smart and articulate. Almost as if to say I didn't face the same obstacles other Black people and, for that matter, all people of colour face. Like I hadn't experienced what it felt like to have someone call me a racial epithet that starts with "N" to my face and then laugh.
And what then about all the family stories I'd been told?
Like how my grandparents had fled the South as part of the Great Migration, or how I had relatives who had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or how my dad's brothers and sisters had been involved with the Black Panthers.
And what about all the other stories of Black excellence that I'd grown up admiring, stories about Black trailblazers, Black leaders and Black professionals? If I wasn't really Black, did I not deserve to celebrate these stories?
Without question, Black stories like these should be celebrated by all, regardless of your background and complexion, and especially during Black History Month. Still, I found it hard to square my own story with these stories.
Love, community and acceptance
As unlikely as it might seem, the very first place I ever felt truly at peace with my Blackness was at Harvard University. Because that was the first place I met all sorts of people whose names and complexions warranted long explanations like mine.
It's where I first heard dozens of Black stories mixed with the stories of people from all over the world. And it's where I finally learned that Blackness wasn't an exclusive club, but rather that Blackness was about love, and community, and acceptance, and about celebrating the things that make us different, as well as the things that make us the same.
Now, as with any new parent, I'm thinking about the future. And especially this month, I'm thinking about how I know my daughter is going to have to learn to navigate society's ideas about race and about Blackness, and how she's going to have to learn how to tell her own story.
Wherever it is that she grows up, I hope that all the struggles and conversations that have taken place in the past and are still taking place today will lead to her confronting slightly fewer stereotypes, and feeling free to do what she wants to do and be who she wants to be.
But more than anything, I hope that she'll learn to embrace her long name and not-so-typical family history and, maybe, that society will, too.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.