Manitoba·Point of View

Celebrating Manitoba stories brings Black History Month to life

This year, I asked for and was given the opportunity to tell stories of black Manitobans who are making history right now, and it has really reinvigorated me, Ismaila Alfa writes.

CBC's Ismaila Alfa reflects on the 'uplifting,' 'refreshing,' 'amazing' impact of diverse black Manitobans

CBC Up To Speed host Ismaila Alfa will lead the conversation -- CBC Asks: Black Lives Matter: What's different now? (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

I've got to be honest.

Over the past few years, I started to feel like I had fallen into a rut when it comes Black History Month.

It had become extremely routine for me.

I'd expect to write and read some stories about the impact of slavery, the underground railroad, etc., as well as prominent black figures from history — often American.

After those stories aired or were published online, I knew that by the third entry in the comment section, someone would inevitably ask, "I wonder how I'd be treated if I celebrated a white history month?"

Then the month would be over and black history and stories would be muted or ignored for another year.

I needed a change.

So this year, I asked for and was given the opportunity to tell stories of black Manitobans who are making history right now.

I was tired of only telling the stories of our past, as though black stories are only preserved artifacts from ages ago.

It has really reinvigorated me.

I didn't have to look far to find black history in the making.

Uzoma Asagwara, left, Dione Haynes and Ismaila Alfa, right, chat backstage at the Good Will Social Club. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

Markus Chambers is Winnipeg's first black city councillor and deputy mayor. Chim Undi is a published poet and law student at University of Manitoba. Ify Chiwetelu is co-host of CBC's Now or Never. Jamie Moses is one of Manitoba's first black MLAs.

All four joined me to talk about what it means to be black in Manitoba.

The discussion was wonderful, but it was the response to the conversation that struck me.

Black history really IS happening right now in Winnipeg- Ismaila Alfa, Up To Speed host

People from Manitoba's African and Caribbean communities sent messages to me via email, Facebook and Twitter to tell me how amazing it felt to see a group of black people at a table in a CBC studio speaking to the diversity of the Manitoba black community.

Not just in culture, but diverse in the way we think.

Often the black community is spoken of as a monolith (which it is not), and to hear what this meant to my aunties, uncles, brothers and sisters in the community made me want to work even harder to honour our stories and the diversity in our community.

Ismaila Alfa, second from left, is joined by Chim Undi, left, Ify Chiwetelu, to his right, Markus Chambers and Jamie Moses, far right. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

Days later, I walked down to the Good Will Social Club to meet up with Uzoma Asagwara, another of this province's first black MLAs.

Uzoma, who uses they instead of a gender-specific pronoun, wanted to introduce me to someone who has had major impact on them and someone whom they felt is making history now: Dione Haynes.

Dione is a poet, comedian and co-founder of Woke Comedy Hour.

That's a space for those who are black, Indigenous and people of colour from diverse communities like LGBTQ2, all abilities and different cultures — and they don't tolerate ANY bigotry.

This community is a big part of the reason Uzoma could run and win in the last provincial election, they said.

I found it so inspiring to see young black people connecting to improve quality of life, while making political and social history right in front of our eyes. I mean it — black history really IS happening right now in Winnipeg!

I'm no longer in a rut.… Black History Month has given me new life.- Ismaila Alfa

Halfway through the month, I met and spoke with journalist Desmond Cole.

That really fired me up.

His take on being a journalist who happens to be black in Canada was very relatable for me.

He longs to change the way we approach journalism in order to allow the stories of black people, Indigenous people and people of colour to be told in a fashion that better represents and impacts their lives.

This is a desire I share and it was amazing to connect with a journalist I respect and look up to, and be assured that I'm not wrong for feeling that — and there are others with this same desire and passion.

In the last week of Black History Month, we invited another diverse group of black people to talk about the way society sees us and how stereotypes about black people have affected our lives.

Ismaila Alfa, back row, left, takes on black stereotypes with, left to right, Melissa Cote, Rob Wilson, Larry Strachan and Leisha Strachan. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

It was so uplifting to hear from Melissa Cote, who wants to work with young black and Indigenous girls and help them rise above the fetishism and sexual comments they hear from older men (something she encountered from age eight).

It was refreshing to hear that Rob Wilson (a.k.a. Winnipeg Christian rapper Fresh IE) holds no grudges toward police and teaches the youth he works with that they are more than a stereotype. This is despite the fact that he was wrongly pulled over by police at gunpoint in 2008 and still — to this day, he says — gets pulled over by police doing what they call routine checks.

It filled me with hope to learn how siblings Leisha and Larry Strachan's parents encouraged them to step outside black stereotypes, and how they're doing the same for black youth now.

It also was important to me this year to honour an icon from Winnipeg's black community: musician and writer Gerry Atwell, who died in November.

Not just to honour him with a feature story about his incredible life and legacy in our city, but also to honour him by showing that his mentorship and support have made a difference through the people in our community.

'I can see why he was so excited about our diverse black community,' Ismaila Alfa says about musician and writer Gerry Atwell, who died in November. (Courtesy of Eagle and Hawk/Facebook)

I feel as though this year Gerry would be proud of me, because I can see why he was so excited about our diverse black community. He saw all the potential, and right now, I'm watching it realized.

At the end of the day — or the month, I guess — I feel that this Black History Month has given me new life when it comes to my work and the responsibility of telling stories from a community I grew up in. 

I'm no longer in a rut. In fact, I'm excited for February 2021, and exploring a new generation of black people making history in this province.

This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

 

About the Author

Ismaila Alfa

Host, CBC Up to Speed

Ismaila Alfa is the host of CBC's drive home radio show Up to Speed. He was born in Zaria, Nigeria and came to Winnipeg at the age of eight. He now lives in Winnipeg with his two youngest daughters. Email at ismaila.alfa@cbc.ca

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