The Bridge: Black history needs to be part of the 'constant conversation'

Nantali Indongo, host of CBC Quebec’s The Bridge, along with CBC's Shari Okeke, Sean Henry and Duke Eatmon, look back on their childhood memories — and look forward to a future where a month to celebrate Black history no longer matters.

CBC personalities weigh in on Black History Month and what it means to them

CBC personalities, left to right, Nantali Indongo, Duke Eatmon, Shari Okeke and Sean Henry share their thoughts on Black History Month on CBC Radio One's The Bridge, hosted by Indongo. (Amanda Klang/CBC)

To celebrate Black History Month, CBC's The Bridge brought together three CBC Montreal on-air personalities who are also members of Montreal's black community to share their thoughts on why black history matters, their stories and their song picks. 

Host Nantali Indongo was joined by:

  • Television news anchor and reporter Sean Henry.
  •  Duke Eatmon, music columnist and researcher on CBC Montreal's Homerun and Quebec City's Breakaway.
  •  CBC Montreal Daybreak's writer-broadcaster, Shari Okeke — now hard at work on a new CBC podcast called Mic Drop.

Here are excerpts from that interview, edited and condensed for clarity.

Nantali: When did you first learn about black history?

Shari: The earliest recollection I have was in elementary school in Montreal.

We were pretty much the only black family in this particular school. I remember being in the library and noticing a book about Harriet Tubman, and I was drawn to that book. I can see it in my mind: "Wow, there's this black lady on the front of a book!" 

That was my first connection to learning about black history, outside of family history. I don't remember learning about it in school.

Duke: I'm a child of the '60s, so my parents came out of the black power movement. I never went to school on Dr. King's birthday; I never went to school on Malcolm X's birthday. 

Growing up, for me, everyday was Black History Month, and I don't mean that as a cliché. It really was.

Nantali: That was my experience, as well, to a certain degree. It was definitely a constant conversation in my house.

Why is it so important to know that history?

Duke: As a child, at Christmas time, our nativity scene was black; Santa Claus was black. I never felt an inferiority complex, and I assumed that all black people were like this.

Then when I started to go to school, and this kid doesn't know who Malcolm X is, and that one doesn't know who Marcus Garvey is — it was strange to me.

I think it's very important for black people in society to understand their heritage and their contributions, because when you go through your sensitive teenage years, without that sense of identity and pride you can go through lots of stuff, if you haven't been armed with the proper knowledge of who you are and where you come from.
In this August 1922 file photo, Marcus Garvey is shown in a military uniform as the 'Provisional President of Africa' during a parade on the opening day of the annual Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World along Lenox Avenue in New York's Harlem borough. (AP)

If Black History Month is about celebrating our accomplishments and combating negative stereotypes, does it set the record straight?

Sean: I think it does. My song choice, Soul 2 Soul's Back to Life, reminds me of Montreal in the late '80s and early '90s, when I felt we were at a crossroads of dealing with pressing social issues.

Many black people here will remember Nov. 11, 1987, as the day Anthony Griffin was shot by police. But if you turned on TV then, you saw also a lot of positive reflections of black people, including The Cosby Show and A Different World.
A Different World is an American sitcom inspired by student life at historically black colleges in the U.S. that aired for six seasons on NBC from 1987 to 1993. Jasmine Guy, left, played the Southern belle Whitley Gilbert and Kadeem Hardison played math whiz Dwayne Wayne. (NBC)

Shari: My dad came to Montreal from Nigeria to study engineering at McGill. He wound up meeting and marrying my mom. People had different reactions to him marrying a white Canadian and to her marrying a black West African. But my dad was very proud of his heritage and very much dedicated to his family and focused on education and excellence.

I feel that Black History Month has become that, as well: a moment that we are recognizing excellence in black communities. Because what's happening today is tomorrow's history. I feel that's become a beautiful part of Black History Month, and my dad was always encouraging us to be excellent at whatever we do. That push from him has helped me in many ways.

What will Black History Month look like in 20 years in Montreal and Quebec? 

Duke: Hopefully, there won't be a need for it.

Shari: I hope so, too. We are just a part of history. We should be recognized in our roles.

Nantali: And we won't need to make that distinction anymore. 

Sean: Unfortunately now, we do still need to make that distinction, and Black History Month is necessary because of the negative things we're seeing affecting the black community in Canada and in the U.S.
Viola Desmond was a Nova Scotia woman who challeged racial segregation at a movie theatre in New Glasgow, N.S., in 1946.

Duke: We should also remember, it's not brown skin that epitomizes Black History Month. There are bigger political accomplishments that should be focused on.

Nantali: Right. So, how come we're not talking about Viola Desmond more than we do? How is Lawrence Hill's Book of Negroes not compulsory reading in our schools? The story is about crucial black history in Canada with regards to Loyalists and the underground railway.

It sounds like there is still tonnes of work to be done.

Shari: And look at the new Dynastie Gala to recognize accomplishments in Quebec's black community.

People might say, why do you need this celebration and this award ceremony? We need it because all of these amazing, talented people are not being recognized in other places.

Even as a black Montrealer myself, I was awestruck at last year's inaugural Gala, to see these people on the screen and think, "How did I not know them before this?"

There's so much talent there that doesn't otherwise get seen. Everyone that I came in contact with at the Gala said ''we need this, we need this!''
Isabelle Racicot, co-host of CBC Montreal's podcast Seat at the Table, won the Dynastie Gala's anglophone radio personality of the year for 2017. (Seat at the Table/CBC)

For more Black History Month events:

Prince's Purple Majesty, curated by Duke Eatmon, runs until March 3 at Place des Arts.