MUN's Black Student Association wants to bring education beyond February

February may be Black History Month in Canada, but the Black Student Association at Memorial University wants to bring Black stories and experiences beyond just one month a year.

'For some it was a rude awakening,' John Mweemba says of 2020

John Mweemba of the Black Student Association at Memorial University says he hopes people understand Black history is about more than the civil rights movement and the slave trade. (CBC)

The end of February marked the end of Black History Month, but a group of students hopes their video series exploring racism and what it's like to be Black in Newfoundland and Labrador will raise awareness and encourage anti-racism learning all year long.

John Mweemba of Memorial University's Black Student Association says this year's pandemic lockdown made it challenging to have community-centric events celebrating Black History Month — something that was missed after what was a hard year.

"The pandemic is a time in which we couldn't really go out into the community and celebrate as much as we usually do," Mweemba said.

"We try to come together a lot and celebrate our culture, that kind of thing, and just bring the community together around February to reflect on what's happened this year — especially in 2020, which was pretty tough for the Black community, globally as well as in our community here, because of what's going on in North America with civil rights, the shootings we see. But it's been pretty difficult."

With social outings and gatherings off the table this year, the BSA partnered with Black-owned St. John's photography and videography company SkkyNation Media to make some videos showcasing what Black culture is, the diversity and multiculturalism within Black communities, and share stories of first-hand experiences.

And with an ever-growing Black population in the province, and the BSA expanding its board of executives, that representation is vital.

"Through the video … we just wanted to give a basic understanding, because I feel like sometimes Black History Month, through my experience, has been kind of boiled down to two themes, which is usually the civil rights movement and the transatlantic slave trade. But Black history is more than that, and we wanted to show that," Mweemba said.

For some it was a rude awakening.- John Mweemba

"There's art, music, fashion, athletes, the pioneers, the engineers, they all represent Black history, but I feel like sometimes when we focus on these few themes — which are very important, I would add — it kind of takes away from the entirety of Black culture and Black history and Black History Month."

Mweemba said the BSA wanted to offer a different and unique look at what it's like to be Black in the province.

"We wanted to change it up after the things that have happened this year," he said. "We wanted to give a better understanding and a better representation of what it means to be Black."

People gather on the steps of the Confederation Building on June 6 to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. (Marie Isabelle Rochon/Radio-Canada)

'It's been really tough'

People have talked about 2020 being the year of racial reckoning: in the United States, the killing of George Floyd sparked a wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations that spread across North America and the rest of the world. Books that centred on anti-racism learning, exploring systemic racism system in modern society, and sharing Black stories topped non-fiction charts.

In St. John's, a Black Lives Matter demonstration last summer drew thousands to Confederation Building, after a Newfoundland and Labrador chapter officially launched in June.

When he looks back on 2020, Mweemba said, it's hard to articulate what it all means.

"I personally feel many ways. It's kind of hard to put into one explanation, but I would say that, personally, it's been really tough.… The events that happened, they're devastating to see, especially on camera and to see how bad it really is, was … saddening that it's still happening in our day and age," he said.

"But for some it was a rude awakening. Some people didn't believe it until the events that transpired, and it's unfortunate that we had to let it get this far before people realize what's going on."

Thousands of people take a knee for nine minutes at Confederation Building in St. John's at the Black Lives Matter peaceful rally last June. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Mweemba said systemic injustices are brutal, but having people realizing that they're happening is a silver lining.

"Now people will listen. I think people will have conversations and understand that this isn't just something that Black people, people of colour, just talk about or exaggerate," Mweemba said.

"This is a legitimate issue and it needs to be dealt with, and if not by our generation, then these things will keep on happening."

As part of the BSA's efforts, Mweemba hopes video features and the sharing of stories on social media accounts will give people a place to start learning about the many aspects of Black culture in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"I just want them to know that Black history and Black culture, these things aren't something to be afraid of. Not many people know how to interpret it or understand it, so we kind of wanted a rudimentary understanding of what it is to be Black in St. John's versus Black somewhere else," Mweemba said.

"I don't want to trivialize it too much, but I think people associate Blackness in North American with the United States, but in Canada it's a totally different thing. And especially when you come down to St. John's or to Newfoundland as a province, it's a totally different thing. So we kind of wanted to bring to light what that's like in our community at MUN, specifically."

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.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Carolyn Stokes