Adrian Harewood on Black History Month

As part of Black History Month, I attended a speech by Adrian Harewood, a journalist with the CBC. One of the things he spoke about was the importance of interrogating received versions of history – going back and uncovering the more complex story that has usually been streamlined into a simpler narrative. He gave the example of Viola Desmond, from Nova Scotia, who has arrested and tried for sitting in the portion of a movie theatre in New Glasgow designated for white people in 1946. People like to think such segregation was something that happened in the southern United States, but it seems it was something that happened in Nova Scotia too. He also talked about the two teenaged black women who did exactly what Rosa Parks later did in Montgomery, Alabama but who were deemed unappealing test cases by the black community, given that they seemed radical and unsavoury, in comparison with Rosa Parks herself.

There are a number of lessons to draw from all of this. It reinforces the important point that history serves a purpose, and that dominant narratives can be highlighted while more awkward counter-narratives are suppressed. For instance, the second world war is often presented as a response to the Holocaust, whereas the historical evidence for that claim is weak. Indeed, Canada refused to accept at least some Jewish refugees during WWII. Similarly, while people are quick to point out the war crimes committed by the Axis powers, they are much more hesitant to consider whether the indiscriminate bombing of German civilians was a war crime. Similarly, embarrassments like the 1967 Klippert decision of the Supreme Court of Canada are not much mentioned.

We should not allow ourselves to get too comfortable with official histories that only tell the stories that flatter us. It is only be recognizing the grave errors in our own histories that we can really appreciate our own potential for error. When we recognize that people who we admire were dead wrong about critical moral issues in the past, we also open our own minds to the possibility that we are passively accommodating – or even facilitating – grave injustice today.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

6 thoughts on “Adrian Harewood on Black History Month”

  1. Thank you for sharing the account of Viola Desmond. I had not heard of it before. I had not realized in that anywhere in Canada there were designated white only seating areas. I expect that the location in Nova Scotia may reflect the greater presence of blacks in Nova Scotia. That may suggest that the relative absence of racist segregation in Canada reflects the relative absence of blacks in Canada.If there had been more blacks, such racist segregation may have been more prevalent.

    On the title of the home where I live in North Vancouver is a prohibition on selling the property to Asians, blacks, Eskimos and Indians. This prohibition was in place in 1964 and only struck out by law a decade or two later.

    Canada’s greatest runner at the time Harry Jerome also lived in North Vancouver. He was the subject of racism despite setting several world sprint records.

    It is eye-opening to know of such darker elements of our Canadian history such as the internment of Ukrainians in the First World War or Japanese in the Second World War.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, I did find it an interesting talk, which shared interesting stories.

    This is a more trivial example perhaps, but I remember hearing a story a while back about Steve Fonyo, who having also lost a left leg to cancer, actually completed what terry Fox could not, but had a tough time an ended up committing some crimes and having a difficult life, and who never received the same level of recognition for completing what the more telegenic Terry Fox could not.

  3. Review of Edward Said’s “The Question of Palestine”

    “The current landscape is highly conducive to Palestinian perspectives that “recognize both sides”, which apparently means become an apologist for power and support Chapters, a corporation that supports the Israeli military, or stand-off events like Israeli Apartheid week which are responded to by hatred and spiteful rejection from Zionist communities. It’s hard to be thoughtful in a political situation which is axiomatized into the unthoughtful adherence to prejudice – and certainly more figures of Said’s caliber could do much to bring some common sense to questions which our societies demonstrate themselves incapable of coping with reasonably. I can hope that Judith Butler’s appearance at this year’s IAW might do something like this in Toronto.”

  4. The Ku Klux Klan on parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, 1928
    ARC Identifier 541885 / Local Identifier 306-NT-650-4
    Item from Record Group 306: Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900 – 2003

    Creator(s): U.S. Information Agency. (08/01/1953 – 03/27/1978)
    Type(s) of Archival Materials: Photographs and other Graphic Materials
    Still Picture Records Section, Special Media Archives Services Division (NWCS-S), National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD, 20740-6001. PHONE: 301-837-0561; FAX: 301-837-3621; EMAIL:

    Production Date(s): 1928
    Part Of: Series: Photographic File of the Paris Bureau of the New York Times, compiled ca. 1900 – ca. 1950

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