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.