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‘Never forget it’: Black History Month and police brutality

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Black Lives Matter protest, Washington, DC, June 1, 2020. Photo by Koshu Kunii/Unsplash.

In 2017, to “honour Black History Month,” Durham Regional Police unveiled a squad cruiser wrapped in “Pan-African colours” featuring the faces of six prominent Black historical figures. On February 1, 2021, images of the cruiser went viral on Twitter with users referring to the car as “absolutely horrendous” and “ridiculous,” among other things. One user remarked: “this is terrible in so many ways I can’t even pick one.” What was trite in 2017 is tone deaf in 2021.

Evidence indicates that opinions of police violence and racial justice shifted significantly last year. Sales of anti-racism books written for white people soared in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, but to call 2020 a “racial reckoning” has been criticized as an overstatement.

In the wake of this increased awareness, what should honouring Black History Month look like for white allies in 2021? How do we do justice to acknowledging our shared history (as oppressors and the oppressed) while celebrating the lives and achievements of Black people? There are of course myriad ways in which people can honour Black History Month. Listening to the stories and narratives of Black Canadians, as expressed in poetry, art, and music is one good way. As Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic write in Critical Race Theory: An Introduction:

Talented storytellers nevertheless struggle to reach broad audiences with their messages. “Everyone loves a story.” The hope is that well-told stories describing the reality of black and brown lives can help [listeners] to bridge the gap between their worlds and those of others. Engaging stories can help us understand what life is like for others and invite the [listener] into a new and unfamiliar world.

An email with the subject line “Black History Month” from a representative of Ensemble—a community non profit organization that works to promote the wellbeing of marginalized youth in Ottawa—recently landed in our inboxes. The purpose of the email was to draw our attention to Ottawa-based hip-hop artist City Fidelia’s new single (out February 18), “Drugs and Loaded Weapons,” and his message led us to reflect on the importance of contemporary Black Canadian storytelling in 2021. An excerpt of Fidelia’s lyrics reads:

Every time I see the red and blue I feel some tension
I know that they think my car got drugs and loaded weapons
They can take my life at any time at their discretion…

City Fidelia’s powerful narrative clearly speaks to the fear and uncertainty that many BIPOC Canadians experience during encounters with police. His lyrics call us to attend to the subjectivity of young Black Canadians and to place ourselves in a world where the police do not protect and serve.

Sociology of music scholar Tia Denora suggests that music is a social force connected to both subjective awareness and social structures. Last year’s wide ranging historic protests against police violence and brutality upon members of the Black community following the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd suggests the raising of public consciousness to the social structures that disproportionately cause harm and death to the Black community, a point stressed in “Drugs and Loaded Weapons”:

…Flipping through the news just to see another brother gone
Even when the cameras on, they always acquitted
Yeah they put them the charges on, but never convicted
Took George Floyd for some white boys to finally get it
Hoping they never forget it…

The Heritage Canada website tells us that the objective of Black History Month is to “celebrate the many achievements and contributions of Black Canadians and their communities who, throughout history, have done so much to make Canada the culturally diverse, compassionate, and prosperous nation it is today.” Black achievements, Black art, and Black stories enrich us all. However, we cannot and should not divorce stories of perseverance and achievement from the history of challenges and oppression that Black Canadians face—a history that is still in the making. How will Black History Month in the future remember 2021? Will this be the year that we pay attention to the Black artists and activists calling out systemic racism in our justice system and begin the process of making real changes? Or will the global social justice movements of 2020 be relegated to history?

Ottawa rapper Luigi Fidelia, better known as City Fidelia. Photo by Serena Halani.

The problems of police brutality and systemic racism appear to be gaining more widespread acknowledgement among white people, resulting in public conversations about defunding the police, while others have suggested that a whole new imagination of the justice system itself is required. The storytelling in hip-hop and rap music offers us important insight into the kinds of changes that are necessary. According to Paul Butler, author of Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice, and former US prosecutor turned law professor, hip-hop music provides an important foundation for reimagining the justice system in a way that is more humane and receptive to the lived experiences of the Black community.

Hip-hop storytellers like Ottawa’s City Fidelia serve as a vital voice, one uniquely positioned in history with a subjective awareness of racism, while also speaking of the lived experiences of Black and brown people in Canada in the present. One of the takeaways from 2020’s “racial reckoning” was actually listening to Black and brown people. In 2021, both in honour of Black History Month and beyond, let us listen with intention and learn what hip-hop music can teach us and let us “never forget it” as we strive to reimagine an equitable justice system and better, more inclusive social world that is informed by the lived realities of the Black and brown community.

Christopher J. Schneider is a professor of sociology at Brandon University.

Stacey Hannem is an associate professor of criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University.


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