Red Pepper Spectacle Arts, Baldwin Street, Kensington Market
February 2, 2022: There’s no automatic, straight-line connection between the #blacklivesmatter photograph above and the 2022 Black History Month posters further in.. Dutifully observing something officially called “Black History Month” for one month a year, can even backfire: offering an excuse to get back to “business as usual”, whatever we think usual may be, for the rest of the year.
And the journey towards Black History Month has been a winding road too, from its beginnings in 1926 when Harvard-educated African American historian Carter G. Woodson proposed setting aside “a time devoted to honour the accomplishments of African Americans and to heighten awareness of Black history in the United States.” The result was the establishment of Negro History Week in the USA the same year, with Canada following suit shortly thereafter. It then took till the early 1970s for the week to become known as Black History Week, after which it only took till 1976 for it to become Black History Month.
After that, it took almost two decades (December 1995), for the House of Commons to officially recognize February as Black History Month in Canada, thanks to a motion, carried unanimously, by Jean Augustine, the first African Canadian woman elected to Parliament, followed by a mere 13 years (lightning speed for them) for the Senate to make the decision unanimous, largely at the initiative of Senator Donald Oliver, the first Black man appointed to the Senate. It was March 4, 2008, when the Senate, unanimously, passed Oliver’s Motion to Recognize Contributions of Black Canadians, and February as Black History Month. Publication in Hansard made it official, and the initiative entered a new phase.
Make no mistake, official government recognition brought with it increased momentum, clear benefits and reliable resources. It also put official constraints on activities other than the educational and celebratory. That being said, every February, millions of people across Canada participate in Black History Month events and festivities that honour the legacy of Black Canadians and their communities.
And then some, celebration over, or duty done, disconnect and turn to their regular affairs.
It’s a dilemma the organizers grapple with; you can see it in the careful crafting of the particular theme attached to each year’s event. The theme for 2021 was “The future is now – a call to action.” And the 2022 theme is “February and Forever: Celebrating Black History today and every day.”
Here at The WholeNote we have gone back and forth over the years; there have been years we consciously sought out a Black artist to feature on our cover in February, more than once leaving the individual in question wondering if their Blackness rather than their art was the reason for the story. Other times, perversely, we have held an obvious February story over to a different month just so as not to be seen as one of those organizations that pays dutiful once a year lip-service.
Reading and re-reading that #blacklivesmatter notice in the doorway of a neighbourhood community arts organization I admire and respect feels fundamentally different than reading it as some kind of performative ritual. It’s not a once a year thing, it’s business as usual. Hopefully the range of stories in this magazine will strike you the same way.
When the best-laid plans go sideways
The original plan was for this issue to be published on January 20th in flip-through digital format (kiosk.thewholenote.com), with print distribution following over the course of the following three to four days. But the December/January Omicron surge and lockdown here in Ontario made that impractical.
Close to 800 places our readers were used to picking up the magazine, pre-pandemic, had become unavailable to us (all in one swoop) at the start of the pandemic two years ago. By last month we had managed to reacquire around 300 of them, painstakingly, one by one, as they became open to the walk-in public again.
But the Omicron surge was a huge setback, for them and for us. As it was also for a music community, bloody but unbowed, faced (once again) with having their best laid plans for the resumption of live performance thrown into disarray.
So we decided to do two things: the first was to delay the publication date from January 20 to February 2 a) to see if the province’s staged plan for reopening, albeit at severely reduced capacities, would go ahead, and b) to buy a bit more time for the presenters and musicians (whose art is the lifeblood in our pages) to figure out what to do and what to say about it – to replace the divots from their latest pivots, you could say. We are glad we waited, as you will see,
The second decision we made was way tougher. For the first time in 254 issues, dating back to September 1995, this issue is available only via our various digital formats and platforms (see our back cover). A detour we hope not to have to repeat.
If you are actually reading this issue on its launch date (Feb 2, 2022) then it’s already been six or seven hours since your local meteorological groundhog (for us it’s Wiarton Willie) either saw their shadow or didn’t. If a shadow was seen, so the story goes, then our groundhogs took the shadow to be some dangerously contagious lurker of some kind, and fled back into their lairs, for a further six weeks of hibernation. Not necessarily a bad thing, because, barring further setbacks, that takes us to full reopening of live performance venues!
And if no shadows were seen? Well, we’re all in luck, then. “Oh well it’s a bit overcast,” we get to say “but smells more like snowdrops than digital snow!” And off we go, using the eclectic array of performances on offer in this issue, live and digital, up to the middle of March, to get our bums in shape for mid-March’s full capacity array of seats.
But, really truly, only if you are good and ready! There’s no shame in, like our shadow-phobic groundhog, opting for another month and a half of cautious digital dozing. It’s ok. To each their own winding path, in their own sweet time. At some point, take my word for it, you’re going to recognize the moment when (as the song sort-of says), you are ready: to grab your mask and proof of vaxx and leave your worries on the doorstep, as you meander on out in search of music, live and sweet, carried by the air we share.
David Perlman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org