As February looms, the University of Calgary saw the kickoff to Black History Month Mon., Jan. 29.
Dreams and Realities–an evening of songs, speakers and stories–delved into the world of American slavery and the perilous journey slaves took to reach freedom in Canada. The event was held in MacEwan Student Centre and featured authors Cheryl Foggo and Lawrence Hill, as well as several vocalists with heritage stemming back to the black pioneers of the early 1900s.
Foggo discussed spirituals, songs with secret messages embedded in the lyrics to guide slaves to Canada, while Hill introduced his newest book and discussed the importance of Black History Month.
“The songs were very, very important in the community,” said Foggo. “They could talk to each other through the songs and give each other instructions for how to make a safe journey.”
Foggo added that because slaves were illiterate and barred from reading maps, spirituals were the only way for groups to communicate with one another about the escape plans.
Hill’s novel, The Book of Negroes, details an African girl’s struggles as she is taken from Africa and enslaved in the United States. His research took him across three continents in search of first-person accounts and memoirs.
“A great deal of research went into this,” said Hill. “I had to learn a lot through books, through scholarly articles and through interviewing experts.”
The title of the book itself also has significance.
“Before you could sail out of Manhattan, you had to have your name entered in the British military ledger,” explained Hill. “Three thousand names are entered into this document, which contains their names, ages, where they were born, how they came to be free.”
The U of C Students’ Union is holding several other events throughout the month of February to pay tribute to the lives of African-Canadians, including several blues music performances and the Black History Film Festival.
“We tend to neglect the most colourful, interesting, and telling aspects of our history,” Hill said. “[Canadian history] is fascinating if we don’t bleach all the colour and life out of it.”