Black History Month

YMCA Black History Month 2024 Statement

The YMCA is committed to fostering an environment where every individual is valued, respected, and empowered to reach their full potential. This month, and every month, we reaffirm our dedication to promoting Black inclusion within our communities and beyond.

Through our programs, initiatives, and partnerships, we strive to honour the legacy of Black leaders and innovators by amplifying Black voices and celebrating their achievements, while remembering that Black inclusion requires an ongoing commitment and action.

This year, the theme of Black History Month 2024 is Black Excellence: A Heritage to Celebrate; a Future to Build. From the unyielding resolve of trailblazing leaders who defied systemic barriers to the artists who turned their creativity into a powerful form of protest, the legacy of Black Excellence is a testament to the enduring spirit of resistance.

At the YMCA, we understand that celebrating Black excellence must be accompanied by confronting anti-Black racism all year-round. We reaffirm our commitment to being accountable to Black communities. This month, we are taking the opportunity to highlight ongoing initiatives to dismantle anti-Blackness and to promote Black inclusion, while amplifying the voices of Black leaders.

Let us celebrate Black History Month by embracing the rich tapestry of Black culture, heritage, and achievements. May we be inspired to continue the work of building a more just, equitable, and inclusive society for all.

Black History Month: Background and Purpose

The first Black History Month was observed in the United States when then-president Gerald Ford declared February as month to honour the historical and ongoing contributions of Black people. Since 1926, the second week of February had been chosen to mark Negro History week because it coincided with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, two major figures in the cause for the abolition of slavery.

In Canada, Black History Month was first observed in 1979 in the City of Toronto due to the efforts of the Ontario Black History Society and its founders, Dr. Daniel G. Hill and Wilson O. Brooks. Nova Scotia followed suit in 1988, Ontario in 1993, and at the federal level, it was proclaimed a national month of observance in 1995. Dr. Jean Augustine, the first Black woman elected to the House of Commons, introduced and championed the motion, which was unanimously accepted by Parliament.

While the presence and contributions of Black people should be observed year-round, the focus on Black history in February draws attention to the fact that the contributions and histories of Black people have often been erased from the record. Rinaldo Walcott’s Black Like Who: Writing Black Culture (published in 1997) was a ground-breaking book, which pointed out that although Black people have a long-standing presence in Canada, this is not adequately reflected in the history books. In an interview with the Toronto Star, the Black Studies scholar reflects that “Canadians have been able to write a history of Canada that has rendered Black people very absent…They even seem to forget that Canada was a part of the British Empire and therefore would mean that Canada participated in slavery.” Walcott points out that the erasure of Black people from Canadian history erases that Black communities have long roots in places such as Africville, Nova Scotia, and Grey County, Ontario.

Other Black scholars who foreground Black history in Canada include Afua Cooper, whose book The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal tells the story of an enslaved Black woman who was executed for starting a blaze in Montreal in 1734. rosalind hampton's Black Racialization and Resistance at an Elite University provides a critical history of Black student experience and activism at McGill University. Another Black author, Robyn Maynard has written Policing Black Lives: State violence in Canada from slavery to the present. Her latest book, Rehearsals for Living, is cowritten with Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and is about unsettling colonialism from the perspective of letters between a Black and an Indigenous woman.

During Black History Month, and the rest of the year, it is crucial to challenge anti-Black racism. In an interview, University of Alberta scholar Michael A. Bucknor said that it is a reminder of “an ongoing responsibility to challenge and question systems in place.” Bucknor calls for Black History Month to be reclaimed by Black people, so that it becomes a space for moving beyond symbolic gestures to include action. 

As well, Black history scholar LaGarrett J. King emphasizes that the teaching of Black history should not be limited to teaching about oppression. In an essay, he calls for approaching Black histories in a way “that recognizes Black people’s full humanity and emphasizes pedagogical practices that reimagine the legitimacy, selection, and interpretation of historical sources.” Black History Month is an excellent opportunity to center the work of Black artists, scholars, speakers, activists, and communities, while establishing connections that outlast the month.

Ways to Observe Black History Month 

  • Take action on anti-Black racism; listen to the calls for action from Black activists
  • Center the work of Black activists, artists, scholars, writers, and communities. Below
    is a very brief list of some prominent artists and writers
  • Learn about Black History in your community
  • Invite Black speakers to speak on Black history and contributions in your community
  • Use Black History Month to build lasting relationships with Black community groups
  • Read Black authors: For a limited list, see 25 books by Black Canadian authors to read | CBC Books
  • Screen films by Black Canadian film-makers
  • Attend Black History Month events in your community.

Black Artists and Writers: A Very Short List

Dionne Brand is the award-winning author of twenty-three books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Her twelve books of poetry include Ossuaries (2010); The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos (2018); and Nomenclature for the Time Being (2022). Among other awards, Brand has been the recipient of the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for Poetry, the Governor General’s Award for English-Language Poetry, the Trillium Book Award, and the Griffin Poetry Prize.

Sandra Brewster is a visual multimedia artist born in 1973 in Toronto, Ontario. Sandra Brewster works primarily in drawing, painting, and mixed media to explore questions of race,  representation, and memory. As an artist, educator, and organizer, Brewster is an active presence in Toronto’s artistic community, and her work has been exhibited across Canada and the world.

Austin Ardinel Chesterfield Clarke (b.1934 – d.2016), immigrated to Canada from Barbados in 1955. He is known for his literary works, many of which examine the residual effects of colonialism and slavery on contemporary race relations, as well as the themes of resilience and hope. Clarke's influential work conveys the significance and impact of Black Canadians in the cultural life of the country: Austin Clarke: Recognizing A Literary Great | Royal Ontario Museum (

Esi Edugyan is a Ghanaian Canadian novelist whose work has become an influential part of the Canadian literary canon. Imbued with an interest in Black histories and the Black diaspora, her novels explore ideas of nation and belonging — to new and old cultures and countries, to “here” and “away,” to the present and the past. They also examine the effects of Black migration and the resulting presence of Black subjects in predominantly white societies. Her novels Half-Blood Blues (2011) and Washington Black (2018) both won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, making her only the third writer (with Alice Munro and M.G. Vassanji) to win the award twice.

A multidisciplinary artist based in Toronto, Oreka James creates work about the complexities surrounding the construction of Blackness and the constant surveillance of Black people. Untitled and other works in this series address Black womxn and themes of love, sexuality, mental health, and healing. James’s paintings often depict black figures as headless or white-washed out. In James’s own words, “It reminded me of the figure being present but also not being present at the same time. It’s something that’s intuitive, that I can’t really explain, but if I had to explain it, I would say it’s mirroring a psychological aspect of being Black in this world.” A year after receiving her BFA from the Ontario College of Art and Design University, James was artist in residence at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Her work has been exhibited in Canada and the United States.

Ekow Nimako is a Toronto-based internationally exhibiting LEGO artist who crafts futuristic and whimsical sculptures from the iconic medium.

Award winning author, storyteller, and owner of Toronto bookstore, A Different Booklist, Itah Sadu shares the rich oral traditions of the Caribbean, Africa, and North America with students and teachers. Her stories, workshops, and keynotes often address issues of racism and equity as well as demonstrating the wealth of knowledge, experience, and wisdom gained from oral traditional cultures of the African Diaspora:

Jamaica-born, Toronto-based artist Camille Turner challenges perceptions of “Canadianness” in her performative persona of Miss Canadiana, confronting the idea of the Black body as foreign or “other” and being a surprising representation of Canadian heritage. In this series of staged photographs, Turner posed in front of different landmarks in Hamilton, Ontario. “I created the Hometown Queen series to re-write my personal history and to pay homage to my complicated relationship with my hometown,” explains Turner. “Growing up there, I witnessed and experienced many incidents of blatant bigotry. I couldn’t wait to get away from Hamilton when I was young but now I realize that this complex city made me the person I am today.”