Guest Blog | Jahvon Hanson’s Personal Reflections on Black History Month

As Director Equity, Diversity & Inclusion for Yorkville University and Toronto Film School, it is my pleasure to share my reflections on Black History Month and my family.

My maternal great-grandmother’s name was Imogene, a descendant of sharecroppers, but to my family she was Mama.

Pictured here in 1963, Mama was fashionable, always wearing the most stylish outfits of her time; disciplined and a strong advocate for “tough love”, but family meant everything to her.

I can recall her always being adamant that we needed to stay close together. And ‘staying close together’ for her meant there would be several of her grandchildren and great grandchildren snuggled on a small bed with little room for her to move on any given night. I remember many of those special nights.

In the early 1970’s, Mama and my great-grandfather left their home in Jamaica, and settled in Queens, New York, where they purchased a three-bedroom house. This was a place so far away from home where they used to be able to sit on their veranda and overlook the Caribbean Sea, pick mangoes, limes, and apples from their backyard, and teach their children the art of using a washboard. But to them, they were determined to ensure that their children had a future filled with possibilities in the United States of America, which was described to them as “a place of bountiful opportunities that flowed with milk and honey”.

The house that they purchased would become the backdrop of many of my childhood memories; the gathering place for all holidays and countless special occasions; the only street that I could play on even after the streetlights had gone out, and it would also be the street that would form my community. 

For these reasons and for my family, Black History Month was about ensuring that we first understood our own family history. At a young age, I recall my parents telling my sister and I that we needed to “remember who we are and where we come from.” Given that we were descendants of the Lesser Antilles Islands, we’ve spent decades researching and documenting our family history. From preserving family albums, marriage, and travel documents, to handing down special furnishings and keepsakes, to making it a tradition to hyphenate our last names, we did all of that to ensure that our greater family would stay connected.

As a child in elementary school in New York, Black History was a very small component of the curriculum.  It would consist of a Career Day, where students were asked to dress up as Black historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr,Rosa Parks and W.E.B. Du Bois to name a few, and less than 5-pages in a history textbook were covered. The only other opportunity for a student to learn about Black History would be at home or in tertiary education.

As I grew older and my family relocated to Canada, I found myself learning much more about the diverse identities, cultures, historical events, and contributions from the African Diaspora during Black History Month, which included learning about Viola Desmondthe Honourable Jean AugustineMichaëlle Jean and Africville to name a few. As an adult, I benefited from attending events hosted by the City of Toronto to enhance my knowledge of Black History in Canada. While my family may not originate from Canada, we are proud Canadians with a history that is interwoven, rich and spans around the globe.

Looking back, understanding Black History is more than what one can find in a textbook. For my family it was also found at Mama’s house.  While I may not be able to travel back to Mama’s House as frequently as I once did, we still have family there today living on the same street. These family homes are passed down to each generation and remain as a gathering place for my big, multi-generational family to celebrate special occasions and sometimes their used as temporary housing for family and friends facing challenging circumstances. I still enjoy sitting in Mama’s favorite chair by the living room window and roaming the corridors of the house, discovering new photo albums, vinyl records and artifacts during each visit. 

In closing, my hope is that we all know our history and unearth the beautiful gems that make our families unique, while celebrating our collective history as a society. So, may the lessons learned, and the stories shared during Black History Month inspire us to strive for a world where diversity is celebrated, inclusion is embraced, and opportunity knows no bounds. Let us honor the past, celebrate the present, and pave the way for a brighter, more equitable future for generations to come.  

In honour of Black History Month, it is my pleasure to share two of my family’s favourite traditional West African recipes, so that you can enjoy them as much as we do for special Sunday dinners!

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