Syreeta Hector: Questions I ask myself around Black History Month (and the answers I would give if I didn’t have to apologize)
Editor's note: This Black History Month, we’re highlighting Black perspectives, and sharing stories from Black Googlers, partners, and culture shapers from across Canada.
About the author: Syreeta Hector is a dance artist and educator based in Toronto, Ontario. Her work, Black Ballerina, is touring nationally across Canada.
This blog posting will take the form of an interview session. Even though it is only me writing this post, I will take on two different roles in order to formulate a question and answer session with myself. The putting on of different identities is not new to us racialized folks - we struggle about what to conceal, or reveal, in any given social situation, job interview or when entering professional institutions. I digress already…but I hope you get the point. One perspective will be an interviewer, and the second voice will be answering through semi-coherent rambling and sporadic invisible hand gestures. Start before you are ready…here we go.
Syreeta Interviewer: What Black Canadians immediately come to mind that people should know about?
Syreeta Answer: Joseph Drummond, William Hall, Thomas Peters….They are all my relatives and Canadians should know about these people. I often feel ashamed that the curriculum I was taught growing up did not mention these groundbreaking Black men…… Perhaps this is a biased answer.
Syreeta Interviewer: Have you ever felt out of place because of your skin colour?
Syreeta Answer: When I was about 6 years old, I went to a dance-a-thon in rural New Brunswick. During snack time, a kid came over and asked, “Why do you look that way and why does your skin look the way it does?” Well, I figured that was the end for me and dance - I never wanted to have a confrontation like that again. Even though your parents prep you with “The Talk” about inequality and blackness, it was jarring. I felt like I should do my best to dodge uncomfortable interactions, and dance was lumped into that.
Syreeta Interviewer: Well, of course you wanted to avoid these situations, you were a young child. Sorry I cut you off, please continue.
Syreeta Answer: Sure… It wasn’t until attending high school in North Carolina that I had the mettle to take dance as an elective. Here, I met one of my most influential teachers, Miss Alycia Long Allen. Miss Allen was an African American dance teacher in the public school system and somehow managed to convince us all that anything was possible. I remember her saying, “Syreeta, I think there might be something for you in this art form. Don’t worry about the money, go to this class. See if you like it, and I’ll figure it out.” And then I did — and I never stopped dancing after that.
Syreeta Interviewer: Can you tell me about how art and dance express your identity?
Syreeta Answer: My work, Black Ballerina, expresses the wonderfully fractured nature of my identity. I love the dynamic aspects of classical ballet - the rigour that’s required to carry out a rapid jumping sequence, the meditative stability it takes to stand on one leg gracefully. You can’t fake those, technically or spiritually.
I also have to acknowledge the complicated history of my Indigenous and Black Loyalist ancestors in Nova Scotia. They were forced to forget who they were in order to survive. Black Ballerina was a response to the desire to know where I came from, and the need to reflect on how the effects of colonialism live within my body.
Syreeta Interviewer: What does Black History Month mean to you?
Syreeta Answer: …To me?
Syreeta Interviewer: Ya, can you describe what Black History means right now to you?
Syreeta Answer: Black History Month is a time for reflection. Right now, I find myself reflecting about all of the “work” that corporations and institutions have done to make diversity and equality a “priority.”
Syreeta Interviewer: I see you putting your hands in quotations a lot…
Syreeta Answer: I use quotations because I am curious about diversity and equity that is sustainable. Yes, we’ve done the roundtable discussions, we’ve done the surveys, and the results are in: racism exists in many institutions and workplaces. The surveys told us that systemic racism lives amongst us, and that we must do better. Cool.
But I don’t think more “one-offs” during Black History Month is an effective response. How about we stop holding one-off sessions where a speaker shares or educates and is never heard from again? Did they fall off the face of the earth? Or was this just lip service / box-checking? What can we do instead of this uninspired, half-hearted, pro forma action?
There are no easy answers, but one option could be holding recurring events where change is discussed, implemented, and then re-evaluated down the line so further action can take place? Maybe that? Committing to trying something beyond the one workshop model. It’s nice to have action plans, but following through - and following up on their efficacy - is real movement toward reaching these evasive ideals.
Syreeta Interviewer: Okay, thanks for that. I think I understand. You seem like you want more sustainable opportunities for Black individuals.
Syreeta Answer: Yep.
Syreeta Interviewer: What would you tell the future generation about being a Black or racialized artist in Canada?
Syreeta Answer: I am from a family of resilient people and so are you.