By Bonny Ibhawoh,
Thursday, February 11th 2010
The month of February marks a significant occasion in our calendar. Black history month has been celebrated for years; however, it is more than just an annual celebratory event. It is an opportunity to commemorate the history of African Americans and a chance to discover their distinct ethos throughout the world.
In honour of this, the McMaster Alumni Association hosted an event at the Discovery Centre located in Hamilton Harbour last Wednesday evening. This event, Telling African Stories: Literature, History and the African Experience, featured a critical discussion presented by Dr. Bonny Ibhawoh, Associate Professor in the Department of History and Director of the Centre for Peace Studies here at McMaster University.
Dr. Ibhawoh guided listeners through the history of African literature. Within his lecture, he referred to four distinct periods in the African literary history: the oral traditions and use of symbols that began with the origins of humankind, the colonial traditions, the nationalist traditions and the written word now commonly used in contemporary times.
In relation to these time periods, Dr. Ibhawoh stressed that African literature isn’t something that is exclusive to African peoples alone. Rather, it is a universal phenomenon that prevails amongst all humankind, including Canadians. While African styles of literature are unique, particularly in contrast to European and Western styles of literature, Dr. Ibhawoh explained that “African-Canadian literatures are in many ways very similar to African literature…it’s also based on the oral tradition…so it’s important to understand that even when [it’s] written down the roots are [the same].”
The theme of universality was central to Ibhawoh’s lecture in which he emphasized that literature mustn’t be thought of solely in terms of printed language, as we so often confine our definition of literature to that which is written and intelligible only to us, the West. In order to recognize the universality of African literature, particularly as university students, Dr. Ibhawoh explained that we must do so “by seeking and learning more, by participating…because they are human beings…and [we are all] connected. If you are able to establish a connection the chances are that you will be more proactive in trying to learn about a society.”
It is within a university setting that we have nearly unlimited access to the available tools and resources that allow us to begin or further study of African culture as well as other cultures throughout the world. In fact, diversity amongst cultures is apparent when simply walking through campus. As Dr. Ibhawoh stated, “[McMaster] is becoming a very diverse campus…with not just students but professors from different parts of the world.” It is precisely within this type of environment that “makes us accepting of cultures and more tolerant, and that is something we need [as] Canada prides itself as a mosaic,” he added.
The traditional images associated with the U.S. and Canada are the cultural “melting pot” of the U.S. and Canada’s “tossed salad” of ethnicities. This belief in Canada as a harbinger of ethnic diversity and a cultural mosaic is a fundamental feature of Canadian identity and nationalistic distinctiveness. Often, much of the world views Canada in this same light.
Dr. Ibhawoh said that in Canada “you are encouraged to celebrate your diversity…I think that’s what makes Canada so special and unique. It’s a place that is welcoming of cultures and sees those cultures as not just being tolerated but part of what the Canadian experience is…you have no choice, you need to make an effort to be tolerant and understand.”
While the truth of Canada as ever-welcoming of diversity has been contested, Dr. Ibhawoh’s perspective suggests some progress from our colonial past.
Although the end of February concludes black history month, attribution and appreciation of cultural diversity may be continually exercised throughout the year, as members of a culturally distinct community, both within McMaster University and in Canada.