Mohamed Salih found a welcoming community when he arrived in London about 20 years ago, but then he also remembers hearing racially derogatory language directed his way.
For Silence Genti, who moved to London from Toronto a decade ago, he recalls people of all races actually saying hello as they passed him on the sidewalk — which he found rather surprising.
With Black History Month underway the two men looked back on their early days in the Forest City, reflecting on what has changed over that time, and whether a month celebrating the achievements of one specific race is still important in today’s world.
“Over the years I have been lucky enough to meet and work with people from so many walks of life,” said Genti, who was born in Zimbabwe and today works as a web community developer with Mindyourmind. “London is a great place in that it brings together people from really different parts of the world.”
For Salih — who was born in Sudan, came to Canada when he was eight, and is today Ward 3 councillor — his first memories were of people bumping into him on the street only to pardon or excuse themselves.
He recalls thinking that must be “a strictly Canadian thing.”
But there were inevitably negative experiences as well.
“Sometimes people were confrontational, using the N-word. When I was younger, I would remember playing basketball and sometimes people would use that word. I tried to never let that get me down,” Salih said. “When it was younger people, it was more from ignorance. When an adult says it to a child, it’s definitely discouraging and disappointing to hear.”
Genti actually became involved with the London Black History Coordinating Committee when he complained its events weren’t speaking to him and his experiences.
A decade later, he believes attitudes have changed and more and more people find Black History Month to be something that relates to all Londoners, not just the black community.
While he believes it is important to support all communities, “black, white, red, yellow, brown, whatever,” Genti said he remains torn about the need for Black History Month.
“When you look at the fact black people have been marginalized, if you look at the narrative of history that doesn’t take into account the contributions of black people, then you do need a Black History Month,” Genti said. “But how do you make it so it isn’t just a single event? It should be part of everyday life. The challenge is to keep the momentum going through the rest of the year so it is something people talk about everyday.”
Salih said Black History Month is important for bringing awareness around the achievements of the black community.
And that recognition extends beyond any one community.
In fact, he sees it not only important for young black boys and girls to see role models in people who look like them but for young Caucasian boys and girl to recognize there are really no difference between people beyond the shades of their skin and unique cultural and historic experiences.
Genti has an even more personal reason for pushing for greater communication between all communities — his eight-month-old son.
“I want him to grow up in a world where people like him are just as important as anybody else, that he will have as many opportunities as the next person. That’s not the case right now,” Genti said. “Sometimes it is because of your accent . . . or your last name looks foreign that you don’t get that opportunity. So it is frustrating, but at the same time it has to motivate us to work harder and make sure there is a better world for not just black people, but everyone else.”