Symposium celebrates role of history in artistic inspiration

Black History Month celebrates the contributions of black Canadians to Canadian life, including in many different forms of art.

As part of this celebration, the Vancouver Public Library (VPL) has organized a series of screenings, lectures and exhibits, including the Reading Black History Symposium. Participating artists will present some of their own work, as well as discussing how they engage with the theme of history in their art and works inspired by the black Canadian society.

“It’s always healthy to talk and think about black history, so I’m looking forward to the event as a way to review the issues related to the black community,” says Wayde Compton, program director of Creative Writing at Simon Fraser University’s Continuing Studies and one of the symposium participants

Photo courtesy of Lucius Beebe Memorial Library

Photo courtesy of Lucius Beebe Memorial Library

Importance of history

Compton, who has published a variety of work centered on the black Canadian community, including poems, essays and short fiction, will put the note of history at the center of the symposium.

In both his fiction and non-fiction work, Compton explores the treatment given to the first generations of black Canadians, trying to educate about the real history lived here and elevating the work and inputs from the culture to the new Canada. Compton also engages in more hands-on work, as a co-founder of the Hogan’s Alley Memorial Project. This organization is dedicated to preserving and promoting the history of Vancouver’s Black community.

The roots of this community can be traced to 1858, when around 800 African-Americans moved from San Francisco to live as free people on Vancouver Island. By the 1900s, a sizeable Black community had developed in the Vancouver neighbourhood of Strathcona, also known as Hogan’s Alley, where they managed to overcome discrimination and work for the enrichment of the colony in politics, economy and religion.

For Compton, educating people about the history of the clack Canadian community and the issues facing it, as well as working for social justice, helps to overcome racism.

“I think racism thrives on power and wealth inequalities, as well as the irrational fear of difference. So efforts to democratize the material wealth and power of all are good, as is the insistence on diversity as being a central part of democratic thinking,” says Compton.

Inspired by community

Wayde Compton, program director of Creative Writing at Simon Fraser University’s Continuing Studies. | Photo by Ayelet Tsabari

Wayde Compton, program director
of Creative Writing at Simon Fraser
University’s Continuing Studies. | Photo by Ayelet Tsabari

In addition to the role of history, the symposium offers a chance to explore and share the importance of the black Canadian community and its role in the creation of art. Several artists will share and discuss their work, including poet Chelene Knight, director/producer Diane Roberts and visual artist Chantal Gibson, whose exhibition TOME: Passages in Black History will be displayed throughout February in the central branch of the VPL.

Compton is excited about the opportunity to work with the other symposium participants.

”I love their work! I’ll be listening with great interest to what they have to say. They are each very smart, very talented people,” says Compton.

Black History Month

The symposium comes as part of Black History Month, celebrations of Black culture that take place in February every year. The month has its roots in the work of historian Carter Woodson, who started Black History Week in February of 1926, as a celebration and commemoration of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

“It’s an opportunity to inform people that blacks have been in Vancouver ever since there was a Vancouver, and we continue to live here now,” says Compton.