Although African Heritage Month doesn’t officially start until Feb. 1, a crowd gathered at Halifax North Memorial Public Library on Thursday evening to kick it off.
The celebration started with a libation ceremony led by Bernadette Hamilton-Reid, in which she poured oil in memory of ancestors that have passed on. With each pouring, she called out to the assembly with a single word, ashe, which means be with us. Dozens of voices from the gathering responded back.
During the ceremony, Hamilton-Reid encouraged people to call out the names of their ancestors – living or dead – to remember them. The room was then filled with a chorus of voices calling out names.
Hamilton-Reid is a seventh-generation African Nova Scotian and has been working with the Black History Month Association since its 1984 founding when she was a teenager. She said she has been performing libation ceremonies for the past 10 years, noting that there are not many in the African Nova Scotian community who do it.
“There’s not a whole lot of African people that do the libation ceremony, so I do get called upon to do that quite a bit at different events,” she said.
“And I feel humbled to do it. I’m considered to be an elder of wisdom and knowledge because I’ve been doing this for close to 40 years.”
Hamilton-Reid spoke about the importance of celebrating African heritage all year round, rather than just confining the celebration to a single month.
“We call it African hysteria month,” she said. “Because everybody wants our speakers. Everybody wants our drummers. Everybody wants our performers. And you can only be so many places.”
One of Hamilton-Reid’s concerns about African Heritage Month was the involvement of youth. She recalled that during the Black History Month Association’s heyday they had a whole week dedicated to youth activities. That youth involvement has petered out over the past few years.
Hamilton-Reid is hopeful that future events might draw more young people, and give them the self-esteem and ability to carry these celebrations forward.
“The National Black Canadian Summit is taking place from March 20 to March 22, and that’s really a youth conference for 16 to 30 years olds, so we’re hoping for a good influx,” she said.
“We have a lot of people coming from across the country into Nova Scotia, and we’re hoping there will be a strong new strategy to carry on a lot of the work our ancestors have started.”
The opening ceremony also included speeches from Trayvone Clayton, Nova Scotia’s Lt.-Gov. Arthur J. LeBlanc, as well as musical performances from Amariah Bernard Washington and Zamani Bernard-Miller that left the crowd cheering.
In addition, information was provided on dozens of events celebrating African heritage that will be taking place from late January through to the middle of March. These include food-related events, leadership seminars, and talks.
“The more we know about each others’ cultures, the better we can live harmoniously and understand each other,” she said.