Strolling in a Rich Neighbourhood

My mood was as sweet as a lemon. A cold was hovering in the wings, waiting to take centre stage. I was tired from being out every day in the past week. And my weekend was going to be busy too with a Black History Walk and then the hike for my outdoor club. And I still had tons of school work to do.

I had to do the pre-hike as I already had a dozen e-mails confirming attendance. If the weather was fine, more people would show up. As the leader, I had better know where we were going. I had walked a kilometre and had nine more to go.

From Lawrence subway, I meandered south to Duplex Park. As I walked through the green-land, a parliament of pimply schoolboys, in uniforms, lounged and smoked on a bench. We ignored each other. The park was shaped like a bowl with a flat bottom and steep sides. This was a good indicator that it was probably once a brickworks, and if such, a stream was nearby, either still flowing, or channeled underground and landfilled with trash a century or so ago.

Houses backed onto the steep edges on the east side of the park. Their fences were covered with billboard-sized photographs, graffiti art and murals. I loved the picture of a black cap chickadee, painted by a thirteen year old Chinese girl.

Leaving the park I climbed up the wooden steps which were nestled into the ground. The decaying wood was already enriching the earth, as we all will, one hopefully distant day. Crossing the road, I descended into Chatsworth Ravine. The tarmacked path was steep. I mumbled under my breath that I was really turning into an old fart; I was wary of falling even though there was no ice on the ground. What happened to sprinting down such a slope for the sheer joy of it?  My legs refused to take more than mincing baby steps. My shame was as bright as the pink oak leaves.

The gully was secluded. The absence of litter meant that it was regularly cleaned up or it was not frequently used. Little hairs pricked up on the back of my neck. Where was the fearless explorer eager for adventure? Who was this little old Black woman in the woods?

strolling in a rich neighbourhood fence

I soon forgot about the shivers, seduced by the beauty of the autumn leaves and the sleepy brook flowing into an underground channel. The ravine was steep and narrow. About twenty feet from its lips, houses were perched on both sides. Through the autumn leaves I glimpsed patios and large picture windows overlooking the forested crevice. I would love to wake up to that view each morn. Unfortunately the five million dollar price tags were just a tad beyond my means.

I walked through the valley in fifteen minutes. I never saw another soul. Not even a blasted dog walker.

The ravine ended abruptly in a school playing field. Either the brook meandered north, or it was encased in concrete under the field. I crossed the road. The gully continued on the other side, but the access gate was locked, with a sign saying private property. I strolled around, seeing a street of houses backing onto the ravine, but I could find no entrance into it. I will look for it on my next walk in the area.

I strolled south following any street that looked interesting. All the houses were detached or semi-detached, with large windows and lovely front yards. Most were built in the 1930s when Forest Hill was developed as yet another bloody ‘little England in Canada.’

The streets were quiet. Too quiet.

Many times I stopped and checked the map to make sure I was where I thought I should be. My heart raced at these stops. I was in the mid-town area of the city. Yet it was unnerving walking through a neighbourhood where no one was on the streets. The cars in the driveways and the lights in the houses indicated people were at home, yet I saw no one peeking through the windows. It felt like I was walking through a ghost town. Climate change or the apocalypse had killed all the people, leaving me the sole survivor to try and figure out what the fuck had happened.

I walked for an hour before seeing anyone in the rich enclave. Two roads before Eglington Park, Filipino nannies and their white charges were outside. Two decades or so ago the nannies were Black women from the Caribbean. They were replaced by white Eastern European women reeling from the fall of communism. Where will the nannies of tomorrow come from? Under capitalism it is anywhere labour becomes cheap due to war, recession or social conflict. Add the effects of climate change to the list.

I passed a Black woman chatting on her phone in her driveway. The car door was opened. Three white teens walked by, each with a puppy. One puppy ran towards the woman, wagging its tail like its life depended on it. The woman went gaga over the whippersnapper, bending down to hug, and oh my god, kiss it. She then stood up and greeted each dog and its leashed child by name.

The playground in the park was filled with white children, either with their parents or mostly their Filipino nannies. I headed straight for the washroom in the skating arena, as it was a rest stop for the group hike. Classical music drifted from upstairs in the arena. I had to have a look. The rink was filled kids and their coaches figure skating. The learners were mostly white or Chinese girls, practicing their jumps, twirls and flowing arabesques. One was Black. I hoped she knew of Surya Bonaly. I remembered watching her on television, astonished that a Black woman was on ice. The French star won the European Figure Skating Championship five times.

Leaving the arena, a little Black boy, aged about four, darted in front of me. A voice commanded that he stop. I looked up, the dad was the spitting image of the boy, barring his blonde hair and green eyes. We exchanged nods.

strolling in a rich neighbourhood hike

Crossing an avenue I meandered through the side streets and parks until I found the Beltline Trail. The former railway track was converted to a linear tree-lined park. The trail was packed with runners, dog walkers and rude cyclists who refused to slow down. I put away the map. I knew this path well, and it was important that I took my time to simply stroll along it, enjoying the autumn tinted forest that was right in the city.

Soon, too soon, I was back on Yonge Street, walking around checking out the best café. I like to end my hikes with tea and chatter around a table. I treated myself to chai and two ginger cookies. Finally, my mood was as sweet as the honey in the tea.

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Who Do You Cite?

What’s citation got to do with politics, race and creating knowledge? I assumed that one simply cited the writers who were important to the essay one was trying to write. When your work is cited it means your knowledge is legitimate and valued. You have joined the academy. The more people who cite your work the higher the value of the work.

Before drafting an essay you do a literature review. That is look up who has written on the topic, what claims they made and how your views are similar or different. The essay’s bibliography shows that you have done the necessary slogging through the books and journals. You have acknowledged and paid your dues to the other thinkers in the field.

Creating knowledge, like every other human activity, is not neutral. Citations reflects who has the power in academia. That power is hidden behind claims that citation is simply showing the experts on the topic. The long list of references in an essay and in the bibliography creates the canon of the field. It encapsulates the writers who are the most influential. It is remarkable that those experts are still mainly white men and white women.

What happens when other experts are left out of the citations? It is a good indication that their knowledge creation is not valued. This leads to some interesting questions.  What do we mean by knowledge, how is it created, and who decides which knowledge is valuable and which is not?

Here, I am more interested in the third question. I am not a philosopher, just prone to philosophizing.

A few decades ago, not many women were cited in academic journals. The feminist movement upset the academic old white boys’ club by insisting that women’s experience, values and ways of knowing were legitimate sources of knowledge. The number of female thinkers cited shot up like a rocket. However, the space was unequally allocated. Black women were left behind or shoved off the rocket. In the world of citing women, it is white women (dead or alive) who dominate the references and bibliographies.

How can knowledge creation be neutral when it mirrors the racial and gender hierarchy in society?

As a PhD student I am being trained to create new knowledge. One day my research may be published in books and journals, and quoted in newspapers. Or, it could be completely ignored, buried in dusty academic journals that few read. Who will cite my work?

Citations are powerful. I am now using them intentionally now to make space for Black academics and their expertise. Nelson Mandela once said ‘if you want to change the world, you must first change yourself.’ I am doing so by challenging the white-bias-but-passing-for-neutral citation status quo. That means finding, reading, quoting and citing the long and rich tradition of Black intellectual thought.

Black History Walks Toronto

Squirrel Stew with Nuts

The trees were mostly naked. I crunched through piles of fallen oak and maple leaves in the park on my walk to school. The rich musky, earthy, smell of autumn was delicious in my nose.

Until I got to the ginkgo trees. Their scent advertised their presence long before I spotted the yellowed fan-shaped leaves on the earth. The smell came from the fleshy nuts littering the ground. It reminded me of stinky French cheeses, truffles or fermenting rancid apples. A true connoisseur would salivate over the ginkgo fragrance, mentally planning which wine or beer would complement its rich and complex aroma.  Roasted ginkgo nuts are an Asian delicacy, with a sweet subtle flavour.

Without their leaves the trees were hard to tell apart. The brown textured barks all looked alike to me. Squirrel nests were now visible in the trees, the loose collection of brown leaves perched in the forked branches. The nests looked like soup bowls.

Squirrel soup. Squirrel stew. Not so long ago these were standard dinner items. Squirrel is described as having a rich gamey taste. The critters are too small and bony to make steaks or to barbecue.

A trio of squirrels squabbled as they collected beech nuts. I recognized the tree as it was the only one with a smooth, silvery grey bark. And it was labelled. I bent down and picked up a half-opened beech burr. It was rough and prickly on the outside, with three smooth triangular nuts inside. The nuts are edible when roasted and taste like pine nuts.

I like to try different foods and I have a cast iron stomach. An autumn stew of squirrel, ginkgo and beech nuts. Slow cooked, with carrots, potatoes and corn; seasoned with garlic, spices and Scotch bonnet pepper. It would make a hearty stew on the cold and dark nights. When I try it, I will let you know how it tastes.

Black History Walks Toronto

Black Thinkers Matter, Too

I have worked at two academic journals as an editorial assistant. This has given me some insider knowledge on how the process works. Journals are written by and for academics. It is rare that their contents hit the newspapers or create a storm of protest on Twitter and Facebook.

Two journals managed to do that in the last decade. And both journals were forced to give a public apology for their ‘oversight.’ In 2017 the Journal of Political Philosophy published a special issue on Black Lives Matter. Without a single article by a Black academic. About decade earlier, in 2006, PMLA, Journal of Modern Language Association also published a special issue. It was on “Feminist criticism today: In memory Nellie McKay.” McKay was African American. There were no Black authors in the issue.

How was the ‘oversight’ possible in both journals, given the long and extensive process of planning ordinary and special issues?

Journals are the foundations of creating, curating and distributing academic knowledge. They are inherently conservative in outlook. A journal’s editorial board functions as its gatekeeper. It decides the theme of each issue. Oftentimes this is publicized in a call for papers, other times a select group of authors are invited to write for the journal. Once an article is submitted, the editorial board does an internal review of it. If the essay is seen to have merit, the editorial team then decides who to ask to do the peer review.

Like the editorial board, the peer review board is made up of fellow academics who are experts in the knowledge field covered by the journal. Typically an essay is critiqued and assessed by four people from the peer review board. They recommend whether to accept or reject the essay for publication.

As you can see from this brief overview, a journal’s editorial process is long. It can take a year or more from submitting an article to hearing back if it will be published or not in the journal. Most times parts of the essay may have to be re-written to reflect the feedback from the editorial and peer review boards. The essay is then reviewed again. Special issues of the journals are planned up to two years in advance.

So how was it possible for the journals to publish special issues on Black lives all of which were written by non-Black writers? To me their ‘oversight’ is a good example of hegemonic whiteness in action.

This mean the journals’ editorial boards equals a group of white men and white women around the table. They send the articles for review to another group of white men and white women on the peer review boards. Both boards function as guardians in two respects. First, they are guardians for whiteness.  Second, they are keepers of the field of knowledge.

The guardians ensure that whiteness is the default for entry through the journals’ gates. It’s as if they wear special glasses that enables them to see only in shades of white. Black authors become invisible at the gate as they cannot meet the basic criteria for entry. What they have to contribute to the journals’ area of knowledge becomes irrelevant if they can’t even be seen.

Dr. Chris Lebron is an assistant professor of African-American Studies and Philosophy at Yale University. In an open letter to the Journal of Political Philosophy, he pointed out it had published an article on race or by a Black writer in the past five years. Race is at the heart of politics in the USA, yet a political journal systematically failed/refused to cover it. The journal can only have its head stuck way up in its own arse.

Protests forced both journals to plan special issues that include Black thinkers. In my view, this sop is defensive and rather tokenistic. One time entry into the journal means the white blinkers will be put back on, once the fuss fades. It does not challenge the centrality of whiteness embedded in the core of the journals.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Scotland by Train with Frederick Douglass

Let’s follow the journey of Frederick Douglass as he lectured on the anti-slavery circuit in Scotland in 1843. On this adventure we will visit the places where he spoke from big cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow to his sightseeing trips to Scottish castles and country houses.

This adventure tour is part of my Daydream Black History Tours around the around the world. They combine the best of adventure, travel and history – all from our unique Black perspective. The trips are a daydream right now. Let’s see if we can turn them into reality.

Frederick Douglass became a superstar in Scotland. His lectures and his books were sold out in each city. Douglass even considered permanently living in the country, as for the first time in his life, he was treated as a man and not as a slave.

The tour will be fun and historic. There will be plenty of stops for lunches at pubs, walking tours, shopping and boat tours.

Tour Highlights

  • Get to know Scotland’s Black History by following the footsteps of Frederick Douglass.
  • Visit the major cities in Scotland such as Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee.
  • Boat and walking tours in the cities.
  • Hadrian’s Wall and the African troops who guarded it.
  • Visit castles, country houses, museums, pubs and art galleries – all with a connection to Black History.

Daily Itinerary

  • Day 1 – Arrive in Edinburgh
  • Day 2 – Edinburgh, the castles and the Black musicians at the Royal Courts from the 1400s.
  • Day 3 – Glasgow, tour the 1800s homes and estates of the tobacco barons.
  • Day 4 – Dundee, visits to the art gallery, museums and pubs.
  • Day 5 – Aberdeen, tour the castle, maritime museum and local pubs.
  • Day 6 – Inverness, see the castle, canal and Scottish highlands.
  • Day 7 – Return to Edinburgh
  • Day 8 – Hadrian’s Wall, walk in the footsteps of the African legion that guarded this edge of the Roman Empire.
  • Day 9 – Edinburgh, visits to a country house, distillery and shopping.
  • Day 10 – Depart from Edinburgh.

Facts File

  • 10 day land tour.
  • Minimum 4 and maximum 16 participants.
  • All meals and accommodation included.
  • Start and end in Edinburgh, Scotland.
  • Comfort level – road trip on modern roads.
  • Accommodation – comfortable hotels.
  • Departure – spring.

Who wants to come with me on this Daydream Black History Tours? Let’s see if we can make it real.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Pictures and the Stories They Tell

The pictures on the walls tells a story. In my department portraits lined the long hallway leading to the busy student lounge. All were large, about half the size of a poster. Most were black and white photographs, with a few in colour, and a couple of oil paintings.

The pictures were of the deans of the department. It commemorated and celebrated their hard work in starting and maintaining such a prestigious department. No doubt it massaged their egos as well.

The people usually smiled in their portraits. Yet, I never felt the warmth implicit in their expressions. You see all the pictures were of white men. And of one white woman. Walking the gauntlet of their faces I always felt cold.pictures and the stories they tell 2

The students in my faculty reflect the multicultural reality of Toronto. So half of them are Indigenous, Black or other people of colour. None of us were reflected in the large pictures on the wall.

The pictures were a cultural dissonance in the department. In all our classes we address the core foundations of critical studies. That is we read, talk and write about how gender, race, and class, shape our worlds. Yet, each time we trekked to the popular lounge it was along a wall lined with mostly dead white men. The art collection clearly illustrated who had the power, and who mattered.

The picture were changed over the summer. On my first trek up to the lounge this term colour bubbled from the staid walls. They were filled with landscape paintings by Indigenous artists. I liked the colours, the nature scenes and the play of mythical characters.

Students paused to look at the pictures. They commented on which was their favourite and what was the meaning of the characters. People noticed.

The previous art collection memorialized and celebrated the dominance of white people in Canada. The new collection is a reminder that the country is an ancient land. It had a long past before European colonization. The new pictures show that it has a new future – one based on acknowledging the true owners of the country.pictures and the stories they tell 3

Sailing on a Half Moon

Fried Plantain and the African Diaspora

It started off with the fried plantain. Seven of us – all Black – sat around a table in a Jamaican café discussing the joy, and for some the horror, of eating the delicacy.

The café is the end spot of my Black History Walks in Toronto. Two women from the southern USA, Mississippi and Alabama, I think, were mystified about the deliciousness of eating ripe fried plantain. It was not part of their southern cuisine.

Plantain is one of those foods that shows the history of the African Diaspora. Its story is less well known compared to that of say sugar, cotton and tobacco. For starters, there is often confusion about what exactly a plantain is and its relation to bananas. In grocery stores I have seen plantains labeled as cooking bananas or plantain bananas. The two belong to the same Musa species. Scientifically there is little difference between them. Both are old crops in the human ladder that were domesticated eons ago.

The Musa species is native to Papua New Guinea and has spread throughout the tropics. The plant reached West Africa about 4,000 years ago and from there to the rest of the continent. How it reached West Africa hints at forgotten pre-historic trade routes between Africa and Asia.

Culturally there is a huge difference between how plantain and bananas are consumed. Plantains are generally bigger, starchier and less sweet than bananas. Whether ripe or green, plantains are cooked before they are eaten.

To me, fried plantain is sweet and soft with a delicate flavour. To one of the Americans it was simply mushy, sticky and bland. She had tried eating several times. This time, she pursed her lips, and declined.

Of the seven Black people around the table, by nationality, there were three Canadians and four Americans. If arranged in a Venn diagram, the biggest overlap was the four people with Caribbean heritage, two each from the Canadian and American circles.

Fried plantain was comfort food to the Caribbean sub-group, who all knew it as a delicious snack or as a side dish to lunch or dinner.

And there was another subdivision in the group. This time within the Caribbean sub-group, as it contained people from Guyana, Jamaica and Costa Rica. Three spoke English as their mother tongue, while the Costa Rican spoke Spanish. As a member of the Afro-Latino community in the USA, he was a minority several times over. He was tired of explaining that he was Black and Latino. The twin pillars of his heritage were as indivisible as the heart.

Fried plantain was not part of the African Canadian woman’s cooking culture. She got to know it when she moved to Toronto and started hanging out with new Caribbean friends. Her family came to Canada over two centuries ago. They were part of the flood of refugees who fled the USA due to the American Revolution. These Loyalist scorned independence and wanted to continue living in a colony that was loyal to the British royals.

She did not know if her ancestors came as slaves – part of the property or the white Loyalists. Or if they came freed – the prize for serving on the British side during the revolutionary war.

The Black Loyalists stronghold was Africville, Nova Scotia on the east coast of Canada. The community thrived in the town until the 1960s. Then it was bulldozed. Slum clearance according to the official rationale. The attempt to make the Black community disappear is part of the long tradition of anti-Black racism in Canada.

Like all the people around our table, plantain is not indigenous to the Americas or the Caribbean. The African staple sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in the same slave ships. The crop was easy to grow, high in starch and provided energy to those worked by the whip.

Bananas are eaten all over the world. Plantain has a more limited culinary appeal. The largest plantain eaters are still in Africa, in Nigeria, Rwanda and the Congo.

I take green or semi-ripe plantains with me on camping trips. The vegetable is easy to carry, does not bruise easily and won’t spoil. As it ripens the plantain becomes sweeter. On camping trips I serve it sliced and fried as a starter for dinner. With lots of explanations on what it is and how to eat it. Plantain is also delicious when roasted, boiled or mashed and served with a rich, thick and spicy stew.

Fried plantain. A gorgeous snack that encapsulates the history and cooking cultures of the African Diaspora. Around the café table, with reggae playing in the background, it sparked many discussions on what it means to be Black in America and in Canada.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Photo credit: Homemade Zagat