Snowshoeing in Killbear Park

The ice sheet was grey at the edge of the lake. The air bubbles trapped in it created a frosty honeycomb lattice. A hike leader walked a few feet on to the ice, tapped it with his hiking pole, and then jumped up and down a few times. He said it was safe to walk across. He was petite, about my size. And I am as small as a cherry. But just as sweet. Most times. The group hesitated.

It was our annual snowshoe and cross-country ski weekend in Killbear Provincial Park. Some 32 members of my Toronto outdoor club were on the trip. The majority where white, with a minority of four Asian women (two with white partners), and one Black person. Me. About a dozen of us went on the eight kilometre trek to the lighthouse. It was minus twenty. Breathe froze in the air. A necklace of ice crystals dangled on the front of my scarf.

From a conventional standpoint, we were a typical outdoors group enjoying winter in the park. From a critical lens perspective the situation reads differently. Here my focus is not on the obvious race and gender dynamics, but on the land on which we hovered. I want to “move beyond the land as a geographical feature or surface to the land as a “meeting up of history,”” as Mishuana Goeman writes in her book Mark My Words.

Long Ago in Killbear Park

Killbear Park was part of the Ojibway territory, and intersected by complex trade routes between various First Nations. The Ojibways hunted. They traded fish and furs for beans, corn and squash with the Huron-Wendats who farmed the land further to the south. The Ojibways also traded for copper from the west coast, used to make tools, and for shells from the east to make decorative beads on clothes and shoes. Killbear Park had a long history before contact between Indigenous and European people.

snowshoeing in killbear park

Killbear Park was ‘acquired’ by Treaty 13 between the Ojibway nation and the Canadian government. In the 1830s European settlers flocked to the area, enticed by free land given out under the Ontario Government Free Grant and Homestead Act. They had five years to build a house and start a farm; if not the settlers forfeited the land. Dreams and reality soon collided as Killbear was poor for farming. The land is littered with massive rock outcrops. Logging became the main industry from 1860s to the 1920s. It declined once all the valuable mature trees were cut down. Killbear was eventually turned into a park to boost tourism in the area. We were snowshoeing on land with an ancient history.

We had started the trek at the lodge. We turned left, and ducked under the padlocked gates blocking cars from the road to the interior of the park. As we walked along, the snowshoes creaked on the deeply packed snow, sounding like rusty wheels in need of a good oiling. Puffs of kicked up snow covered our boots. On patches of ice the snowshoes squeaked like chalk on a blackboard.

Winter still ruled the surface of the land in early March. The birch trees and shrubs were naked, the leaf buds still cocooned in their warm protective casings. Deer tracks criss-crossed the land, disappearing into the thick strands of pine trees. I find much beauty in the simplicity of winter. In the woods, it is an endless canvas of lights and shadows, voids and shapes, fears and dreams.

We stuck to the marked trail, treading in each other’s path. Veer off and a snowshoe could plunge into a snowbank melting from the underside, twisting an ankle or trapping a foot in an icy bath. In minutes the limb would numb to the coldness, increasing the risk of frostbite. In the quiet snatches between the chatter and the squeaking snowshoes, I heard hidden water gurgling, a signal that spring was awakening under the bed of winter.

We turned right at a fork in the trail, and headed for the lake. The north wind blew off the bay, scouring exposed faces. Water dripped from eyes and noses not hidden behind protective barriers of cloth or glass. The lake looked like an enormous ice rink, with dots of tree-covered islands sprinkled on the smooth surface. The ice shimmered in the noon-time sun, blurring the boundary between land and water. Then as we filed along the shore, the snowshoe tracks became streaked with sand.

A rocky hillock stuck its tongue out into the lake. Snowshoes slid as they scraped away its thin layer of ice and snow. We could not climb over it. The choice was either an hour’s detour inland, or a ten minute walk on the frozen water.

History on the Land

Goeman writes that the “geography and the language we use to order space are formed in a “contact zone” in which various cultures interact.” At Killbear the official brochures and guides categorise the park into areas and routes for activities like camping, swimming, skiing and canoeing. They contain guidelines on how to deal with wildlife, such as grazing deer and angry bears. The brochures point out the remnants of the failed settler farms and the logged old growth forest. Thus, the Killbear land is ordered and sorted into recreational, wildlife and historical areas.

Nothing in the official materials indicate the Indigenous heritage in Killbear or the surrounding areas. It was only from researching for this essay, that I realised that there was an Ojibway reservation on Parry Island, just across the bay from the park. The reservation is visible from the lighthouse. I had seen it many times, but never associated it with an Indigenous community.

The absence of Indigenous references in Killbear Provincial Park is not accidental. It is a continuation of the government’s pattern of attempting to erase Indigenous history and ownership of the land.

snowshoeing in killbear park

The Parry Island reservation is a mere fragment of the former Ojibway territory. According to Goeman reservations are colonial spatial structures that attempt to limit Indigenous movement over the contested land. As a spatial boundary, separating Indigenous from white people, the settler-colonials, the reservation is somewhat ineffective in the case of Killbear. But, it is still a powerful psychological boundary today.

Today, there are more First Nations living in urban areas than on rural reservations. The visible presence of Indigenous people in the cities does two things. First, it refutes the white settler-colonial claim that they had disappeared, or belong only in the past. Second, it makes visible the unresolved issues around the ownership of the land called Canada.

A Lake of Ice

The second hike leader was a stout woman. She too walked on to the ice, tapping ahead with her pole, before taking each step. The echo was hollow, not the dull thud she was expecting. The surface of the ice was smooth, but underneath it hair-wide cracks were spread out like a spider’s web. The cracks can expand in seconds exposing the water below. I know of only one man who could walk on water, or so his followers claim. A decision was made – we would go inland.

We ate lunch on a sheltered rock outcrop, basking in the bright afternoon sun. There, most of the group abandoned the trek to the lighthouse. The temperature had warmed up a bit – it was now minus ten. The snow was patchy on the remainder of the lakeshore trail making it hard to snowshoe. The many detours inland made the route too long. Four of us made it out to the lighthouse. On the pinnacle of rock we gazed across the bay. To the north of the lighthouse the lake was frozen into white stillness. To the south, it was open blue water, gently lapping at the shore below us. To the west the land was filled with houses. I had assumed that they were summer cottages for people from the city.

The brochures at Killbear Provincial Park reflect the geography of hegemonic whiteness. By this I mean the standard world view that the park is a neutral space, open to all who enjoy outdoor recreation. The supposed neutrality of the space hides the dominance of white people as the managers, gatekeepers and users of the park’s land.

Goeman writes of the need to develop alternative spatialities. It is a way of seeing and mapping the Americas from multiple perspectives, at the same time. It brings into focus the histories of different groups, their relationship to each other, and most importantly, to the land on which they stand. The land is a witness that never lies.


The Black Explorer and the North Pole

Black blood flows in the Arctic. When Matthew Henson explored the North Pole in the 1900s, he left behind a keepsake of his visits. His son Anaukaq was born in 1906.

Matthew Henson does not mention the child in his book A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, which was published in 1912. Robert Perry, the expedition leader, does not mention his own mixed-race son either. Both men followed the established tradition of male explorers – they came, they saw, and off the record, had sex with local women.

Henson and Perry spent over 20 years trying to reach the North Pole. The quest to be the first person on that spot was a holy grail of European explorers for two centuries. No one expected that a Black man would win the prize.

Sex on the Plantation, Sex in the Arctic

Slavery still ruled African American lives when Henson was born in 1866. He was born free, the third such generation in his family. They were free people of colour. Somewhere on a plantation in Maryland, near Washington D.C., a white master sexed and later freed a slave, thus birthing this branch of the Henson family.

Mathew Henson was orphaned as a child. At aged 12 years he was a cabin-boy on ships sailing to China, Japan, North Africa and Russia. Aged 20, Henson met Robert Perry a USA navy captain. For the next two decades the men were like conjoined twins. They first explored Central America, scouting out a possible route for the Panama Canal. Next it was the Arctic, where the men made their fame as explorers.

It was not unusual for white explorers to have Black companions, whether as slaves, servants or concubines. What was unusual was Matthew Henson role as the second in command of the expeditions. All on board the ships took orders from him.

Henson was a technical genius, skilled as a carpenter, blacksmith, dog-handler and hunter. He was the only member of the expeditions whose Arctic skills were respected by the Inuit (then called Eskimos). Henson was fluent in Inuit. He was an expert at building igloos. Henson makes it clear in his book that the expeditions depended on the skills, knowledge and labour of the Inuit from Greenland and Canada. The team were the first to reach so far north in the Arctic, and they did so by adopting the Inuit way.

Some 39 Inuit lived on board the final expedition ship. The women sewed seal-skin boots and bear fur pants and anoraks for the expedition crew. Inuit men guided the dog-drawn sledges over the shifting ice-floes.

Akatingwah, an Inuit woman, was the lover or ‘country wife’ of Henson. She gave birth to his only child in Greenland.

In his book Henson writes about the Inuit as individuals with names, quirks and attitudes. This is significant in an age where people of colour were simply mentioned as part of the exotic background of exploration. Or, if they were described at all, the words were dripping in racial stereotypes.

“I have been to all intents an Eskimo, with Eskimo for companions, speaking their language, dressing in the same kind of clothes, living in the same kind of dens, eating the same food, enjoying their pleasures, and frequently sharing their griefs,” Henson wrote. “I have come to love these people. I know every man, woman, and child in their tribe. They are my friends and they regard me as theirs.” (p.32)

Endless Ice and Endless Nights

North Pole fever gripped Europe and the Americas in the 1800s. It was part of a larger imperial quest to find an Arctic sea passage, as a shortcut, to the riches of Asia. The North Pole is the hat of the world. All steps from it lead to the south. Locating the North Pole was essential for making accurate maps and for knowing where you were.

As no one knew exactly where or what the Pole was, it became the perfect blank canvas for the European imagination. Writers moved Santa Claus, elves and reindeers to a new home in the North Pole. Frankenstein and other monsters lurked there too. The North Pole was also the home of unicorns, Superman and a possible volcanic entrance to the centre of the world.

People live in the Arctic, but no one inhabits the North Pole. That cherished spot is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, and about 1,000 kilometres from the nearest village in Nunavut, Canada.

Mathew Henson and Robert Perry made eight attempts to reach the North Pole, between 1891 and 1908. They were convinced they had reached it on the final expedition. The jury is still out on if they hit the exact spot. What is undisputed is that they were the first to reach so far north.

I tried cross-country skiing when it was -42C. Each exhale froze in front of my face. My lungs trembled from taking in frigid air. Lips and eyelashes began to freeze in seconds. I bolted back inside the lodge in less than five minutes.

Matthew Henson spent weeks outside in such temperatures. He sledged over ice-packs in the quest for the North Pole. Sometimes the packs jammed together forming steep ice ridges, which the men climbed using ice picks to claw their way over. Crevices formed between the drifting ice-packs. Falling into one was a trip to the after-life. Other times the explorers glided over thin ice. Henson learned to be nimble and to be quick jumping off sinking sledges.

Then there were the storms. Ice and snow and screamed across the ice-scape. The winds were powerful enough to knock  down a man or blow over an igloo.

The sun also rises in the Arctic – once every six months. Henson writes of praying for daylight to replace the six months of endless darkness.

Success and the Man

Perhaps it was just pure ego on Robert Perry’s part. He was annoyed that Matthew Henson had stepped on the North Pole first. Henson’s sledge was in the lead. When the expedition returned to the USA, Perry was hailed as the hero. He received all the awards, prestige and greetings from presidents. Henson was ignored, his role reduced to that of the faithful servant. It was a play of the all too familiar trope of the great white hero and his loyal, but silent, Black servant.

Matthew Henson eventually got his dues as an old man. Some 30 years after his epic voyage across the ice-lands, he received the same medals and honours as Perry. Henson died in 1955.

In 1988 Matthew Henson and his wife were reburied in Arlington National Cemetery, right next to Robert Perry. The two Artic explorers were rejoined in death, as they had been in life. The descendants of their mixed-race Inuit sons were at the ceremony.

I stood in Henson’s shadow once, without knowing it. The three massive meteors caught my attention at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In his book Henson described the effort it took to remove the extra-terrestrial rocks from the Arctic and bring them to the south. The sale of the meteors funded Perry’s North Pole expeditions. Matthew Henson’s hands once touched those rocks.


Evergreen Trees are the Stars of Winter

Winter belongs to the evergreen trees. No longer overshadowed by their broadleaf siblings, the conifers get my full attention. I spent a sunny hour collecting cones and fallen twigs off the trees. I am doing so because it is fun, and as I am trying to improve my knowledge of nature. To name a thing is to know it.

Down the road, near the community centre, I picked up a cone from under a strand of trees at the side of an apartment building. Around the corner I passed a slim woman advertising herself for rent. She wore track pants, a crop top, and a fake fur jacket. Her exposed belly was the colour of raw chicken. Her eyes were as a wild as a storm.

My next collection was from a row of cedar trees screening a Victorian town-house. Delicate filigree twigs littered the ground. An icy breeze ruffled the trees. A dusting of snowflakes swirled about, I held my head back and caught a few on my tongue. As I stooped to pick up a pretty twig, a dog and its walker came by. The mahogany tinted man gave me an odd look, and then crossed the road. A pity. His skin was ripe for polishing.

A small park was opposite the town-houses. I cut across it and picked up more evergreen ephemera. The park was empty of humans. Squirrels scampered away and one screeched at me. I told it I was taking only one pine cone, there was enough there to see it through the winter.

Back at home, I spread my treasures on the dining room table and opened by field guide to trees. I examined them as jazz played on the radio, and I sipped chai tea and nibbled fresh dates, cheese and olives.

The first evergreen twig was from a pine tree. The needles were as long as the palm of my hand. A bunch of them whorled around a central stem. Taking a closer look, I noticed that the needles were in pairs, joined at the tip where they attached to the stem. About fifteen of these pairs were on each stem. Needles in pairs are the trademark of red pine, a native Canadian tree. The needles can be woven to make small and beautiful baskets. The scales on the cone were long, hard and woody.

The cone from the small park came from a spruce tree. It was beige, cylindrical and as long as my ring finger. The scales on the cone were short, flexible and each ended in a rounded triangular tip. The twig had a central stem with small branches on either side. The tip looked like the pattern left by bird tracks in the snow – one big claw with two small claws angled to the side. Short flat needles stuck out from each side of the twig.

There was a bunch of brown nobs on the cedar twig, each about the size of my finger tip. They turned out to be the cones of the tree. I was surprised that I had never noticed them before. The tiny cones mean it was an eastern white cedar, a native Canadian tree.

Snow swirled about outside. Another storm was vomiting whiteness over the city’s street. Warm and safe inside, I turned the cones over in my hand.

Black Panther: Who is the Hero?

Who speaks for me in Black Panther? It’s Erik Killmonger. For me the anti-hero is the voice of the African diaspora. Watching the movie in Toronto, on Wednesday night, in a packed theatre, I was full of anticipation for the film to roll. And when it did, it was mesmerizing. This was Afro-futurism in action.

The mythical East African country of Wakanda is full of technological marvels, while still deeply rooted in traditions. In its futuristic cities the skyscrapers that glittered in the night are modern versions of the Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali, which was built almost a millennia ago.  When the shephard-warriors fling their capes – brightly coloured African fabrics with abstract designs – they transform from cloth to an energy wall that deflects bullets. Beautiful.

I spent the first half of the film immersed in the story, laughing at the sly jokes, and while trying to capture all the references to historical and contemporary events. And then Erik appeared. A beautiful man, among other beautiful men, his brooding heart spoke to mine.

As a boy in a parking lot in Oakland, California, enclosed by fences, shattered dreams and broken buildings, Erik saw the future and became an orphan in the same instance. Erik (Michael B. Jordan) comes to Wakanda to find family and to find home.

Erik crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a reverse African migration. The first outward journey was made by his ancestors 500 years prior. On this homeward voyage, Erik finds that you can go back there, but you can’t go back then. That first voyage was both a rite of passage and a site of rupture.

Wakanda, secretive and inward looking, hides its advance technology in plain sight, by pretending to be just another poor Third World country. The pretense kept the colonizers at bay for hundreds of years. Until the betrayal. Vibranium is a magic mineral that powers Wakanda’s technology. When King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) drinks the mineral he gains superpowers and becomes the Black Panther superhero. A handful of vibranium is more powerful than a nuclear bomb and worth more than a bucketful of diamonds. The fight to protect Wakanda is also the fight to keep control over the mineral.

black panther who is the hero

In a typical superhero films, women usually play two roles – the corrupt or the innocent. In other words they are powerful witches until they fall or the proverbial damsel in distress waiting for the superhero to rescue them. Black Panther turns this expectation on its head. The women are warriors, a queen, spies and a scientist. It is amazing seeing so many Black women who are dark, beautiful and confident. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) the super spy has the king’s heart. She makes it clear that he has to respect her choices. Their romance is a lovely subtext of the film.

But, to what extent do the women in the film play on another stereotype, that of the strong Black woman? Not all of us are strong, and not all of us are as brave as warriors.  The film does not give space for the women to be soft and messy humans with all the vulnerability that it entails.

In Wakanda Erik reconnects with family, the throne, but is never at home. His vision of the future is one where he alone rules as emperor of the world. His futurity depends on spilling blood and destroying traditions. Erik is an expert at war from his years as a special operative in the USA army in Iraq, Afghanistan and a few African countries. Wakanda’s vibranium-powered defenses and weapons could make him invincible. It is easy to dismiss Erik as just another despot or dictator believing that he is a god. Or that he represents a thug from the inner-city ghetto. But I think he is more complex than that. Erik was made by his society. His life chances were already prescribed before he took his first baby step.

Erik wants change. He wants a just world where the poor have a chance to be somebody, and a chance to taste the good life.

Erik uses the only method he knows – violence. His whole life has been about living with violence or the consequences of it. In Erik’s world love makes a man weak. And yet in his visits to his father in the after-life, the tears roll down both men’s faces as they talk. It is the only love Eric has ever known. And it was snatched away from him.

Back in the world of the living, Erik forces Wakanda out of its isolation. He sparked a revolution whose roots went back decades to that one night in the parking lot. This revolution will not be interrupted, even if it costs him his life. High on a mountain plateau, Eric watches the sunset over the cities and valley of Wakanda, propped up by his cousin King T’Challa.

“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.” Erik’s last words made the audience gasp.

Wakanda will share its technology with the rest of the world. Standing in the parking lot the rightful rulers of Wakanda vow to rebuild the area turning it into a new campus for their international technology centre. The Africans have crossed the Atlantic Ocean again, this time as captains of their own ship. They have come to civilize the world, through peace.

“In times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe,” said King T’Challa.

black panther who is the hero

Black Panther is a blockbuster that lives up to its hype. The film has broken box office records on its opening weekend. So far it has made $426 million. It is on track to be in the top ten most popular films of all times. Black Panther is one of those cultural moments, when years from now people will be talking about how they felt when they saw the film. When Roots came out it was followed by a whole generation of children called Kunta Kinte. Something similar will happen with the names from Wakanda.

Black Panther is a story written by Black people for Black people, directed and staring Black people. The film industry justified its exclusion of Black people by stating that Black films don’t sell. The success of Black Panther shines a spotlight on the racism underpinning that claim.

In the last few years a trickle of Black films have smashed records and stereotypes. These include Selma, 12 Years A Slave, Hidden Figures, Dear White People and Girls Trip. These films show that the Black experience has universal appeal. It always had. It is only now being given the chance to shine. In the USA the push for change came from the Black Panther Party and the Civil Rights Movement, and now from Black Lives Matter. Different eras, but still the same struggle for freedom. The film Black Panther echoes all of these legacies in its futuristic scenes.

A lot of my friends have seen the film three or more times. I will join them. The film has so many layers that it takes more than one viewing to enjoy and appreciate all of them.

As the credits rolled, I thought of Erik Killmonger. Sleep in peace brother, cradled by the ancestors and lulled by the ocean waves. You sacrificed so that I might find life.

Canadian Black History Stamps

I used to collect stamps as a child. Come to think of it, I don’t remember anyone else who did so. African and Asian postage stamps were my favourite as they were larger, colourful, and had marvelous images of birds, flowers and butterflies. I gave up collecting stamps when I started collecting life lessons.

Postage stamps are like a peephole into a country’s living room. The scraps of paper are not just a means to an end – proof that you paid a tax to mail a letter – but are part of the everyday visual culture that surrounds us. Stamps are overlooked as they are small, cheap and disposable. But take a closer look and they are a record of who and what a country values.

The first postage stamp was issued in Canada in 1851. Josiah Henson was the first Black person featured on a Canadian stamp. He made the debut in 1983. There are 22 Canadian postage stamps with a Black History connection.

As stamps are printed by the central government, they reflect the official version of the country’s identity. New stamps come out every year. Tracking the changes of their images can show the changes in a society.

Let me stop here. This was meant to be a quick and simple blog post celebrating the latest Canadian Black History Month stamps.

The trouble with learning to think critically is that that part of my brain never shuts up. So while I can admire the stamps, my head goes to deconstructing how they reflect the dominant ideology of a society. It is surely no accident that Josiah Henson was the first Black Canadian memorialized on a stamp. He is the perfect icon of Canada as the land of freedom for Black people fleeing slavery in the USA. That was true. And it also hides the two centuries of slavery in Canada. That part of the story is rarely told so that it does not besmirch the national reputation.

The Black Canadian stamps feature athletes, musicians, politicians and historical figures. I think it is significant that quite a few activists are included. Their presence indicate that our life here has not been easy. Perhaps one day Canada Post may have to print a stamp commemorating Black Lives Matter.

Here is a pick of five Canadian Black History stamps. They area a fitting memorial to the woman and men who fought for our place in the snow.

canadian black history stamps

Lincoln Alexander and Kay Livingstone are on the 2018 stamp. Alexander (1922-2012) was the first Black politician elected to the House of Commons and the first Black Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. Livingstone (1918-75) was a feminist and activist championing the rights of Black Canadian women.

canadian black history stamps

Josiah Henson (1789-1883) escaped slavery to find freedom in Canada, via the Underground Railroad. He became the model for the hero in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Henson wrote his own autobiography called The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. Henson’s stamp was issued on the centenary of his death.

canadian black history stamps

Black Canadian men who fought in World War I are honoured on the 2016 stamp. The men were from the No. 2 Construction Battalion. As segregation was part of army life in Canada, Black men had to protest to join the war effort. When they did so, most were placed in an all-Black unit, the No. 2 Construction Battalion. Black Canadians fought in the major battles of the war including Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.

Mathieu Da Costa is the first Black person recorded in Canada. He was a translator and businessman in the fur trade between Indigenous people and Europeans in the 1600s. Da Costa was from modern Ghana. African translators like him were not uncommon in the international trades across the Atlantic Ocean.

Incidentally, I learned to sail in a tall ship like the one featured in the background of Da Costa’s stamp. This time I was crew, not cargo.  My sailing adventures are in Sailing on a Half Moon.

Should Dogs Run Free in Parks?

I always find and carry a big stick with me on my hikes. It’s for whacking any dogs that get too close. Yes I know dogs are friendly, but so were the two that bit me.

As I walked through Cedarvale Ravine, a big shaggy dog ran besides its owner. I think it was poodle crossed with a St. Bernard. The dog that is. It weighed as much as I did. They were running up the slope as I was descending it. The owner saw the stick and my eyeing of the dog. He put the pet on his far side and gripped its collar long before we were close. I smiled and said thanks as we passed each other. I watched them disappear at the top of the hill, the dog now free to roam.

My next dog encounter for the month happened on the nature trails in High Park. Something scampered through the undergrowth. It was too big, noisy and fast to be a squirrel. The deep and steep valley was quiet on the Friday afternoon. The morning’s rain had created a lot of mud which seemed to have put off the usual number of dog walkers. I clutched my stick.

The two women behind me were busy talking. A dog shot out of the bush, spun in mid-air and came towards me. I stopped and raised my whacker.

“Charlie! Charlie, come here now,” one of the women shouted.

The terrier looked at the owner, looked at me, and seemed unsure what to do. I banged the stick on the ground. The dog fled through the bushes and back to its owner. I waited.

“He’s just being friendly. He doesn’t bite,” said the woman. She spat the words out. Her eyes were as hard as a rock.

“So was the last dog that bit me,” I said. “It’s not going to happen again.”

She put the dog on a tight leash. I let them walk ahead and then took the next fork in the trail. I hate it when my walks becomes stressful due to two-legged creatures. Especially ones in green coats and matching Wellington boots.

My third dog encounter for the month, and here I am only talking about the most memorable ones, was in the Don Valley Brickworks ravine. It was like watching a scene from a film. A Chinese family were out exploring the trails. At the edge of the frame two large golden labradors were chasing each other. The dogs ran towards the children. One kid jumped back into the stroller. The other ran towards the dad who picked him up, and placed him on his shoulders. The first dog was about four body-lengths away from the stroller and from me.

I grasped my stick and hoisted it. Which one would I whack first?

A white girl and a boy ran up, grabbed the dogs, and hugged them. The girl told the Chinese family that the dog was just being friendly. Their parents approached, their smile and embarrassed apologies met my stick and my cold eyes. They put the dogs on the leash. The Chinese family and I exchanged the rolling of the eyes as we passed each other.

Dogs need to run free, following scents and their instincts. They can run as far and as fast as they like, as long as it is in the dog off-leash area. Outside of that space they will be smacked if they get too close to me.

I actually like dogs and I am planning on getting a mutt at some point. In public my dog will always be leashed. People have the right to walk in the woods without fear of being bitten by a ‘friendly’ dog.

Black History Walks Toronto

Who Will They Marry? Black PhDs and the Marriage Market

There is a marriage crisis among Black students in graduate school. In all my classes Black women out-number Black men by a ratio of thirty to one. The women are on a reproductive cliff if they want to have children. They must do so soon, or Mother Nature will dump them over the edge.

Chronologically, the average life expectancy for women is 88 years in Canada. Reproductively it’s game over at age 35. Most of the women in my classes are about 30 years old – near the end of their reproductive lives. Mother Nature is not so decisive when it comes to men and reproduction. Male chronological and reproductive ages are in synch. As long as a man can get up and get it up, he is still able to seed children.

Marriage has never been a neutral act. It has always reaffirmed cultural norms in terms of who is acceptable or unacceptable as a marriage partner. It has always been a political act, reflecting patterns of racial and gender dynamics and hierarchies. Traditionally, women aim to marry up the social ladder or at least on the same rung. Cinderella wishes to marry a prince, not a stable boy.

Feminism has opened up education for women, giving them an alternative to hoping for a prince. Generally, more education leads to better marriage prospects, higher jobs and fewer children. This accepted truism is more complex for Black women. From media reports it seems that no one wants to date, never mind marry, educated Black women.

Black men don’t want us because we are seen as too demanding. White and men from other racialized ethnic groups, don’t want Black women because we are too Black.

Feminism can help Black men to unpack the toxic box of stereotypes about educated Black women, and examine its foundation on the capitalist bedrock of racism, sexism and class. In the process Black men can also learn how these same forces shape their own lives as men.

Capitalism, and its tentacles of racism and sexism, continues to mold the economic reality of Black lives. The intersection of these affect women and men differently. It created steady jobs for Black women as nannies, cleaners, and nursing assistants. These are physical, low-paying jobs based on caring for others, especially white people. Race and sex has also systematically kept Black men at the margins of the labour market. It is no accident that the unemployment rate for Black men is three times the average.

Getting an education is the quickest way out of unemployment or the dead end jobs. The strategy has worked successfully for the Black women in graduate school. It has not for our men due to their high drop-out rates. Black men are systematically pushed out of school so that they can continue to function as capitalism’s disposal source of labour. Hired when needed. Fired when not.

Yet, Black men too believe the patriarchal philosophy that their masculinity is tied to their roles as bread-winners and heads of the household. Due to systemic racism it has always been difficult for Black men to be the former. This has not stopped them from clinging to the latter.

Black feminism questions the patriarchal privilege of Black men. Rather than taking part in the debate, it is easier and more acceptable for Black men to lash out at the women. Economic gains made by Black women are seen as compromising the integrity of the race or cultural group. In extremis, successful Black women are seen as emasculating Black men. The same logic extends to marriage. Black women who marry outside the race are seen as sleeping with the enemy. While men who do the same are seen as making a personal choice. This falls hollow when one sees row after row of Black male celebrities with their white wives. Why is it so hard for Black men to confront their fetishizing of white female skin?

The Black women in my graduate class are grappling with complex issues while their biological clocks are in free fall. It is culturally acceptable for a male doctor to marry a women with elementary school education. The reverse is not true. So what are the women to do?

Each woman will have to choose how the intersections of race, gender and class plays out in her personal life. With or without children. For some that may mean being single. For others it might mean marrying a bus driver or outside of their racial or cultural group.

Whatever choice the women make it will be tough. It may mean letting go of some long held values, traditions and dreams. It is far better to make the choices with eyes wide open. Black men can help by respecting the choices of Black women. They don’t have to like it, but respect it. Black men also need to question how their male privilege and notions of masculinity plays out in the marriage market. Rather than seeing educated Black women as competition, they need to start seeing us as allies. We are in the same quest for social justice in all areas of our lives, including marriage.