Walden, Or Black Life in the Woods

Long ago, Brister and Fenda Freeman lived in the woods in Walden. Across the pond was their famous neighbour Henry D. Thoreau (1817-1862). The trio met many times probably on their walks along the trail and into town. Brister went there to sell the apples from his orchard. As a fortune teller, Fenda most likely had regular customers at the town’s Saturday market.

The Freemans are just two of the Black people Thoreau mentions in his book Walden, Or Life in the Woods. I was inspired to read it by the chats and beer around the campfire, where Thoreau is often touted as a founding father of the conservation movement.

No one mentioned that he also wrote about the slaves living in the woods.

Most likely because they did not know – Thoreau is one of those writers outdoors people talk about but rarely read. On my part, I assumed that as Thoreau was white and he wrote the book to promote conservation to his kind of people, he had little to say about race. In conventional terms most white people see themselves as race-less. It is the people of colour who are raced. As my outdoors recreation group is mostly white…

In Walden, Thoreau popularised and romanticised the idea of living in a log cabin in the forest. This simple life gave one time to think, to observe and reconnect to nature. Thoreau was conscious that the wildlands were under attack from farmers, wood-choppers and turf-cutters. The wilderness was shrinking as cities grew, land was privatised and the railway expanded bringing more settlers into the forests. Thoreau argued that conservation was needed to save the wilderness both for its own sake and as spiritual refuge for humanity.

Slavery was part of the life in the woods in Walden. Thoreau describes his Black neighbours as individuals and noted how much of their lives was circumscribed by race. Cato Ingraham lived east of Thoreau’s bean field. Cato was enslaved and rumoured to be directly from Guinea. He planted walnut trees, planning that in years to come, the crop would sustain him in his old age.

Zilpha was a coloured woman who spun linen for the people in town. Living alone with her chickens and a dog, her life was hard in the woods. Zilpha’s life became tougher after her cottage was burnt to the ground by retreating soldiers. Thoreau does not mention her as a slave, implying that she was probably a free woman of colour.

Thoreau frequently mentioned Indigenous people in Walden. He noted that native crops such as corn thrived best in the soil, he admired the skills of Indigenous hunters and the grace of their canoes. Thoreau visited Canada in 1850. On his trip to Montreal, he was astonished at the extent to which French Canadians had adopted elements of Indigenous lifestyle, such as their food and clothing.

Thoreau wrote that he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay the pole tax to a government that supported the buying and selling of people. The tax was paid anonymously, probably by a relative. Thoreau was an ardent abolitionist, delivering tons of lectures on the anti-slavery circuit. He was active in the Underground Railroad.

If the founding father of conservation talked so openly about race and racism, why is the modern movement is so quiet about these issues?

Is it because not much has changed in the last two centuries when it comes to social justice in the outdoors? For white people the woods are still a refuge from the stress of city life. For Black people the woods have become a place of fear. Fear of white violence against them.

Brister and Fenda, Cato and Zilpha would have understood that fear. But, they too claimed the woods as their own. It was their home.

Sailing on a Half Moon

10 Things Tourists Notice About Toronto

When I started the Black History Walks in Toronto, I assumed that my clients would be older, come dressed in linen and sun hats, and of course, wear sensible walking shoes. And most would be white.

My theory was based on the people that I see on heritage walks in the city. I stand out in these crowds of history buffs as I am younger and Black.

Well, my assumptions were plain wrong. I have had every ethnic group on the Black History Walks. There were Black people and white people. And Latinos, Arabs and Asians. To my surprise about a third of the people on the walks are Canadians, some coming from the suburbs of Toronto.

The one thing my clients have in common is a curiosity about Black history in Toronto. Most thought there was little. In the walk, we talk about an African Canadian history that goes back to 1600s, and specifically in Toronto, to 1796 when the modern city was founded on Indigenous land.

As part of the walk, I ask people what are the things that they notice about Toronto. Some of their answers were unexpected. Here are ten of the memorable ones.

1. Few Police Cars. An African American student was surprised that there were so few police cars on Toronto’s streets. In his home in Erie, Pennsylvania, police cars are on every intersection. But only in the Black areas of the city. He feels like he lives in a garrison. He was amazed that stores in Toronto accepted his credit card, without asking for other identification like his driver’s license and phone number.

2. Colonial Legacy. A woman from South Korea found it easy to move around city. The pattern of street names – King, Queen, Adelaide and so on – were the same in her travels in Australia and New Zeeland. The British colonial legacy was alive in the former colonies.

3. Green City. A white woman from suburban Oakville was astonished that the city centre was so green. She had never noticed the trees in all her years of driving through Toronto. The walk goes by a ravine and several large parks.

4. Diverse City Centre. A French woman was astonished that the city centre was so multicultural. In Paris, Black people and immigrants live in the suburbs, cut off from the opportunities and vibrancy of city life. The woman now lived in a small city in Ireland. She had left France as was tired of being passed over for promotion. Her education was fine. Her performance was fine. Her skin was not.

5. Pawn Shops. The Latino couple from New York noticed the lack of pawn shop, beer stores and cheque cashing shops as we passed a sketchy area of the walk. These businesses line the streets in poor areas of their city.

6. Fearless after the Terror. A Black French woman jaywalked across the streets. She ignored my caution to wait with the rest of the group for the cross walk signal. She was dining with friends when the terrorist attacked the restaurant in Paris. She spent six hours locked inside and hiding under the tables, unsure if she would live or die. Nothing scared her after that night.

7. Blacks in the City. A student from Vancouver was astonished that so many Black people live in Toronto. Her home city is racially segregated into Chinese, South Asian and White areas. And the groups rarely mix. She felt invisible as a South Asian walking around Toronto. She liked that feeling.

8. Grave Matters. The African American friends were amazed that the graves were in the ground. In New Orleans tombs are above ground, so that they don’t float to the surface in the frequent rains and floods. Or wash up on the streets, half-rotting, like they did in Hurricane Katrina.

9. Rude Canadians. A British woman had just finished her master’s degree in Toronto. She was fed up with people asking her where she was really from. Canadians could not seem to get their heads around that Black people lived in England too.

10. Less is Better. “I feel less Black in Toronto. Nobody is looking at me and expecting trouble.” This was from an African American man, on a long weekend break from Los Angeles.

The Black History Walks are more popular than I expected. They won’t make me rich, but they supplement my tiny PhD scholarship. The walks are a good indicator of the thirst for a more inclusive history of Toronto. Black people have lived in the city from its very birth.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

A Hike in the Forest

Sunlight spilled in the forest, highlighting the trees craning their necks to reach the golden god.

Songs flirted in the air, the melody sung by a rose-breasted grosbec, the rhythm set by a woodpecker. More voices joined the chorus, warbling a lullaby of life.

I stopped, spread my arms wide, raised my head to the sky. I wanted to dance, to celebrate the joy of life.

Common sense won. A Black woman shaking her backside, and dreadlocks, to her own inner music in the woods, could be a runaway. From the asylum. Or a voodoo priestess awakening the ancient spirits. In either case, she was up to no good.

Damn the double–consciousness. This sense of ‘always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.’ Limiting one’s activity to fit convention. Just in case…

A shadow flickered in the corner of my eye. My smile was as wide as the ocean as a deer pranced by. I bowed my head and thanked the ancient ones for this gift of life.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Birding While Black

The flock of birdwatchers meandered along the trail in the meadows. Suddenly they stopped. Binoculars raised, the group scanned the copse of trees on the left. Someone softly called out a yellow warbler. The birders drifted along, stopping and starting when a new bird was seen or heard.

There was a rare bird among the birders. Me. A Black woman participating in an activity that is almost exclusively white. I raised my binoculars too and spotted the great blue heron flitting above the tree line. A turkey vulture did lazy circles high in the blue-less sky.

Outdoor recreation is a racialized hobby. Whites do it. Blacks don’t. Birding fits that general pattern as almost ninety per cent of birders are non-Black. In general, birdwatchers are middle-aged, have high income and education, and appeals to slightly more women than men.

It does not cost much to start off as a birder. It’s enough to borrow a field guide to local birds from the library. And that’s it. If one gets hooked, the next real cost is buying your own book and a pair of binoculars. For about $100 one is now set up as birder. That’s about the same costs of buying a pair of sexy sandals or running shoes. Cost is not a barrier to birdwatching as it is to so many other outdoor recreation activities.

Skill is not a barrier either. I can confidently identify about thirty birds, starting with the common ones that I see daily in the city streets such as gulls, pigeons and starlings. In the large ponds in the parks it’s the swan, Canada geese and the squawking red-wing black birds. The more one stands still, look, and listen, the more birds seems to be flying, perching or hopping about.

Race is a factor in birding. A scan of the ornithological clubs in Toronto has lots of images of birds. And of white people. The human images do not get more colourful in the USA or in Britain. So why don’t Black people get into birding?

For a start we never see ourselves in birding ads, books and magazines. This creates two problems. The first is a negative feedback loop, as if you don’t see or know someone like yourself, doing an activity you are less likely to try it. Second, the birding media – just like the rest of the outdoor recreation folks – has created a visual apartheid implying that Black people are not wanted in that space, as they are always absent from it.

I always feel a little self-conscious when out alone on a birding walk. Really, I do not want to join another nerd club!  Wearing hiking boots, a safari hat, and with binoculars dangling from around my neck, people do wander what I am up to. I am out looking at birds, but sometimes you see strange things in the parks. A birder told me to be careful once. She had seen a flasher in the bushes. And it was not a bird.

In birding groups, my racial radar is always turned on. As the sole Black person in the group, I am half waiting for a question on where am I really from, are my dreadlocks real hair or a negative comment about ‘them.’ It’s not paranoia, it’s simply the reality of my Black experience.

I met another Black woman on a birding hike. Two of us. That is as rare as a phoenix. Dr. Drew Lanham is an African American ornithologist. In his experience, he expects to meet a fellow Black birder once every two decades or so. When I first read his statistics, I thought he was simply wrong. Then I reflected on my experience dabbling in birding. He was right.

Birding organizations can start a revolution. Simply putting Black people their ads will catch everyone’s attention. Birding – cheap, easy and done in the city – could be a gateway to getting people of colour into the conservation and environmental movements. Black birders want to fly too.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Moss Park: Walking the Other Neighbourhood

As I walked across the park, I tried to look, not stare, at the domino players. They were relaxed, sitting on plastic chairs around a kitchen table. It was not the usual furniture found in a large urban park. They must have brought it there themselves. Reggae drifted from the 1980s stereo on the ground; it was Marcia Griffiths.

The three Black men and the one white woman nodded along to the music as they played the tiles. The dreadlocks caught my eye and flashed me a smile. The wind rustled in the trees shading the players from the downpour of sunshine.

Moss Park is at the southern end of my neighbourhood. I rarely walk through it as it is not part of my habitual routes through the city. Urban parks, like Moss Park, is where most people now connect to nature. Especially Black and other people of colour who tend to shun wilderness and outdoor recreation in national parks. For me, Moss Park is a tough place to relax. The hard, harsh edges of city life scrape in and around the park.

The trees singing with the breeze could not hide the sound of the two white drunks shouting at each other. The humped-back, white-haired woman dragging a shopping cart, screeched at invisible foes.

A make-shift market was spread out on the sidewalk in front of the park. Two large women on scooters invited me to take a look. One dangled a cigarette in her hand. The other had a beer can. I glanced at the pickings: ten pairs of running shoes, an enormous teddy bear, three table lamps, and a set of five tumbler glasses etched with flowers. All had seen better days quite some time ago.

The concentration of hostels on the eastern edge of the park is inhabited by hard to reach and to serve men. This is, poor men with mental health issues who self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. They hang around on the steps of the community centre or sit on the low wall sunning themselves.

The shrubs in the park were a good cover for street transactions such as beatings, and the buying and selling of drugs and bodies.

I cut diagonally across the park. The path ahead was clear. I ignored it, seduced by a footpath heading towards a low hedge of shrubs on my left. The community garden was a diamond in the muck. A Black woman squatted down tenderly weeding her vegetable patch already fat with kale, lettuce and sunflowers. A white woman sprinkled mulch over her vegetable bed. Next to her a Chinese woman fussed over the bok choy and snow peas.

The land sloped away from the allotment. The dip is all that remains of Taddle Creek. The spring once meandered its way through Moss Park on its journey down to the lake. As the city expanded the creek became an open sewer for horse and human shit.

Victorian factories added to the effluent, dumping their waste directly into the stream. Diseases followed the shit and the chemicals. To deal with the mess, the city buried the stream. The dip is always the last place to dry out after the snow and the rains. The damp patch is a ghostly echo of the buried creek.

By the 1960s the factories were derelict. They were demolished and replaced by social housing apartment blocks. Then more social housing. And then the hostels. Just a fifteen minute walk, east of the Eaton Centre, was the largest concentration of public housing in Toronto. Within a decade Moss Park was a byword for poverty, drugs and prostitution.

Cars cruised the street picking up rent boys in their high heels and fake fur coats.

Moss Park is in a transitional phase in its history. Gentrification is already fingering the fabric of the park. The new community centre, geared towards the gay and lesbian community, and a stack of condos will speed up the process. I think it is a good thing.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

How to Go in the Woods

The run started off well enough. I jogged along the banks of Grenadier Pond as squirrels and chipmunks scampered out of the way. A blue heron stood in the reeds lining the pond. It gazed at the water, looking rather serious, or maybe it was just constipated.

I ran into a gaggle of people around the bend. Even the children were quiet. All were watching a pair of egrets larking about in the water. Cell phones and cameras clicked at these unusual visitors. I tiptoed pass the birds and the crowd.

Next I ran up a century of steps to the top of the hill. This time, I did it without panting like a dog. My lungs were fine. Suddenly my belly was not. I could feel the gas working its way down along the miles of intestines. I belched a few times – the unladylike sound muffled by my hand.

Oh my belly.

I started to run again, this time following a secluded trail. I had done five kilometres and had another five to go. My steps were light and quick; I felt free, floating on nature’s high. No more burping, all was fine.

Until the gas in my stomach sank. The sound was bad enough, but the smell was worst. I had to run away to escape the pollution.

The gas kept blowing with each step. So I stopped. The gas got worst and something else seemed determined to escape as well. I was deep in the park, on a trail seldom used except by adventurous dog lovers. And men who like to play with men in the bushes.

I remembered that yesterday I ate six cobs of corn. Each was boiled and then smothered in butter, pepper and spices. I loved corn. And it had always loved my stomach – until now it seemed.

There was no time to come up with a plan. Nature was determined to take its course. My only option was whether it would be in my pants or could I squat fast enough to let it drop in the earth.

Behind a tree I crouched, praying that no poison ivy would touch my delicate parts. And that no dog would come bounding out to sniff where its nose did not belong.

A stream of yellow escaped, semi-solid, not liquid. Using a rotting log as a shovel, I covered up the fresh and steaming fertilizer with earth and leaves. Then placed the log on top. I sprinted home, straight to the shower. I have not eaten corn since then.

A Black History Travel Guide of London

Leslie Spit: A Paradise for Cormorants

 

Rotting fish. The smell perfumed the air long before we were even close to the cormorant colony. I tried breathing through my mouth, but one can’t do this and talk at the same time. The sharp smell of ammonia stung my nose.

The cormorants cackled, sounding just like the demented people in my neighbourhood, busy screeching at ghostly enemies. Leslie Spit, officially called Tommy Thompson Park, has the largest colony of cormorants in North America. Some 25,000 of these birds have made a home for themselves along the peninsular coast. It’s a remarkable come-back for a bird that was on the edge of extinction in the 1970s due to poisoning from DDT pesticides.

Across the turquoise inlet the city shimmered in the afternoon light. The CN Tower, that white phallic icon of Toronto, poked the cloudless sky. All it took was a ten minute walk from the bus stop to leave the city behind. I was leading a 10 km hike for my outdoor club. It was a short and easy urban walk to while away a Sunday afternoon.

The cormorants were everywhere – on the ground, in the water and in the air. The trees were white nearest their colony. The leafless branches did not quiver in the breeze. Many cormorants were perched on the limbs, their outstretched wings drying in the sun and wind. They looked like vultures on a bare, gothic Christmas tree.

Cormorant poop is white and rich in ammonia. It is lethal to trees, and not a single one was alive near the colony. The quiet bleached tree were in stark contrast to the dark squawky birds perched on it. It looked like a simple pencil and paper sketch of black life and white death. The cormorants idea of paradise is a rocky island or cliff, covered in dead guano-coated trees with plenty of fresh fish in the water. It doesn’t look pretty and is stinky to us. But it works for them.

About the size of a chicken, with a long hooked beak, snake-like neck and too-big wings. Cormorants are definitely not cute and cuddly to the eye. They are clumsy on land. Under the water they are elegant and expert divers. Their webbed feet and those long wings enable them to fly fast through the water, quicker than their prey can swim.

Millions and millions of cormorants once bred in Canada. The birds and their eggs were a staple part of the diet of Indigenous people. The cormorant population shrank as settlers took over the shore for shipping and drained the marshes to create farm land.

Humans and cormorants both love fish and that has led to conflict between the species. Cormorants are smart and adaptable birds. They are just as good at fishing as sports fishermen and fish farm managers. Marinas and fish farms and are the closest man-made structures to the bird’s natural habit. It is far easier to blame the birds for ‘poaching’ fish than to look at how humans have altered the environment. Some people prefer to cull the cormorants through bullets, poison or oiled eggs.

The cormorants are seen as a nuisance, vermin or over-populated only when they compete with humans. There is space for cormorants, fish and humans on the lake. We have to learn that we are part of nature too, and need to share its bounty. As the top predator on the planet, it’s easy for humans to be arrogant and assume that we will always have that role, and can control the environment to our will. The dinosaurs probably thought that too.

Reaching the lighthouse at the tip of the spit, we paused for lunch. Then we turned around and headed back to our lives in the city. Some of us were going home to a dog, a couch or a bottle.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love