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.

Yoga So White

I am dithering about whether I should go to the annual yoga conference and show. It was brilliant fun the last time, except for the tiny little problem about race. My heart told me to shut up and simply focus on the fact that it was a weekend of free all-day yoga from some of the best studios and teachers in Toronto.

Yoga, and its associated wellness products, is a multi-billion industry. The booths at the show overflowed with people selling candles, spiritual crystals, clothes and yoga accessories. The earnestness of the vendors was endearing and a tad overpowering at the same time. They really believed that their wares enhanced your spiritual life.

Then there were those selling natural or organic supplements and protein powders. I was skeptical about their sales pitch. I mean where in nature does textured vegetable protein come from? To my mind the products were all dreamed up in a chemical lab, with colours that do not exist in nature. I failed to see how they were supposed to be just as good for you as food.

Eat enough dates and spinach and it will cleanse your system without any help from chemicals. When did bowel movements become a topic for meditation?

I walked up and down the aisles doing my usual – trying to find a Black or at least a brown face. They were as rare as answered prayers. I was disappointed. For some strange reason I had expected more brown faces, given that yoga is an ancient practice from India. There are hundreds of thousands of South Asians in Toronto, and so I thought I would bump into lots at the show.

The practice hall was nearly full. I found my preferred spot in the back rows. Most of the yogis were slim white women. There were ten Black and brown faces among the two hundred or so people strutting our warrior poses. There were no people of colour instructors.

Tired from four hours of yoga practice, I went in search of food. Visions of chai tea and samosas danced in my head. There they remained as I faced stall after stall of soups, sandwiches and salads. I left the venue to search for nourishment outside.

The practice space was full after lunch. Not wanting to squish in, I drifted over to the meditation hall, the quietest space in the crowded exhibition.

I was a bit nervous entering as stillness and I are not the best of buddies. But the deep drone of the Tibetan salt bowls drew me in. Once again I told my head to shut up. As instructed I did the breathing and visioning exercises to the music of the drone. It was oddly blissful.

After a pause, another group of musicians took over. This time we were encouraged to repeat the Sanskrit prayers called out by the lead singer. The language has been dead for a few thousand years and yet here were a group of people chanting prayers in it. A group of white people. I, another Black woman and an Indian family were the minorities. The racial disconnect was jarring. I mean I was expecting Indians to be singing in Sanskrit and playing the tablas and sitar, not some white guys from off Yonge Street.

A highlight of the kirtan meditation concert was Kundalini yoga sect. The dressed from toe to head in white, including white turbans on both the men and women. I stared hard at the group as it was the first time I had seen a group of white people in turbans. They chanted and encouraged the audience to join in their Bollywood moves. I am getting my recollections muddled up?  Whichever group did the dances, they were all white.

The grand finale was the concert by the Hari Krishnas. They bubbled with positivity as we followed their songs and dance. It felt more like a rave, not that I have ever been to one, rather than a meditative practice. Still it was fun. The leader was a muscular and handsome Indian man. He knew the value of his sex appeal, as the woman did their best to accidently get as close to him as possible. About a dozen people were in the Hari Krishans and ninety per cent were white.

So where does this leave me for this year’s yoga show? I find it hard to switch off my head when faced with the jarring racial disconnect between the white people proselytising the value of yoga as an ancient Indian meditative practice, while doing their best to ensure that not a single Indian is in the room to teach or follow the practice. When did yoga become a white activity?

I am thinking of joining the Twitter hashtag conversation called #YogaSoWhite. It is time to decolonize yoga and to reclaim it as a practice open to all. Black History Walks Toronto

Image credit: Jessamyn Stanley from Seattle Globalist


A Life of Books

In my mother’s house there was a large wooden sideboard against the south wall of the dining area. It was about eight feet high and just as long. This kind of furniture was popular in the 1870s.  A hundred years later it was a poor woman’s antique. Few praised its scratched beauty or its massive bulk.

The top half of the cabinet had large glass windows. It held all the best china and vases that we rarely used. Nestled along these were the knick-knacks that caught my mother’s eye – glass dolphins from the funfair, souvenir teaspoons from long ago trips, and eggshells painted with scenes from a Chinese countryside.

The bottom half of the cabinet was the most interesting to my eyes. Behind the slightly crooked wooden doors were the books. Most of them were once mine.

The full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica were still there. Neatly stacked upright along the shelf, the thick black covers with the gold lettering glimmered in the light. My mother had bought them from a door-to-door salesman. They were expensive back in the 1970s. They were paid for on weekly installments over many months. The Encyclopedia was the equivalent of the Internet back in the day. We were one of the few families on the housing estate to have a set. They were admired by many, but read only by me.

I recollect curling up on my bed and reading the Encyclopedia just for fun. They rewarded and did not mock my curiosity. They were a haven for a child when others grew tired of her hungry questions.

Each year, for our summer holidays, we spent weeks with our parents’ friends. I usually took along two volumes of the Encyclopedia. They carried me through the times of exile.

The Encyclopedia was my refuge. Open a page and I could be reading about the names of the constellations. Flip another and it was explaining the chemistry of water. No question or fact seemed too trivial or arcane for the book. The Encyclopedia cemented my love of history, science and geography. It was far easier to deal with abstract facts than the messiness of family life.

Another section of the shelf held my novels. They were the classics of British children’s literature – many tomes by Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens and the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge. There were hardback copies of Gulliver’s Travel, Ivanhoe, Kidnapped and many more.

As I grew, so my taste in books changed. I did not realize I was such a fan of the Mills and Boons romance series. There were about 30 of these paperbacks on the shelf. Shortly after that I got into Agatha Christie and her crime novels. I seemed to have read all her books as there were so many in the bottom of the sideboard.

I was an avid reader as a youth. The books in the cabinet were only the ones that I bought or were given to me. I read many more from the library.

In the cabinet there was not a single Black book among my collection. There was nothing that spoke of my history or experience as a Jamaican child growing up in small-town England. I was not surprised. That was how I grew up – a Black girl in the margins of a white world.

Black History Walks Toronto


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


A Black View on Climate Change

An opera about Black people, climate change and dub poetry. Lukumi is a fascinating show on so many levels. In the first place it puts Black people at the centre of the environmental debate.

Look at the conservation, outdoor recreation and environmental movements, and all one sees is a river of white faces. It is easy to assume from the images that there are no Black people in Canada. Lukumi puts the colour back into the environmental debates.

Starring D’bi Young as Lukumi, the opera is set in a post-apocalyptic world where humans have destroyed nearly everything. Lukumi, a reluctant warrior-goddess, must journey to the depths of the Earth to find the roots of the tree of life. It might be too late, but a seed from this tree could heal the planet.

Lukumi must conquer her own doubts, travel through a nucleared landscape and convince other animals to help her. And she must battle the black skins in the white masks. These are the soldiers hunting for bleeders, the few women who are still fertile, to restock the nuclear-ruined population.

The opera is also a journey through Black music. The live band shifts from African drumming, to gospel and to jazz. The melody and reggae beats of dub poetry weaves the whole thing together. The large cast are excellent singers. The music is co-composed by Waleed Abdulhamid and D’bi Young.

The opera is not all bleak. Humour comes from Daniel Ellis, as Anancy, a versifier, shape-shifter and unreliable giver of wisdom. The trickster admits that his words have to rhyme, even if it means that half the time the sense is left out. The sound-bite is what matters.

Lukumi is produced by Watah Theatre. The professional company ‘specialises in producing political theatre from a radical queer Black feminist lens.’ The founder is D’Bi Young.

Lukumi mixes African, Caribbean and Indigenous myths to create something uniquely Canadian. It is not the official myth of Canada as a happy land of multicultural people. Rather, the opera exposes how pollution, mining and fracking disproportionally affects Indigenous people in Canada. The opera is a call for environmental and social justice. It we don’t clean up the mess, in the end humans won’t matter. We will be no more.

The opera is at the Tarragon Theatre September 22-October 14, 2017.

Black History Walks Toronto


Hiking in Jamaica

The other side of Jamaica includes forests, mountains and limestone valleys. There is more to Jamaica than just miles of white sandy beaches. On this adventure tour we will hike the only UNESCO World Heritage Site on the island – the Blue and John Crow Mountains. We will watch the sunrise from the peak (2,300 m or 7,500 ft.).

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.

On the Jamaica tour we will also hike in the footsteps of the Maroons. The escaped slaves hid in their stronghold in the Cockpit Country. We will follow them into the challenging karst limestone hills and valleys.

In between hikes, there will time to relax on the beach, go on a river safari in the mangrove swamps, and to explore the museums and art galleries in Kingston, the island’s capital.

Tour Highlights

  • Hiking the forests of the Blue Mountains.
  • Hiking the limestone hills and valley of the Cockpit Country.
  • Boat safari on the Black River to see the crocodiles in the mangrove swamps. Beach.
  • Explore the culture and history of Kingston.

Daily Itinerary

Day 1 – Arrive in Montego Bay

Day 2 – Troy Trail hike

Day 3 – Quick Step Trail hike

Day 4 – Quick Step Trail hike

Day 5 – Black River safari and beach

Day 6 – Kingston culture tour (museum, plantation Great House, art gallery, Emancipation Park)

Day 7 – Blue Mountains hike

Day 8 – Blue Mountains Peak sun rise hike

Day 9 – Kingston culture tour and return to Montego Bay

Day 10 – Depart from Montego Bay

Facts File

  • 10 day land tour.
  • Minimum 4 and maximum 16 participants.
  • All meals and accommodation included.
  • All hikes lead by experienced and certified local guides.
  • Start and end in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
  • Comfort level – must be able to hike for about six hours each day.
  • Accommodation – comfortable hotels, guest house and lodge.
  • Departure – August 2018.

Who wants to come with me on this daydream trip? Let’s see if we can make it real.

Black History Walks Toronto