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

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

Cherry Blossoms in High Park

The cherry blossoms danced in High Park. The clusters of small flowers, white on the outside and pink at the core, did the samba in the spring sunshine. A swathe of cherry trees lined the bank of the stream. I have ran, cycled and skied near them for more than two decades. Most of those times a minority of Black and other people of colour were in the park.

It is different at cherry blossom time. High Park bloomed with East Asians. It was a warm spring day and so families picnicked under the trees. Other people snapped thousands of photographs against the backdrop of the blooming trees. Young couples celebrated their love, or at least the daydream of perfect love, under the lucky buds. Happiness is fleeting like the flowers. One must cherish it, before it too fades.

The Sakura cherry trees were a gift from the people of Tokyo. It was a thank you note to Toronto, for accepting the Japanese-Canadian who were relocated to the city during and after World War II. Relocation. Such a nice, neutral word to cover up surviving the internment camps.

Japanese-Canadians were not Canadian enough during the war. Declared enemies of the state, they were stripped of their assets – homes, shops, fishing boats – and banished to the interior of the country. Far away from their lives on the west coast.

They were branded as the ‘yellow peril.’ It was an old label hurled at Japanese-Canadians since they first arrived in the country as miners in the 1870s, chasing the dream of digging up a fortune in the Gold Rush. On the west coast anti-Japanese protests and sentiments were as common as the maple leaf. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, merely ignited a long smouldering fire.

We climbed up the hillock and looked down into the valley. The crowd was the indifferent to our group of six Black people savouring the delight of the cherry trees. The sun reflected off the forest of apartments in the distance. My eyes drifted to the pond, to the budding maple and oak trees. They once again settled on the cherry trees.

During the war Japanese-Canadian families were split up and sent to different camps. Ghost towns in the interior were resurrected: they had no schools, electricity or running water. Isolated in these towns, Japanese-Canadians grew thin on a diet of racism, dislocation and dispossession.

The men were forced to work as lumberjacks, road crews or on sugar-beet farms. They did hard labour for a dreg of wages. The internment camps were designed to be self-sufficient. Meaning that the government forced the Japanese-Canadians to pay for their own imprisonment.

German and Italian Canadians were not locked up in internment or prisoner-of-war camps. Their white skins was sufficient proof of their loyalty. After the war, thousands of Japanese-Canadians were stripped of their birthright as citizens. They were forcibly deported to a country they never knew. No Germans nor Italians were deported. Their white skins was sufficient proof of citizenship.

The redress came 50 years later. In 1988 the Canadian government apologised for its harsh treatment of its own citizens. It said that racial profiling was a mistake of the past. The Black community does not agree with that statement.

We strolled down the hillock and arrived at Grenadier Pond. Children scampered near the bank feeding the mallards, geese and swans. The grove of cherry blossoms made me smile. Spring is here they jived in the breeze. Some people go to a temple, church or synagogue to celebrate the rebirth of life. My sacred place is outdoors. Among the lilies of the field and the cherry trees, I find my joy.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

John Muir: Trekking in Slavery Lands

I have spent many blissful Sundays hiking the Bruce Trail with my outdoor clubs. The best hikes left Toronto early in the morning and returned to the city at dusk.

John Muir hiked the Bruce Trail too, long before it was known by its more familiar name. Muir is a father of conservation and the co-founder of the Sierra Club. He did the heavy lifting to get Yosemite and other US National Park established. His books are a bible in conservation circles on both sides of the border.

I assumed that Muir had nothing to say about race, and that it had no impact on him or his work. After all he is the colour of snow, much like the conservation and environmental movements. Black and other people of colour are largely invisible in the movements. I decided to check my assumption, prompted by something I learned in my PhD seminars – always trouble sleeping dogs and other accepted wisdoms. You need to know what is hiding behind them and who benefits from it.

Social justice scholars tend to be activists or shit-stirrers, depending on one’s perspective. I seems to be following in the steps of that noble tradition. In the case of Muir, the first step was actually reading, and not just adlibbing about him, as we tend to do around the campfire. I soon found out that like a thorn, race has a habit of pricking sacred icons.

Canada has been a sanctuary for American draft dodgers since its Civil War in 1861. That is how Muir came here. He did not want to fight in President Lincoln’s anti-slavery army. Muir spent two years in Canada, returning to the USA once the war was over.

In 1867 Muir did an epic hike, recorded in his book A Thousand Mile Hike to the Gulf. It was a hardscrabble trek involving much sleeping in caves, fields and cemeteries. He loved every hour of it. Muir cadged food and water where he could. Half the time the providers were either Black or White people.

On the first days of his walk, and on the first pages of the book, Muir is stranded crossing a river. A Black boy and his mother helped him cross, using their horse as a ferry. They sent him off to a large homestead to find fresher water. The homestead had an airy and large home that was rustic but comfortable. It is surrounded by the Negro quarters, which were big enough for a village. Muir describes it as a “genuine old Kentucky home, embosomed in orchards, corn fields and green wooded hills.”

Let’s trouble this description by unpacking its layers of meaning. First, the context. Muir is hiking in the woods in the direct aftermath of slavery. For this Black population, freedom did not yet bring economic gains. No doubt some stayed on the plantation because it was the only home they had ever know. Most remained because they had little choice. It was work the cotton fields or starve.

The situation was different for the White homesteaders. They grew fat from slavery. And continued to do so after its abolition. Their assets, in the form of land, did not diminish. And labour was cheap in a situation where the labour had little choice. All the White families Muir stayed with had substantial homes and farms. Some were damaged in the war, but the families were quickly recovering.

The richest Black family Muir bunked with had their own home, which was little more than a shack. The furniture was so rickety that the chairs had no bottom and the table was propped up with planks.

“Many of the Kentucky Negroes are shrewd and intelligent, and when warmed up a subject that interest them, are eloquent in no mean degree.” Muir wrote this after cadging a ride from an old Black man driving an ox team. They talked about the fighting which occurred in the area during the Civil War. The old man is unnamed like most of the people Muir met on his trek. In Muir’s words, the old man is shown as an individual and not as a caricature. This is significant when most writers of his era did the reverse.

Near the end of his trek, Muir took a side trip to Cuba. In Havana, he noted the colourful livery of the Black men driving the carriages, as their owners paraded up and down showing off their wealth. Before Muir’s ship could leave, it was checked ensure that it did not harbour stowaway slaves. Slavery would not be abolished in Cuba for another year, in 1886.

For Muir, nature was a refuge from the mess and stress of urban life. The Sierra Club was formed to ensure that the wilderness would not be devoured by human greed. Many preferred a nature that was chopped, dammed or drowned for profit.

Today the Sierra Club has a membership of about one million. From its website, magazine and social media accounts, it is hard to see how much the membership has changed since Muir’s days. Most are still the same colour as cotton wool.

As the White population ages, membership is declining in outdoors and conservation clubs. It would seem to make sense to get people of colour, soon to be the majority of the population, into the clubs. Muir wrote about the Indigenous, Black and other people of colour that he met on his hikes. Why won’t the outdoors movements continue this tradition? A simple first step would be putting us in the ads. Black people have always been in the woods. Just ask John Muir, a father of conservation.

Sailing on a Half Moon

Audubon: On Birds and Slaves

The great blue heron twisted its neck down to reach the water, even as its beady eye stared straight at me. The look was not friendly. Its thin scissor-like beak was long enough to spear my gut.

I stared back at the bird, captured on the page of an elephant-sized book by John James Audubon. The book and its author are icons of the conservation movement. Walking through the art gallery, I browsed some twenty prints from the magnificent Birds of America.

Audubon is a staple of conservation chats around the campfire. He is the founder of modern ornithology and pioneered the methods still used for studying birds, such as banding and annual bird counts. Birds are an early indicator of wildlife and ecological health. Audubon and slavery. These two words rarely appear together in most conservation talks, websites and books. As a Black woman playing with birding, I am always looking for evidence that we too have a history in the outdoors. The search led to Audubon.

He fancied himself as the rock star of outdoor living. Audubon boasts of his tight pants, silk shirts and his curls flowing in the wind as he charged away on his horse. He, and women, loved his muscles of steel. Men admired his sharp-shooting and hunting skills. Some probably liked his muscled chest too.

Audubon was a gifted painter, writer and fabulist. He created and massaged his image as an American man of the backwoods. On publicity tours he wore buckskin pants, loose, and fur-trimmed leather jackets. The truth was twisted and spun, much like his birds, they to fit the page, his to enhance fame.

Let’s start with his birth in 1785. Audubon spent a lot of time insisting that he was white and American-born. He could never quite keep the story straight, or perhaps, others noticed his slight tan, even in the winter. Audubon was born in Haiti on his white father’s sugar plantation. The race and status of his mother is still debatable. The conflicting claims about her serves only to highlight the fact that it was not a black and white case.

The Haitian Revolution spun Audubon into the USA. He arrived with enough money to start his own business at Mill Grove. There, he owned nine enslaved people, buying and selling them as needed. In his autobiography Audubon called them his servants. They did the housework, farmed the vegetable garden, ran the mill and the shop, dug the fish pond, and rowed the boats ashore. The slave labour gave Audubon the freedom and the money to pursue his love of birds.

On his treks in the USA Audubon passed through many plantations. He noticed the birds and the plants, but not the enslaved people, except on one occasion. On a birding expedition Audubon slid into a fugitive man hunting in the Louisiana swamps. Guns cocked, the stand-off ended with the men sharing dinner in the bayou.

Over the small fire, the enslaved man told his story. He, his wife, and three children were sold to separate owners. The man feigned sickness for a few days, biding his time. He escaped. He tracked down his splintered family, and one by one reunited them in the swamp. Always, they were on guard for slave catchers. When food was low, they visited the plantations at night, knowing that the enslaved people there would feed them and keep their secret. The story then takes an improbably turn. Audubon says he persuaded the runaway family to return with him to their original owner. He persuaded the owner to rebuy the family and to promise never to sell them again.

The story is significant, as it highlights how enslaved people resisted the shackles. For some it was to flee into the woods, living a precarious life. For others, it was aiding the runaway, a symbol that freedom was indeed possible. The story also shows that slavery was such a common and accepted institution that it never occurred to Audubon to free the enslaved family.

The bird man visited Canada in 1833, as he wanted to paint every bird in North America. He succeed in capturing some 450 of them. It is an astonishing achievement. He insisted on paining life-sized images of the birds, hence the massive size of the deluxe folio edition of his books. His paintings are dynamic, showing the birds in movement, whether flying, hunting or swimming. There is an unsettling urgency to his prints. It feels as if he was rushing to capture creatures on the verge of extinction. If he could fix them in oil, colour, shadow and light, they would live.

Audubon knew the world was changing rapidly. The woods he hiked as a youth were replaced by roads and cities in his dotage. He noted that the government policy of destroying the buffalo was intended to decimate the Indigenous people. He saw their disappearance as the sad but inevitable price of civilization. Audubon died in 1851.

In 2011 Sotheby’s sold an original Audubon deluxe folio for $12 million. The man’s legacy increases with each year, there are many parks, school and centres named after him. Mill Grove, his original home is now a national historic site. I plan on visiting it one day. I want to see where the nine enslaved people work. Will there be a monument to mark their role in supporting Audubon’s talent, and the continuing wealth of those who own his original books and paintings?

Audubon white-washed himself throughout his life. The conservation movement does the same by ignoring the racial context in which he lived. Slavery built America. Conservation and environmental groups are still seen as white institutions with white agenda. A first step in changing this perception is putting race back into the conversations around the campfires.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Black History Walks in Toronto

The next time you are in Toronto, give me a call. We can spend an afternoon chatting and walking as we explore the Black history of the city.

Together we will trace the Toronto footsteps of abolitionists Harriet Tubman, Josiah Henson, and others. As we explore homes, churches, and cemeteries that played key roles in the Underground Railroad, we’ll discuss why and how many Black leaders—including former slaves—migrated to Toronto and built the foundations of a strong Black community.

On the walk, there will be stops for drinks and we will end it with a tasty snack at a Caribbean café.

I already lead walks for two outdoor clubs and a Meet Up group. This walk is done through Airbnb. It is part of their new programme called Airbnb Experience. The idea behind it to get an insider’s view of the city and to share in the activities that make city life so vibrant. As being outside and Black history are my passions, it made sense to combine both.

All prospective Experience hosts are screened and trained by Airbnb. I am in the first group of those launching the initiative in Toronto. Others are offering food and wine tours, mural painting, silk screening and a jazz safari.

The Experience is a chance for me to earn some extra cash. Studying for a PhD, even on a full scholarship, is expensive. Many PhD students graduate with their head stuffed with knowledge and their bank accounts stuffed with debts. I don’t want to be one of those.

So the next time you are in Toronto, check out my Black History walking tour.

Black History Walks in Toronto

Hidden Figure: Race and Space on Film

Computers used to wear skirts, heels and lipstick. Hidden Figures is a gorgeous drama about three African American women, the human computers at NASA in the 1950s.

Black women mathematicians working on the space programme seems so far-fetched. And yet NASA employed hundreds of them. The film excavates their story, bringing back into the light the geeks who made space flight possible.

As I am interested in how race and space intersect, I will focus on these here. The outdoor and indoor shots in the film capture the American racial-spatial dynamic. There is a classic film scene of people stranded on the side of the road as the car has broken down. The scene takes an unexpected turn, as the legs sticking out from under the car belong to a Black woman, wearing heels. Octavia Spencer is beautiful as Dorothy Vaughan the mechanical genius who get the car going. This skill comes in handy later, as she figures out how to programme the first mechanical computers, when the white male experts could not do so.

African Americans in the outdoors tend to be wary – on guard waiting for something to happen. In this case it is the white policeman, hand on gun, with all the subtlety of an elephant, demanding to know who the women were and what they were doing.  The wide open road ahead, is suddenly not so wide nor open.

The church picnic, a staple shot in African American films, gives another perspective on being Black in the outdoors. The church in the background of the scene, is large, stolid and comfortable. Much like its congregation. The picnic in the church’s garden is an excuse for food, gossip and the first smiles of a romance. In the domestic confines of the church’s garden, outdoors is a safe space for Black people.

Hidden Figures switches between the lives of the women at home and at work. At home they are surrounded by children and loving husbands. This point is worth noting, as it is still too exotic to see Black men as tender, loving figures.

Work life was so much harder. The USA lost the space race to the Russians as they could not figure out how to get the astronauts safely back to Earth. The mathematics for that had not yet being invented. When all the white men failed to work out that calculation, NASA put out the call to find ‘a genius among the geniuses.’ No one expected that it would be a Black woman. Taraji P. Henson steals the film as Katherine Johnston. She strikes the right balance between developing as an intellectual powerhouse and staying humble so that she would not be lynched on the job.

NASA was also short of talented engineers. The department opened up the gate to these top paying jobs, and promptly tried to shut it again when the best applicant was Mary Jackson, an African American women (Janelle Monae).

Watching the work battles of the women is so familiar. The signs for the segregated coloured toilets, water fountains and coffee pots have long gone. But the invisible ones are still cemented into place. Black people are the last hired, the first fired, and need to be twice as goods to get half as far.

Hidden Figures is set against the backdrop of the space race, Civil Rights and the dawn of the computer age. The women had the audacity, not just to hope, but to demand to be part of that new future.  Katherine Johnson went on to do the maths, enabling the US to win the race to put the first man on the Moon. A new $30 million computer research lab at NASA is named in her honour.

Hidden Figures has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. It has made about $123 million at the box office, making it one of the most profitable films of 2016. This challenges the stereotype that dramatic films about Black people don’t sell. Hidden Figures is required viewing for all those trying to get more girls into science, engineering, technology and mathematics fields. The film shows that being a woman and being a geek is a recipe for success.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love