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

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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

6 Happy Black Films at TIFF

I kept looking at Danny Glover, trying to recollect where I knew him from. Did we meet at a concert, at an office party, or was he an ex-boyfriend of my friend?

Someone called out his name. Glover turned, smiled and waved. The posse of photographers swarmed and jostled each other for the shots. It felt like I was trapped in the middle of a rugby scum. And I was the only woman in there. And the smallest person too. A photographer pushed me in front of him, and hovered over me so that I too could take a snap. I was playing paparazzi. These guys were professionals.

That was a years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). I learned then that I was not cut out to be an entertainment blogger. After spending hours memorizing the faces of visiting film stars I had not recognized the one right in front of me.

It got worst.

At a special screening I did not get why the slim guy entering the discussion stage, wearing a suit, dark glasses, and get this, gleaming white running shoes, got a standing ovation. It was Taye Diggs.

TIFF – the world’s biggest film festival – starts this week in Toronto. Black film stars are regulars at TIFF. I can still remember the champagne style buzz when Chiwetel Ejiofor walked the red carpet. Lupita Nyong’o was then a beautiful but unknown starlet. Their film 12 Years A Slave went on to make box office and Oscar history.

There are plenty of films with Black actors for viewing at this year’s TIFF and some of the stars will be in town. Look out for Halle Berry, Idris Elba, Kevin Hart and Octavia Spencer.

TIFF films are categorized by region, and not by race or ethnicity. I scrolled through several regions to find what I was looking for. I wanted films with Black actors, shot by Black directors, with happy endings.

So here is my list of six happy Black films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival:

  1. The Royal Hibiscus Hotel. Will the cook open her restaurant or will the rich playboy burn her dreams? Got to find out in this Nigerian romantic comedy.
  2. Felicité. A Senegalese film about a plucky Kinshasa nightclub owner learning how to ask for help, before her club goes under.
  3. Looking for Oum Kulthum. An Egyptian-Persian film about a legendary singing diva.
  4. Sergio and Sergei. How a Cuban radio operator connects with a Russian astronaut stuck in space as both wait out time.
  5. Sheikh Jackson. A comedy on how the death of Michael Jackson shakes a huge fan – an Egyptian imam.
  6. Grace Jones. A documentary on the Jamaican-American model, singer and out and out diva.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Adventure Stories and Race

I was that kid curled up in a corner with my head buried in a book. Adventure stories were my favourite. By the time elementary school was done, I had read through the classics of British children’s literature. The books were birthday and Christmas presents from friends and family. The best came in in gift pack of three or more books.

I devoured Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and the Swiss Family Robinson. And anything by Jules Vernes. I loved the stories, except the bits where they talked about the natives.

It was uneasy believing in the heroes of the story when they encountered the natives. Even as a skinny sapling I knew that the natives were connected to me. It was unfortunate. I wanted to be like the heroes of the stories.

Adventure stories were popular from roughly the 1700s to the 1900s. Those two centuries were the height of colonialism. In his book Imperialism and Culture, Edward Said argues that artists not only followed the flag, they also created a culture that celebrated the planting of the flag on foreign lands. Through this lens, adventure stories were a cultural and geographical guide to foreign places. And the right and might of the British Empire to conquer and rule.

The books promised the gift of foreignness, adventure and travel without the bother of leaving the armchair. Adventure stories created landscapes of distant, tropical islands. The heroes journeyed to the islands by sea. Battling storms and shipwrecks they learned to be brave and survival skills. Crossing the oceans signified crossing into a new world, leaving the rules and rituals of home behind. In the new found land, the heroes were free to create their own version of paradise.

We crossed the ocean too.

Chained up as cargo in the belly of a square rigger. The adventure ship and the slave ship passed each other in the night and in the daylight. They were the two sides of the same colonial project.

Shipwrecked on an island, the heroes had to create new rules. The first rule was conquest. In adventure stories, it was never possible for the heroes to share the island with the inhabitants already living there. Conquest was the right of the whites. It could be peaceful as in seducing, naming and subjugating Friday in Treasure Island. Usually it was more violent.

Guns. Bullets. Blood. Dead natives to the left. Dead natives to the right. White heroes in the centre, hugging victory.

Once conquests was completed, the next step was creating white civilization on the island. That civilization was a rough version of Little England. The resources of the island, whether crops, minerals or people, were harnessed to enrich the empire. The natives were taught to be good Christians, happy to find a new savior in exchange for their land, rights and culture. Smiling natives were the best advertising for the beneficence of colonial rule.

Adventure stories are complete only when the heroes find their way back home. Their mission accomplished the travellers return to a more comfortable life funded by the treasures acquired from the foreign islands.

The British Empire is long dead, but adventure stories live on. Travel literature is the latest reincarnation of the form. More on this later.

It was adventure stories that inspired my love of travel and outdoor recreation. This time, I, the Black native, is the hero of the story.

And I win.

Sailing on a Half Moon

Murder at the Wedding

Their heavy breathing had stopped. Tom Smith reached over and kissed his wife’s eyes. She pulled him closer, her hands rubbing his nipple, his belly, reaching down… the log cabin door flew open.

Winter’s air sliced the room. Men’s voices screeched at Tom, rough hands yanked his shoulders. Tom fought as fists and boots and clubs smacked his body.

I am sure that this was not how Tom Smith wanted to spend his wedding night. He is just one of the many characters in Susanna Moodie’s classic memoir of pioneer life in Canada. Roughing it in the Bush, Or Life in Canada was published in 1852. Tom was Black. His wife was not.

Tom Smith appears half way through the book. The runaway slave from the USA had settled in the small Ontario town, setting himself up as a barber and laundry specialist. He was quiet, good-natured and successful. Tom was well liked, until the day he wed.

Marriage is a sacred act between two people who are free to choose each other. Or, so we like to believe in Canada. Here, love might be blind, but it is never colour blind. Mix-race marriages, then and still now, has a way of exposing the fault line of race in a society. Especially, marriage between a Black man and a white woman. This tends to wake up the sleeping dogs of race, sending them snarling, snapping or biting.

Moodie wrote that the small Ontario town had a quaint custom called charivari, a leftover from the days when French was the dominant European culture of Canada. Young men of the town held a charivari on some wedding nights. It was a chance to poke fun at the bride and groom with chants, bottles of wine, and an impromptu orchestra of banging pots and clashing sticks.

The charivari rabble disguised themselves with masks and hats, and blacked-up their faces. They turned up, uninvited, late at night at the newly-wed homes. On a deeper level the charming custom reinforced the norms and values of the small town. Couples who deviated from the norm were tried and judged by the charivari.

In one example the town did not approve of the May-October romance between a young bride and a middle-age groom. At the end of the charivari the groom was as stiff as a box. Another spring-autumn pairing had a different outcome. After a week of nightly charivari taunts, the autumnal bride outwitted the rabble. She found out the identity of the ringleader, a young lawyer, and invited him in for a handsome afternoon tea.

The wilderness was a wild and fearful place for Susanna Moodie. The menacing presence had to be conquered, cleared and farmed before English civilization could flourish in the backwoods colony. Moodie wrote Roughing it in the Bush specifically to encourage English immigration to Canada.

I don’t think Tom Smith shared Moodie’s pessimistic take on the Canadian wilderness. After all he had left the shackles and the whipping behind once he reached Canada’s shores. What he could not leave behind was his skin colour. And the perception of his blackness in the white imagination.

Tom Smith believed that his hard work was enough to grant him full citizenship in the pioneer town. Perhaps he felt that the right of citizenship included the right to marry the one you loved.

Moodie wrote that the town was sorry for what happened. The ringleaders of Tom Smith’s charivari fled the town to avoid jail. It did not matter to Tom Smith.

He was married and murdered on the same day.

Photo: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Jessie Walmisley and their children, married in 1899.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Niagara-on-the-Lake: Wine, Women and Slaves

When people think of Niagara-on-the-Lake, they imagine wine tours, tastings and vineyards. Maybe strolling along the Victorian heritage district, overflowing with rustic charm from its gingerbread trimmed houses.

Black History rarely pops into the mind. Yet, a century ago Niagara-on-the-Lake had a substantial Black population. On our day trip from Toronto, we combined the best of a wine, food and Black History tour in the quaint town.

Our first stop was the Brock Monument at Queenston Heights park. We were not there to see the general poised high upon a column looking down on to the Niagara River. We were there to see the history plaque dedicated to the Coloured Corps.

Black Canadians fought in the War of 1812, helping to defeat the USA invasion. Their patriotism was based on fear. If the USA won, there was a possibility they would reintroduce slavery into Canada.

We hopped back into the minivan and drove slowly along the Niagara Parkway. The scenic road ran along the lip of a cliff. Way down below, the blue river was wide and deep, and a natural border between the two countries.

This Black Woman Made a Difference

Chole Cooley crossed that river once and was anxious not to do so again. She screamed. She fought back. She refused to be dragged down into the belly of a slave ship. A Black Canadian soldier heard her cries.

Slavery was abolished in Canada in 1793 because of Chole Cooley’s screams. The Canadian government blamed the ‘peculiar institution’ for causing the American Revolution. No slavery in Canada meant the colony was less likely to revolt, and more likely to remain loyal to Britain. One Black woman made a difference to the history of the country.

Next, we drove through the heart of the heritage district, looking for the plaque to the Negro Burial Ground. In the 1800s the Black community in Niagara-in-the-Lake was big enough to have its own church.

The burial ground was an open plot of land, with clipped grass and trees swaying in the breeze. Two gravestones stood next to the plaque. Underground, lies the bones of a few hundred Black residents.

Niagara-on-the-Lake was just one of the many Canadian termini of the Underground Railroad. Yet, the Black population of the city declined after the American Civil War. People returned to reunite their families, and to greet a new day as free men and women.

Tasting Wines

It’s never good to drink on an empty stomach. So we had lunch in a pretty restaurant in the centre of the town. We picked it based on its lively patio, filled with sun, chatter and gorgeous flower baskets. It was a good choice.

Then it was the wine tour. We meandered from the vineyard, to the underground storage vault and back to the patio for wine tasting. Tutankhamun liked wine. So did Hatshepsut, the lone female pharaoh. Both were buried with flasks of wine to ease their journey into the afterlife.

As the designated driver, I had to settle for the grape juice. In the wine store I bought my booze in the form of merlot habanero jam and pear ginger amaretto jelly.

Our final stop was the lavender farm and apothecary. It had everything lavender from oils, soaps to photographs.

The group was happy on the hour-and-a-half drive back to Toronto. The wine and lavender tours were great. But they chatted most about the Black History. They were astonished that Niagara-on-the-Lake was filled with our history.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London