“Can my mom take a picture with your group?” said the woman as she smiled at me.
“No. We are not props,” I said.
I turned my back to her. Irritation rumbled in my belly. I took yet another photograph of our group posing in front of the Casa Loma museum. The place was filled with people visiting Toronto’s historic castle on a summer afternoon. They posed beside the fountain, the lush gardens and the tower of the castle.
Our group stood out from the crowds for one reason – we were Black.
Multiple languages and accents drifted in the air as people modelled for photographs. A young Chinese couple snapped selfies with their arms wrapped around each other. A Spanish-speaking dad hoisted his son on his shoulders as the rest of the family gathered around to pose in front of the roses. A French-speaking man asked me to take a photo of him and his family. I took three with his iPad, he was pleased with them.
Casa Loma was the terminus of our two-hour urban walk, along the parks and leafy neighbourhoods of mid-town Toronto. Perched on a hill overlooking the city, the castle has 98 rooms and was once the largest private house in Canada and the USA. It was built by one of the richest men in Canada in 1911. The castle was a list of firsts – it had home electricity, telephones and central vacuum. Today the castle is a museum, wedding venue and is used as a back-drop in many films and television shows.
Our walking group meets a once a month, on a Saturday afternoon, to talk, walk and explore the Black history of the city. On this stroll we had meandered along on St. Clair Avenue, a street named after the hero in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
We did not know the white woman who wanted to pose with us. Her request made no sense – not in Toronto, not in 2017. We live in a city where people of colour are half of the population.
Her request got me thinking about race, art and the politics of images. There is a long tradition in American and European visual art of showing Black people as the ‘other.’ Curiosities. Exotics. Nameless. The white people are the focus of the picture, while the Black people are the small figures, in the margins. They are used to highlight the difference between the races and the implied superiority of one over the other.
The white woman’s request was a continuation of the tradition of portraying Blacks as curiosities.