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

Moonlight: Race and Space on Film

Moonlight plays with expectations is so many ways, as a coming-of-age drama of an African American boy. As expected the film is set in an urban landscape, in this case Miami in the 1980s. There are the requisite pastel colours, fancy cars and the drug trade. Crack fuels the life in the city. The urban ghetto space is familiar and therefore the story seems predictable.  It is not. Multiple waves of meaning and knowing ripples through the film.

In one moving scene the boy hero enters the sea. Held in the strong arms of his drug-don mentor, the child is suspended in the water, his limpid eyes flickering between fear and trust. His baptism could go either way. The scene churns expectations – it is simply a set up for swimming lessons. It is worth seeing the film for this scene alone.

It is so rare to see African Americans in an outdoors space, where they are enjoying nature and not fleeing from race-based violence. It is just as uncommon to see a Black working-class man as a loving father figure, gently encouraging a child to try something new.

Moonlight drowns another stereotype about Black men and the spaces they are expected to occupy. Black, gay and living in the ‘hood are a taboo combination in popular culture. The film tackles this head on.

The hero does not believe the message from his mentor that gay love is just another form of love. He believes the screams from his mother and the ghetto – gay men make perfect punching bags.

James Baldwin made all the characters White in Giovanni’s Room. Black gay men in love was such an explosive issue in the 1950s, that he could not even float the idea in his novel. Moonlight reflects how far we have come. It queers the ‘hood.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London