Snowshoeing in Killbear Park

The ice sheet was grey at the edge of the lake. The air bubbles trapped in it created a frosty honeycomb lattice. A hike leader walked a few feet on to the ice, tapped it with his hiking pole, and then jumped up and down a few times. He said it was safe to walk across. He was petite, about my size. And I am as small as a cherry. But just as sweet. Most times. The group hesitated.

It was our annual snowshoe and cross-country ski weekend in Killbear Provincial Park. Some 32 members of my Toronto outdoor club were on the trip. The majority where white, with a minority of four Asian women (two with white partners), and one Black person. Me. About a dozen of us went on the eight kilometre trek to the lighthouse. It was minus twenty. Breathe froze in the air. A necklace of ice crystals dangled on the front of my scarf.

From a conventional standpoint, we were a typical outdoors group enjoying winter in the park. From a critical lens perspective the situation reads differently. Here my focus is not on the obvious race and gender dynamics, but on the land on which we hovered. I want to “move beyond the land as a geographical feature or surface to the land as a “meeting up of history,”” as Mishuana Goeman writes in her book Mark My Words.

Long Ago in Killbear Park

Killbear Park was part of the Ojibway territory, and intersected by complex trade routes between various First Nations. The Ojibways hunted. They traded fish and furs for beans, corn and squash with the Huron-Wendats who farmed the land further to the south. The Ojibways also traded for copper from the west coast, used to make tools, and for shells from the east to make decorative beads on clothes and shoes. Killbear Park had a long history before contact between Indigenous and European people.

snowshoeing in killbear park

Killbear Park was ‘acquired’ by Treaty 13 between the Ojibway nation and the Canadian government. In the 1830s European settlers flocked to the area, enticed by free land given out under the Ontario Government Free Grant and Homestead Act. They had five years to build a house and start a farm; if not the settlers forfeited the land. Dreams and reality soon collided as Killbear was poor for farming. The land is littered with massive rock outcrops. Logging became the main industry from 1860s to the 1920s. It declined once all the valuable mature trees were cut down. Killbear was eventually turned into a park to boost tourism in the area. We were snowshoeing on land with an ancient history.

We had started the trek at the lodge. We turned left, and ducked under the padlocked gates blocking cars from the road to the interior of the park. As we walked along, the snowshoes creaked on the deeply packed snow, sounding like rusty wheels in need of a good oiling. Puffs of kicked up snow covered our boots. On patches of ice the snowshoes squeaked like chalk on a blackboard.

Winter still ruled the surface of the land in early March. The birch trees and shrubs were naked, the leaf buds still cocooned in their warm protective casings. Deer tracks criss-crossed the land, disappearing into the thick strands of pine trees. I find much beauty in the simplicity of winter. In the woods, it is an endless canvas of lights and shadows, voids and shapes, fears and dreams.

We stuck to the marked trail, treading in each other’s path. Veer off and a snowshoe could plunge into a snowbank melting from the underside, twisting an ankle or trapping a foot in an icy bath. In minutes the limb would numb to the coldness, increasing the risk of frostbite. In the quiet snatches between the chatter and the squeaking snowshoes, I heard hidden water gurgling, a signal that spring was awakening under the bed of winter.

We turned right at a fork in the trail, and headed for the lake. The north wind blew off the bay, scouring exposed faces. Water dripped from eyes and noses not hidden behind protective barriers of cloth or glass. The lake looked like an enormous ice rink, with dots of tree-covered islands sprinkled on the smooth surface. The ice shimmered in the noon-time sun, blurring the boundary between land and water. Then as we filed along the shore, the snowshoe tracks became streaked with sand.

A rocky hillock stuck its tongue out into the lake. Snowshoes slid as they scraped away its thin layer of ice and snow. We could not climb over it. The choice was either an hour’s detour inland, or a ten minute walk on the frozen water.

History on the Land

Goeman writes that the “geography and the language we use to order space are formed in a “contact zone” in which various cultures interact.” At Killbear the official brochures and guides categorise the park into areas and routes for activities like camping, swimming, skiing and canoeing. They contain guidelines on how to deal with wildlife, such as grazing deer and angry bears. The brochures point out the remnants of the failed settler farms and the logged old growth forest. Thus, the Killbear land is ordered and sorted into recreational, wildlife and historical areas.

Nothing in the official materials indicate the Indigenous heritage in Killbear or the surrounding areas. It was only from researching for this essay, that I realised that there was an Ojibway reservation on Parry Island, just across the bay from the park. The reservation is visible from the lighthouse. I had seen it many times, but never associated it with an Indigenous community.

The absence of Indigenous references in Killbear Provincial Park is not accidental. It is a continuation of the government’s pattern of attempting to erase Indigenous history and ownership of the land.

snowshoeing in killbear park

The Parry Island reservation is a mere fragment of the former Ojibway territory. According to Goeman reservations are colonial spatial structures that attempt to limit Indigenous movement over the contested land. As a spatial boundary, separating Indigenous from white people, the settler-colonials, the reservation is somewhat ineffective in the case of Killbear. But, it is still a powerful psychological boundary today.

Today, there are more First Nations living in urban areas than on rural reservations. The visible presence of Indigenous people in the cities does two things. First, it refutes the white settler-colonial claim that they had disappeared, or belong only in the past. Second, it makes visible the unresolved issues around the ownership of the land called Canada.

A Lake of Ice

The second hike leader was a stout woman. She too walked on to the ice, tapping ahead with her pole, before taking each step. The echo was hollow, not the dull thud she was expecting. The surface of the ice was smooth, but underneath it hair-wide cracks were spread out like a spider’s web. The cracks can expand in seconds exposing the water below. I know of only one man who could walk on water, or so his followers claim. A decision was made – we would go inland.

We ate lunch on a sheltered rock outcrop, basking in the bright afternoon sun. There, most of the group abandoned the trek to the lighthouse. The temperature had warmed up a bit – it was now minus ten. The snow was patchy on the remainder of the lakeshore trail making it hard to snowshoe. The many detours inland made the route too long. Four of us made it out to the lighthouse. On the pinnacle of rock we gazed across the bay. To the north of the lighthouse the lake was frozen into white stillness. To the south, it was open blue water, gently lapping at the shore below us. To the west the land was filled with houses. I had assumed that they were summer cottages for people from the city.

The brochures at Killbear Provincial Park reflect the geography of hegemonic whiteness. By this I mean the standard world view that the park is a neutral space, open to all who enjoy outdoor recreation. The supposed neutrality of the space hides the dominance of white people as the managers, gatekeepers and users of the park’s land.

Goeman writes of the need to develop alternative spatialities. It is a way of seeing and mapping the Americas from multiple perspectives, at the same time. It brings into focus the histories of different groups, their relationship to each other, and most importantly, to the land on which they stand. The land is a witness that never lies.


The Black Explorer and the North Pole

Black blood flows in the Arctic. When Matthew Henson explored the North Pole in the 1900s, he left behind a keepsake of his visits. His son Anaukaq was born in 1906.

Matthew Henson does not mention the child in his book A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, which was published in 1912. Robert Perry, the expedition leader, does not mention his own mixed-race son either. Both men followed the established tradition of male explorers – they came, they saw, and off the record, had sex with local women.

Henson and Perry spent over 20 years trying to reach the North Pole. The quest to be the first person on that spot was a holy grail of European explorers for two centuries. No one expected that a Black man would win the prize.

Sex on the Plantation, Sex in the Arctic

Slavery still ruled African American lives when Henson was born in 1866. He was born free, the third such generation in his family. They were free people of colour. Somewhere on a plantation in Maryland, near Washington D.C., a white master sexed and later freed a slave, thus birthing this branch of the Henson family.

Mathew Henson was orphaned as a child. At aged 12 years he was a cabin-boy on ships sailing to China, Japan, North Africa and Russia. Aged 20, Henson met Robert Perry a USA navy captain. For the next two decades the men were like conjoined twins. They first explored Central America, scouting out a possible route for the Panama Canal. Next it was the Arctic, where the men made their fame as explorers.

It was not unusual for white explorers to have Black companions, whether as slaves, servants or concubines. What was unusual was Matthew Henson role as the second in command of the expeditions. All on board the ships took orders from him.

Henson was a technical genius, skilled as a carpenter, blacksmith, dog-handler and hunter. He was the only member of the expeditions whose Arctic skills were respected by the Inuit (then called Eskimos). Henson was fluent in Inuit. He was an expert at building igloos. Henson makes it clear in his book that the expeditions depended on the skills, knowledge and labour of the Inuit from Greenland and Canada. The team were the first to reach so far north in the Arctic, and they did so by adopting the Inuit way.

Some 39 Inuit lived on board the final expedition ship. The women sewed seal-skin boots and bear fur pants and anoraks for the expedition crew. Inuit men guided the dog-drawn sledges over the shifting ice-floes.

Akatingwah, an Inuit woman, was the lover or ‘country wife’ of Henson. She gave birth to his only child in Greenland.

In his book Henson writes about the Inuit as individuals with names, quirks and attitudes. This is significant in an age where people of colour were simply mentioned as part of the exotic background of exploration. Or, if they were described at all, the words were dripping in racial stereotypes.

“I have been to all intents an Eskimo, with Eskimo for companions, speaking their language, dressing in the same kind of clothes, living in the same kind of dens, eating the same food, enjoying their pleasures, and frequently sharing their griefs,” Henson wrote. “I have come to love these people. I know every man, woman, and child in their tribe. They are my friends and they regard me as theirs.” (p.32)

Endless Ice and Endless Nights

North Pole fever gripped Europe and the Americas in the 1800s. It was part of a larger imperial quest to find an Arctic sea passage, as a shortcut, to the riches of Asia. The North Pole is the hat of the world. All steps from it lead to the south. Locating the North Pole was essential for making accurate maps and for knowing where you were.

As no one knew exactly where or what the Pole was, it became the perfect blank canvas for the European imagination. Writers moved Santa Claus, elves and reindeers to a new home in the North Pole. Frankenstein and other monsters lurked there too. The North Pole was also the home of unicorns, Superman and a possible volcanic entrance to the centre of the world.

People live in the Arctic, but no one inhabits the North Pole. That cherished spot is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, and about 1,000 kilometres from the nearest village in Nunavut, Canada.

Mathew Henson and Robert Perry made eight attempts to reach the North Pole, between 1891 and 1908. They were convinced they had reached it on the final expedition. The jury is still out on if they hit the exact spot. What is undisputed is that they were the first to reach so far north.

I tried cross-country skiing when it was -42C. Each exhale froze in front of my face. My lungs trembled from taking in frigid air. Lips and eyelashes began to freeze in seconds. I bolted back inside the lodge in less than five minutes.

Matthew Henson spent weeks outside in such temperatures. He sledged over ice-packs in the quest for the North Pole. Sometimes the packs jammed together forming steep ice ridges, which the men climbed using ice picks to claw their way over. Crevices formed between the drifting ice-packs. Falling into one was a trip to the after-life. Other times the explorers glided over thin ice. Henson learned to be nimble and to be quick jumping off sinking sledges.

Then there were the storms. Ice and snow and screamed across the ice-scape. The winds were powerful enough to knock  down a man or blow over an igloo.

The sun also rises in the Arctic – once every six months. Henson writes of praying for daylight to replace the six months of endless darkness.

Success and the Man

Perhaps it was just pure ego on Robert Perry’s part. He was annoyed that Matthew Henson had stepped on the North Pole first. Henson’s sledge was in the lead. When the expedition returned to the USA, Perry was hailed as the hero. He received all the awards, prestige and greetings from presidents. Henson was ignored, his role reduced to that of the faithful servant. It was a play of the all too familiar trope of the great white hero and his loyal, but silent, Black servant.

Matthew Henson eventually got his dues as an old man. Some 30 years after his epic voyage across the ice-lands, he received the same medals and honours as Perry. Henson died in 1955.

In 1988 Matthew Henson and his wife were reburied in Arlington National Cemetery, right next to Robert Perry. The two Artic explorers were rejoined in death, as they had been in life. The descendants of their mixed-race Inuit sons were at the ceremony.

I stood in Henson’s shadow once, without knowing it. The three massive meteors caught my attention at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In his book Henson described the effort it took to remove the extra-terrestrial rocks from the Arctic and bring them to the south. The sale of the meteors funded Perry’s North Pole expeditions. Matthew Henson’s hands once touched those rocks.


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


Black Canadian Feminist: It’s Time to Step into the Cold

As a Black Canadian woman, what does feminism mean to me? The initial answer is not very much. In my mind feminism and white women go together like milk and salt. In my lived experience, white feminist spout a universal creed of empowering all women, while ensuring that it is only white women who benefit from diversity policies. The sisterhood falls apart when it comes to my Black neighbourhood. I wanted sugar, nutmeg and chocolate in my milk. All I got was salt.

Womanist is uncomfortable in my gut. It speaks to the history of African American women. While they and I are both member of the African Diaspora, the particularities of our locations has created a very different lived experience. This becomes blindly clear when I am in the USA or among African Americans. I relate to them as Americans, first and foremost. Most of the time the cultural gap between us is as wide as the Grand Canyon. I am a Black Canadian, not a stereotyped softer, gentler more polite version of an African American.

Calling myself an African feminist upsets my belly too. I have lived or visited ten African countries. In each of them I was an outsider. Our shared Black skin was not enough to wallpaper over a cultural divide as long as the Rift Valley. Pain, stereotypes and misunderstandings do not make a good glue to hold a wallpaper in place. It is the pain of those sold, the pain of those left behind, and our mutual recriminations and reluctance to discuss whom did what to whom. The intensity of the pain makes it hard to see that we were both victims, but, in different ways.

On the surface my identity is simple – a Black Canadian woman. Look a little closer and that identity is more complex, even to me. My gravestone will read ‘Canadian: Jamaican born, England grew, Nigerian wed.’

That little epitaph summarises my roots. They straddle all three corners of the Atlantic Ocean, replicating that long ago triangular trade in rum, sugar and slaves. The ‘afterlife of slavery’ shapes my identity and defines my life as a Black Canadian woman.

It filters my views on feminism too. I am interested in woman-centred theorizing that captures the subtleties and ambiguities of being a middle-class, heterosexual, Jamaican, diluted Christian, Black woman, in Canada.  The theorizing has to be flexible enough to include the lived experiences of other Black women who have different weaves in the cloth of their own identity.

It seems to me that Black Canadian feminism fits the bill in terms of theorizing. So I am issuing a challenge to myself and all Black Canadian feminist – it is time that we embrace the cold. We too are Canadians, now we too must build our own warm feminist homes in the cold.


Pictures and the Stories They Tell

The pictures on the walls tells a story. In my department portraits lined the long hallway leading to the busy student lounge. All were large, about half the size of a poster. Most were black and white photographs, with a few in colour, and a couple of oil paintings.

The pictures were of the deans of the department. It commemorated and celebrated their hard work in starting and maintaining such a prestigious department. No doubt it massaged their egos as well.

The people usually smiled in their portraits. Yet, I never felt the warmth implicit in their expressions. You see all the pictures were of white men. And of one white woman. Walking the gauntlet of their faces I always felt and the stories they tell 2

The students in my faculty reflect the multicultural reality of Toronto. So half of them are Indigenous, Black or other people of colour. None of us were reflected in the large pictures on the wall.

The pictures were a cultural dissonance in the department. In all our classes we address the core foundations of critical studies. That is we read, talk and write about how gender, race, and class, shape our worlds. Yet, each time we trekked to the popular lounge it was along a wall lined with mostly dead white men. The art collection clearly illustrated who had the power, and who mattered.

The picture were changed over the summer. On my first trek up to the lounge this term colour bubbled from the staid walls. They were filled with landscape paintings by Indigenous artists. I liked the colours, the nature scenes and the play of mythical characters.

Students paused to look at the pictures. They commented on which was their favourite and what was the meaning of the characters. People noticed.

The previous art collection memorialized and celebrated the dominance of white people in Canada. The new collection is a reminder that the country is an ancient land. It had a long past before European colonization. The new pictures show that it has a new future – one based on acknowledging the true owners of the and the stories they tell 3

Sailing on a Half Moon


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