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 cold.pictures 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 country.pictures and the stories they tell 3

Sailing on a Half Moon

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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

Putting Race in the Picture at Casa Loma

“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.

Black History Walks Toronto

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

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

Stories Along the Humber River Valley

The sunshine was as warm as our chatter as we meandered along the road. Buds on trees and shrubs peaked out, whispering that spring was here. A party of crocus flaunted their new purple and yellow dresses on the sunny side of the road.

I tried to read the geography of the land on our urban hike along the Humber River valley. Leaving Jane subway station, we strolled along Riverview Gardens. The gentle downhill slope of the street indicated a path towards a ravine.

Drains filled the street. We stopped and listen to the water roaring beneath. The sewer pipes were engorged with spring melt water. Or it could have been a buried stream. As Toronto swelled in the past century, it was common practise to inter streams and brooks that were in the way of humans. The sound was a ghostly reminder that thou unseen the water refused to be forgotten. In a severe spring storm the buried brook could smash its concrete tomb. A resurrection of a sort perhaps.

A nature trail snaked along the bottom of the river valley. The river itself refused to flow in the middle and instead hugged the left bank. The waterway was alive and feasting on the base of the port-side bluffs. In time it would swallow the houses perched on the cliff’s lips. The soil was loose till. The water-drenched land had already slipped in places leaving bald patches of bare earth behind.

Two men fly-fished in the still cool river. How did ‘Daddy’ John Hall catch his salmon in the 1840s? This Black Canadian man was born in Amherstburg in 1783 to a Black mother and an Indigenous father. He fought for Canada in the War of 1812. Wounded, he was captured by the Americans. At the end of the fight Hall expected to be swapped along with the other prisoners of war. He was not. Instead he was sold into slavery and spent a decade picking scars and cotton. Hall escaped back to Canada, moved to Toronto and lived in the Humber valley for a few years. There he farmed, fished and made birch bark canoes.

The vale was long and broad-hipped. After 10,000 years in the deep freeze, this part of the world warmed up some 4,000 years ago. As the glaciers melted, the water tumbled to the sea carving out the Humber River and the Great Lakes. The river that we see today is a mere trickle compared to its ice age self.

On the stretch of the river, from Etienne Brule Park to James Garden, there were five weirs, if my memory is accurate. The weirs help to control potential floods. They are a good indicator of the power of the river when left to its own natural ways.

Mallards drifted in the eddies. Their orange feet paddled this way and then that. My eyes flitted over to a Black man running up the hill on the right. He made it look like a casual stroll. Tall and lean, he had the relaxed gait of a marathon runner. His skin was coloured like a cinnamon bun. Perhaps it tasted just as sweet. We were the only two Black people in the park on that Sunday afternoon.

Two boys played in the branches of a small tree overhanging the swirling river. I remembered to say nothing, their parents were nearby. We stopped further along, near a meander loop. As a hike leader I had to focus on the whole group and not just the people near me. I waited for the stragglers to bunch up with the rest of us.

There were no homes backing onto this stretch of the river. We have Hurricane Hazel to thank, if that is the right word, for that. She put paid to the idea of fishing for your supper from the porch. Some 81 people died and 500 homes were destroyed as the Humber River flexed its raw power in 1954. In the aftermath, the river valley was turned into a park to ensure that the land would act like a natural floodplain, as Mother Nature intended, absorbing and slowing excess water before it could wreak havoc.

Leaving the valley we climbed up Humbercrest Boulevard. We stopped a few times to admire the view, or listen to the ghostly buried streams. All were excuses to catch our breath. Soon the land leveled out at Baby Point. Daddy John Hall probably climbed up the headland many times himself, to chat with the Mississauga First Nations or the soldiers at the French fort in the area. From the top of the hill one has a clear view of the river, and who was coming up or going down it.

Today Baby Point is an exclusive neighbourhood, filled with multi-million dollar homes overlooking the river or backing on to the ravine. Some of these homes sit on the site of the 1600s Seneca village of Teiaiagon. During a home renovation an ivory comb, carved from moose antler, was discovered in the grave of a Seneca woman from 1660s. Teiaiagon was huge with 50 longhouses and about 5,000 people.

The Humber River was a natural transport corridor linking the Great Lakes to the Georgian Bay in the north. For thousands of years Indigenous people farmed, traded and hunted along the river. They also warred. The river was a natural border between the different First Nations. The river remained a key transport route until cars and trains replaced canoes.

Daddy John Hall left Toronto, and spent many decades canoeing and farming in Owen Sound. He was also famous as the town crier. His obituary appeared in the newspaper. He was about 117 years old when he was called home in 1900. In a century of life, Hall experience all the vagaries of slavery. His mother was a runaway slave. He fought to keep out re-enslavement in Canada. Captured in the war he was sold into American slavery. Hall escaped and lived to see the end of slavery in the British Empire and the Civil War that ended the institution in the USA.

The village green was soggy in Baby Point. Today’s sun need more time to dry up yesterday’s rain. Robins chirped and hopped about, feasting on lazy afternoon worms.

The hike was almost over. We ended it at a café filled with cozy chairs, dark wood floors and big windows. The place was suddenly packed with the nine of us. Tea and cake, laughter and chatter. It was a lovely way to end a Sunday afternoon hike.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London