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

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Camping in the City

Camping in Toronto seems a bit of an oxymoron. After all the whole point of sleeping in a tent is to get away from city life. Yet, camping at Rouge Park seems to combine the best of both worlds.

It’s far away enough for a nature break, but close enough to get that latte. And maybe even have pizza delivered to your tent door.

I strolled along the stream at the north edge of the camp-ground. Water gurgled over the cataracts neutralizing the buzz from the nearby highway. It felt like I was deep in the woods. No deer greeted me that day, though many live in Rouge National Urban Park, the vast wilderness sanctuary in the city.

camping in the city

Turning away from the peaceful stream I headed towards the main gate of the camp-ground. Trees lined the route. And tents and camper-vans too. Then I spotted it. Not a rare bird. Nor a coyote.

It was a satellite dish.

It was planted right in front of a camper-van, up turned to the sky, picking up films, crime shows and the shopping channel.

I smothered my inner Grinch. A camper-van is not my idea of camping in the woods. Still, a flush toilet is better than digging your own shit hole in the ground. A soft bed with fitted sheets is better than a sleeping bag on the ground. Even one with an air mattress. Yet…

It reminded me of the debate about technology access at campsites. Some purists fumed at electrical outlets at the sites. Internet access is surely an abomination to them. On this one, I think they are right.

The whole idea of camping is to disconnect from city life, and reconnect to nature. Sitting on a warm rock, surrounded by fresh air, trees and a river, is bliss for me. For others it is heaven only if the comforts of home are there, including a satellite dish. On which to watch nature shows…

I suppose camper-vans get people into the woods. The Pokémon Go craze got people outside, walking and exploring around, capturing imaginary monsters living in the area. It’s not my idea of things to do on a walk, but it got them off the couch.

The more facilities there are for camper-vans, the more infrastructure is needed to support them. The very woods people came to enjoy, is manicured and paved, to fit human needs. It counters the idea that humans are part of nature and not masters of it.

camping in the city, river

Back at the parking lot, two guys unloaded a canoe. I followed them to the river. As they paddled down towards the lake, my thoughts drifted to my own canoe trips and the long summer days of doing nothing but splashing along a bay or across a lake.

My cell phone pinged. It was an e-mail telling me that five strangers wanted to be by friends on the Internet.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Walden, Or Black Life in the Woods

Long ago, Brister and Fenda Freeman lived in the woods in Walden. Across the pond was their famous neighbour Henry D. Thoreau (1817-1862). The trio met many times probably on their walks along the trail and into town. Brister went there to sell the apples from his orchard. As a fortune teller, Fenda most likely had regular customers at the town’s Saturday market.

The Freemans are just two of the Black people Thoreau mentions in his book Walden, Or Life in the Woods. I was inspired to read it by the chats and beer around the campfire, where Thoreau is often touted as a founding father of the conservation movement.

No one mentioned that he also wrote about the slaves living in the woods.

Most likely because they did not know – Thoreau is one of those writers outdoors people talk about but rarely read. On my part, I assumed that as Thoreau was white and he wrote the book to promote conservation to his kind of people, he had little to say about race. In conventional terms most white people see themselves as race-less. It is the people of colour who are raced. As my outdoors recreation group is mostly white…

In Walden, Thoreau popularised and romanticised the idea of living in a log cabin in the forest. This simple life gave one time to think, to observe and reconnect to nature. Thoreau was conscious that the wildlands were under attack from farmers, wood-choppers and turf-cutters. The wilderness was shrinking as cities grew, land was privatised and the railway expanded bringing more settlers into the forests. Thoreau argued that conservation was needed to save the wilderness both for its own sake and as spiritual refuge for humanity.

Slavery was part of the life in the woods in Walden. Thoreau describes his Black neighbours as individuals and noted how much of their lives was circumscribed by race. Cato Ingraham lived east of Thoreau’s bean field. Cato was enslaved and rumoured to be directly from Guinea. He planted walnut trees, planning that in years to come, the crop would sustain him in his old age.

Zilpha was a coloured woman who spun linen for the people in town. Living alone with her chickens and a dog, her life was hard in the woods. Zilpha’s life became tougher after her cottage was burnt to the ground by retreating soldiers. Thoreau does not mention her as a slave, implying that she was probably a free woman of colour.

Thoreau frequently mentioned Indigenous people in Walden. He noted that native crops such as corn thrived best in the soil, he admired the skills of Indigenous hunters and the grace of their canoes. Thoreau visited Canada in 1850. On his trip to Montreal, he was astonished at the extent to which French Canadians had adopted elements of Indigenous lifestyle, such as their food and clothing.

Thoreau wrote that he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay the pole tax to a government that supported the buying and selling of people. The tax was paid anonymously, probably by a relative. Thoreau was an ardent abolitionist, delivering tons of lectures on the anti-slavery circuit. He was active in the Underground Railroad.

If the founding father of conservation talked so openly about race and racism, why is the modern movement is so quiet about these issues?

Is it because not much has changed in the last two centuries when it comes to social justice in the outdoors? For white people the woods are still a refuge from the stress of city life. For Black people the woods have become a place of fear. Fear of white violence against them.

Brister and Fenda, Cato and Zilpha would have understood that fear. But, they too claimed the woods as their own. It was their home.

Sailing on a Half Moon

John Muir: Trekking in Slavery Lands

I have spent many blissful Sundays hiking the Bruce Trail with my outdoor clubs. The best hikes left Toronto early in the morning and returned to the city at dusk.

John Muir hiked the Bruce Trail too, long before it was known by its more familiar name. Muir is a father of conservation and the co-founder of the Sierra Club. He did the heavy lifting to get Yosemite and other US National Park established. His books are a bible in conservation circles on both sides of the border.

I assumed that Muir had nothing to say about race, and that it had no impact on him or his work. After all he is the colour of snow, much like the conservation and environmental movements. Black and other people of colour are largely invisible in the movements. I decided to check my assumption, prompted by something I learned in my PhD seminars – always trouble sleeping dogs and other accepted wisdoms. You need to know what is hiding behind them and who benefits from it.

Social justice scholars tend to be activists or shit-stirrers, depending on one’s perspective. I seems to be following in the steps of that noble tradition. In the case of Muir, the first step was actually reading, and not just adlibbing about him, as we tend to do around the campfire. I soon found out that like a thorn, race has a habit of pricking sacred icons.

Canada has been a sanctuary for American draft dodgers since its Civil War in 1861. That is how Muir came here. He did not want to fight in President Lincoln’s anti-slavery army. Muir spent two years in Canada, returning to the USA once the war was over.

In 1867 Muir did an epic hike, recorded in his book A Thousand Mile Hike to the Gulf. It was a hardscrabble trek involving much sleeping in caves, fields and cemeteries. He loved every hour of it. Muir cadged food and water where he could. Half the time the providers were either Black or White people.

On the first days of his walk, and on the first pages of the book, Muir is stranded crossing a river. A Black boy and his mother helped him cross, using their horse as a ferry. They sent him off to a large homestead to find fresher water. The homestead had an airy and large home that was rustic but comfortable. It is surrounded by the Negro quarters, which were big enough for a village. Muir describes it as a “genuine old Kentucky home, embosomed in orchards, corn fields and green wooded hills.”

Let’s trouble this description by unpacking its layers of meaning. First, the context. Muir is hiking in the woods in the direct aftermath of slavery. For this Black population, freedom did not yet bring economic gains. No doubt some stayed on the plantation because it was the only home they had ever know. Most remained because they had little choice. It was work the cotton fields or starve.

The situation was different for the White homesteaders. They grew fat from slavery. And continued to do so after its abolition. Their assets, in the form of land, did not diminish. And labour was cheap in a situation where the labour had little choice. All the White families Muir stayed with had substantial homes and farms. Some were damaged in the war, but the families were quickly recovering.

The richest Black family Muir bunked with had their own home, which was little more than a shack. The furniture was so rickety that the chairs had no bottom and the table was propped up with planks.

“Many of the Kentucky Negroes are shrewd and intelligent, and when warmed up a subject that interest them, are eloquent in no mean degree.” Muir wrote this after cadging a ride from an old Black man driving an ox team. They talked about the fighting which occurred in the area during the Civil War. The old man is unnamed like most of the people Muir met on his trek. In Muir’s words, the old man is shown as an individual and not as a caricature. This is significant when most writers of his era did the reverse.

Near the end of his trek, Muir took a side trip to Cuba. In Havana, he noted the colourful livery of the Black men driving the carriages, as their owners paraded up and down showing off their wealth. Before Muir’s ship could leave, it was checked ensure that it did not harbour stowaway slaves. Slavery would not be abolished in Cuba for another year, in 1886.

For Muir, nature was a refuge from the mess and stress of urban life. The Sierra Club was formed to ensure that the wilderness would not be devoured by human greed. Many preferred a nature that was chopped, dammed or drowned for profit.

Today the Sierra Club has a membership of about one million. From its website, magazine and social media accounts, it is hard to see how much the membership has changed since Muir’s days. Most are still the same colour as cotton wool.

As the White population ages, membership is declining in outdoors and conservation clubs. It would seem to make sense to get people of colour, soon to be the majority of the population, into the clubs. Muir wrote about the Indigenous, Black and other people of colour that he met on his hikes. Why won’t the outdoors movements continue this tradition? A simple first step would be putting us in the ads. Black people have always been in the woods. Just ask John Muir, a father of conservation.

Sailing on a Half Moon

Audubon: On Birds and Slaves

The great blue heron twisted its neck down to reach the water, even as its beady eye stared straight at me. The look was not friendly. Its thin scissor-like beak was long enough to spear my gut.

I stared back at the bird, captured on the page of an elephant-sized book by John James Audubon. The book and its author are icons of the conservation movement. Walking through the art gallery, I browsed some twenty prints from the magnificent Birds of America.

Audubon is a staple of conservation chats around the campfire. He is the founder of modern ornithology and pioneered the methods still used for studying birds, such as banding and annual bird counts. Birds are an early indicator of wildlife and ecological health. Audubon and slavery. These two words rarely appear together in most conservation talks, websites and books. As a Black woman playing with birding, I am always looking for evidence that we too have a history in the outdoors. The search led to Audubon.

He fancied himself as the rock star of outdoor living. Audubon boasts of his tight pants, silk shirts and his curls flowing in the wind as he charged away on his horse. He, and women, loved his muscles of steel. Men admired his sharp-shooting and hunting skills. Some probably liked his muscled chest too.

Audubon was a gifted painter, writer and fabulist. He created and massaged his image as an American man of the backwoods. On publicity tours he wore buckskin pants, loose, and fur-trimmed leather jackets. The truth was twisted and spun, much like his birds, they to fit the page, his to enhance fame.

Let’s start with his birth in 1785. Audubon spent a lot of time insisting that he was white and American-born. He could never quite keep the story straight, or perhaps, others noticed his slight tan, even in the winter. Audubon was born in Haiti on his white father’s sugar plantation. The race and status of his mother is still debatable. The conflicting claims about her serves only to highlight the fact that it was not a black and white case.

The Haitian Revolution spun Audubon into the USA. He arrived with enough money to start his own business at Mill Grove. There, he owned nine enslaved people, buying and selling them as needed. In his autobiography Audubon called them his servants. They did the housework, farmed the vegetable garden, ran the mill and the shop, dug the fish pond, and rowed the boats ashore. The slave labour gave Audubon the freedom and the money to pursue his love of birds.

On his treks in the USA Audubon passed through many plantations. He noticed the birds and the plants, but not the enslaved people, except on one occasion. On a birding expedition Audubon slid into a fugitive man hunting in the Louisiana swamps. Guns cocked, the stand-off ended with the men sharing dinner in the bayou.

Over the small fire, the enslaved man told his story. He, his wife, and three children were sold to separate owners. The man feigned sickness for a few days, biding his time. He escaped. He tracked down his splintered family, and one by one reunited them in the swamp. Always, they were on guard for slave catchers. When food was low, they visited the plantations at night, knowing that the enslaved people there would feed them and keep their secret. The story then takes an improbably turn. Audubon says he persuaded the runaway family to return with him to their original owner. He persuaded the owner to rebuy the family and to promise never to sell them again.

The story is significant, as it highlights how enslaved people resisted the shackles. For some it was to flee into the woods, living a precarious life. For others, it was aiding the runaway, a symbol that freedom was indeed possible. The story also shows that slavery was such a common and accepted institution that it never occurred to Audubon to free the enslaved family.

The bird man visited Canada in 1833, as he wanted to paint every bird in North America. He succeed in capturing some 450 of them. It is an astonishing achievement. He insisted on paining life-sized images of the birds, hence the massive size of the deluxe folio edition of his books. His paintings are dynamic, showing the birds in movement, whether flying, hunting or swimming. There is an unsettling urgency to his prints. It feels as if he was rushing to capture creatures on the verge of extinction. If he could fix them in oil, colour, shadow and light, they would live.

Audubon knew the world was changing rapidly. The woods he hiked as a youth were replaced by roads and cities in his dotage. He noted that the government policy of destroying the buffalo was intended to decimate the Indigenous people. He saw their disappearance as the sad but inevitable price of civilization. Audubon died in 1851.

In 2011 Sotheby’s sold an original Audubon deluxe folio for $12 million. The man’s legacy increases with each year, there are many parks, school and centres named after him. Mill Grove, his original home is now a national historic site. I plan on visiting it one day. I want to see where the nine enslaved people work. Will there be a monument to mark their role in supporting Audubon’s talent, and the continuing wealth of those who own his original books and paintings?

Audubon white-washed himself throughout his life. The conservation movement does the same by ignoring the racial context in which he lived. Slavery built America. Conservation and environmental groups are still seen as white institutions with white agenda. A first step in changing this perception is putting race back into the conversations around the campfires.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London