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

10 Things Tourists Notice About Toronto

When I started the Black History Walks in Toronto, I assumed that my clients would be older, come dressed in linen and sun hats, and of course, wear sensible walking shoes. And most would be white.

My theory was based on the people that I see on heritage walks in the city. I stand out in these crowds of history buffs as I am younger and Black.

Well, my assumptions were plain wrong. I have had every ethnic group on the Black History Walks. There were Black people and white people. And Latinos, Arabs and Asians. To my surprise about a third of the people on the walks are Canadians, some coming from the suburbs of Toronto.

The one thing my clients have in common is a curiosity about Black history in Toronto. Most thought there was little. In the walk, we talk about an African Canadian history that goes back to 1600s, and specifically in Toronto, to 1796 when the modern city was founded on Indigenous land.

As part of the walk, I ask people what are the things that they notice about Toronto. Some of their answers were unexpected. Here are ten of the memorable ones.

1. Few Police Cars. An African American student was surprised that there were so few police cars on Toronto’s streets. In his home in Erie, Pennsylvania, police cars are on every intersection. But only in the Black areas of the city. He feels like he lives in a garrison. He was amazed that stores in Toronto accepted his credit card, without asking for other identification like his driver’s license and phone number.

2. Colonial Legacy. A woman from South Korea found it easy to move around city. The pattern of street names – King, Queen, Adelaide and so on – were the same in her travels in Australia and New Zeeland. The British colonial legacy was alive in the former colonies.

3. Green City. A white woman from suburban Oakville was astonished that the city centre was so green. She had never noticed the trees in all her years of driving through Toronto. The walk goes by a ravine and several large parks.

4. Diverse City Centre. A French woman was astonished that the city centre was so multicultural. In Paris, Black people and immigrants live in the suburbs, cut off from the opportunities and vibrancy of city life. The woman now lived in a small city in Ireland. She had left France as was tired of being passed over for promotion. Her education was fine. Her performance was fine. Her skin was not.

5. Pawn Shops. The Latino couple from New York noticed the lack of pawn shop, beer stores and cheque cashing shops as we passed a sketchy area of the walk. These businesses line the streets in poor areas of their city.

6. Fearless after the Terror. A Black French woman jaywalked across the streets. She ignored my caution to wait with the rest of the group for the cross walk signal. She was dining with friends when the terrorist attacked the restaurant in Paris. She spent six hours locked inside and hiding under the tables, unsure if she would live or die. Nothing scared her after that night.

7. Blacks in the City. A student from Vancouver was astonished that so many Black people live in Toronto. Her home city is racially segregated into Chinese, South Asian and White areas. And the groups rarely mix. She felt invisible as a South Asian walking around Toronto. She liked that feeling.

8. Grave Matters. The African American friends were amazed that the graves were in the ground. In New Orleans tombs are above ground, so that they don’t float to the surface in the frequent rains and floods. Or wash up on the streets, half-rotting, like they did in Hurricane Katrina.

9. Rude Canadians. A British woman had just finished her master’s degree in Toronto. She was fed up with people asking her where she was really from. Canadians could not seem to get their heads around that Black people lived in England too.

10. Less is Better. “I feel less Black in Toronto. Nobody is looking at me and expecting trouble.” This was from an African American man, on a long weekend break from Los Angeles.

The Black History Walks are more popular than I expected. They won’t make me rich, but they supplement my tiny PhD scholarship. The walks are a good indicator of the thirst for a more inclusive history of Toronto. Black people have lived in the city from its very birth.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

A Hike in the Forest

Sunlight spilled in the forest, highlighting the trees craning their necks to reach the golden god.

Songs flirted in the air, the melody sung by a rose-breasted grosbec, the rhythm set by a woodpecker. More voices joined the chorus, warbling a lullaby of life.

I stopped, spread my arms wide, raised my head to the sky. I wanted to dance, to celebrate the joy of life.

Common sense won. A Black woman shaking her backside, and dreadlocks, to her own inner music in the woods, could be a runaway. From the asylum. Or a voodoo priestess awakening the ancient spirits. In either case, she was up to no good.

Damn the double–consciousness. This sense of ‘always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.’ Limiting one’s activity to fit convention. Just in case…

A shadow flickered in the corner of my eye. My smile was as wide as the ocean as a deer pranced by. I bowed my head and thanked the ancient ones for this gift of life.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Birding While Black

The flock of birdwatchers meandered along the trail in the meadows. Suddenly they stopped. Binoculars raised, the group scanned the copse of trees on the left. Someone softly called out a yellow warbler. The birders drifted along, stopping and starting when a new bird was seen or heard.

There was a rare bird among the birders. Me. A Black woman participating in an activity that is almost exclusively white. I raised my binoculars too and spotted the great blue heron flitting above the tree line. A turkey vulture did lazy circles high in the blue-less sky.

Outdoor recreation is a racialized hobby. Whites do it. Blacks don’t. Birding fits that general pattern as almost ninety per cent of birders are non-Black. In general, birdwatchers are middle-aged, have high income and education, and appeals to slightly more women than men.

It does not cost much to start off as a birder. It’s enough to borrow a field guide to local birds from the library. And that’s it. If one gets hooked, the next real cost is buying your own book and a pair of binoculars. For about $100 one is now set up as birder. That’s about the same costs of buying a pair of sexy sandals or running shoes. Cost is not a barrier to birdwatching as it is to so many other outdoor recreation activities.

Skill is not a barrier either. I can confidently identify about thirty birds, starting with the common ones that I see daily in the city streets such as gulls, pigeons and starlings. In the large ponds in the parks it’s the swan, Canada geese and the squawking red-wing black birds. The more one stands still, look, and listen, the more birds seems to be flying, perching or hopping about.

Race is a factor in birding. A scan of the ornithological clubs in Toronto has lots of images of birds. And of white people. The human images do not get more colourful in the USA or in Britain. So why don’t Black people get into birding?

For a start we never see ourselves in birding ads, books and magazines. This creates two problems. The first is a negative feedback loop, as if you don’t see or know someone like yourself, doing an activity you are less likely to try it. Second, the birding media – just like the rest of the outdoor recreation folks – has created a visual apartheid implying that Black people are not wanted in that space, as they are always absent from it.

I always feel a little self-conscious when out alone on a birding walk. Really, I do not want to join another nerd club!  Wearing hiking boots, a safari hat, and with binoculars dangling from around my neck, people do wander what I am up to. I am out looking at birds, but sometimes you see strange things in the parks. A birder told me to be careful once. She had seen a flasher in the bushes. And it was not a bird.

In birding groups, my racial radar is always turned on. As the sole Black person in the group, I am half waiting for a question on where am I really from, are my dreadlocks real hair or a negative comment about ‘them.’ It’s not paranoia, it’s simply the reality of my Black experience.

I met another Black woman on a birding hike. Two of us. That is as rare as a phoenix. Dr. Drew Lanham is an African American ornithologist. In his experience, he expects to meet a fellow Black birder once every two decades or so. When I first read his statistics, I thought he was simply wrong. Then I reflected on my experience dabbling in birding. He was right.

Birding organizations can start a revolution. Simply putting Black people their ads will catch everyone’s attention. Birding – cheap, easy and done in the city – could be a gateway to getting people of colour into the conservation and environmental movements. Black birders want to fly too.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Moss Park: Walking the Other Neighbourhood

As I walked across the park, I tried to look, not stare, at the domino players. They were relaxed, sitting on plastic chairs around a kitchen table. It was not the usual furniture found in a large urban park. They must have brought it there themselves. Reggae drifted from the 1980s stereo on the ground; it was Marcia Griffiths.

The three Black men and the one white woman nodded along to the music as they played the tiles. The dreadlocks caught my eye and flashed me a smile. The wind rustled in the trees shading the players from the downpour of sunshine.

Moss Park is at the southern end of my neighbourhood. I rarely walk through it as it is not part of my habitual routes through the city. Urban parks, like Moss Park, is where most people now connect to nature. Especially Black and other people of colour who tend to shun wilderness and outdoor recreation in national parks. For me, Moss Park is a tough place to relax. The hard, harsh edges of city life scrape in and around the park.

The trees singing with the breeze could not hide the sound of the two white drunks shouting at each other. The humped-back, white-haired woman dragging a shopping cart, screeched at invisible foes.

A make-shift market was spread out on the sidewalk in front of the park. Two large women on scooters invited me to take a look. One dangled a cigarette in her hand. The other had a beer can. I glanced at the pickings: ten pairs of running shoes, an enormous teddy bear, three table lamps, and a set of five tumbler glasses etched with flowers. All had seen better days quite some time ago.

The concentration of hostels on the eastern edge of the park is inhabited by hard to reach and to serve men. This is, poor men with mental health issues who self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. They hang around on the steps of the community centre or sit on the low wall sunning themselves.

The shrubs in the park were a good cover for street transactions such as beatings, and the buying and selling of drugs and bodies.

I cut diagonally across the park. The path ahead was clear. I ignored it, seduced by a footpath heading towards a low hedge of shrubs on my left. The community garden was a diamond in the muck. A Black woman squatted down tenderly weeding her vegetable patch already fat with kale, lettuce and sunflowers. A white woman sprinkled mulch over her vegetable bed. Next to her a Chinese woman fussed over the bok choy and snow peas.

The land sloped away from the allotment. The dip is all that remains of Taddle Creek. The spring once meandered its way through Moss Park on its journey down to the lake. As the city expanded the creek became an open sewer for horse and human shit.

Victorian factories added to the effluent, dumping their waste directly into the stream. Diseases followed the shit and the chemicals. To deal with the mess, the city buried the stream. The dip is always the last place to dry out after the snow and the rains. The damp patch is a ghostly echo of the buried creek.

By the 1960s the factories were derelict. They were demolished and replaced by social housing apartment blocks. Then more social housing. And then the hostels. Just a fifteen minute walk, east of the Eaton Centre, was the largest concentration of public housing in Toronto. Within a decade Moss Park was a byword for poverty, drugs and prostitution.

Cars cruised the street picking up rent boys in their high heels and fake fur coats.

Moss Park is in a transitional phase in its history. Gentrification is already fingering the fabric of the park. The new community centre, geared towards the gay and lesbian community, and a stack of condos will speed up the process. I think it is a good thing.

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

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