Adventure Stories and Race

I was that kid curled up in a corner with my head buried in a book. Adventure stories were my favourite. By the time elementary school was done, I had read through the classics of British children’s literature. The books were birthday and Christmas presents from friends and family. The best came in in gift pack of three or more books.

I devoured Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and the Swiss Family Robinson. And anything by Jules Vernes. I loved the stories, except the bits where they talked about the natives.

It was uneasy believing in the heroes of the story when they encountered the natives. Even as a skinny sapling I knew that the natives were connected to me. It was unfortunate. I wanted to be like the heroes of the stories.

Adventure stories were popular from roughly the 1700s to the 1900s. Those two centuries were the height of colonialism. In his book Imperialism and Culture, Edward Said argues that artists not only followed the flag, they also created a culture that celebrated the planting of the flag on foreign lands. Through this lens, adventure stories were a cultural and geographical guide to foreign places. And the right and might of the British Empire to conquer and rule.

The books promised the gift of foreignness, adventure and travel without the bother of leaving the armchair. Adventure stories created landscapes of distant, tropical islands. The heroes journeyed to the islands by sea. Battling storms and shipwrecks they learned to be brave and survival skills. Crossing the oceans signified crossing into a new world, leaving the rules and rituals of home behind. In the new found land, the heroes were free to create their own version of paradise.

We crossed the ocean too.

Chained up as cargo in the belly of a square rigger. The adventure ship and the slave ship passed each other in the night and in the daylight. They were the two sides of the same colonial project.

Shipwrecked on an island, the heroes had to create new rules. The first rule was conquest. In adventure stories, it was never possible for the heroes to share the island with the inhabitants already living there. Conquest was the right of the whites. It could be peaceful as in seducing, naming and subjugating Friday in Treasure Island. Usually it was more violent.

Guns. Bullets. Blood. Dead natives to the left. Dead natives to the right. White heroes in the centre, hugging victory.

Once conquests was completed, the next step was creating white civilization on the island. That civilization was a rough version of Little England. The resources of the island, whether crops, minerals or people, were harnessed to enrich the empire. The natives were taught to be good Christians, happy to find a new savior in exchange for their land, rights and culture. Smiling natives were the best advertising for the beneficence of colonial rule.

Adventure stories are complete only when the heroes find their way back home. Their mission accomplished the travellers return to a more comfortable life funded by the treasures acquired from the foreign islands.

The British Empire is long dead, but adventure stories live on. Travel literature is the latest reincarnation of the form. More on this later.

It was adventure stories that inspired my love of travel and outdoor recreation. This time, I, the Black native, is the hero of the story.

And I win.

Sailing on a Half Moon

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

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

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

Black History Walks in Toronto

The next time you are in Toronto, give me a call. We can spend an afternoon chatting and walking as we explore the Black history of the city.

Together we will trace the Toronto footsteps of abolitionists Harriet Tubman, Josiah Henson, and others. As we explore homes, churches, and cemeteries that played key roles in the Underground Railroad, we’ll discuss why and how many Black leaders—including former slaves—migrated to Toronto and built the foundations of a strong Black community.

On the walk, there will be stops for drinks and we will end it with a tasty snack at a Caribbean café.

I already lead walks for two outdoor clubs and a Meet Up group. This walk is done through Airbnb. It is part of their new programme called Airbnb Experience. The idea behind it to get an insider’s view of the city and to share in the activities that make city life so vibrant. As being outside and Black history are my passions, it made sense to combine both.

All prospective Experience hosts are screened and trained by Airbnb. I am in the first group of those launching the initiative in Toronto. Others are offering food and wine tours, mural painting, silk screening and a jazz safari.

The Experience is a chance for me to earn some extra cash. Studying for a PhD, even on a full scholarship, is expensive. Many PhD students graduate with their head stuffed with knowledge and their bank accounts stuffed with debts. I don’t want to be one of those.

So the next time you are in Toronto, check out my Black History walking tour.

Black History Walks in Toronto

Hiking in the Hills of Jamaica

“I want to go hiking up in the hills,” I said.

“Oh my. What do you want to do that for?” said my cousin.

“Because it’s there. Because I like hills. Because the Maroons used the trails to escape slavery.”

“That’s work my girl. You’re on vacation. Why not just relax yourself by the beach? Watch the waves. Swim a little. Relax.”

“I am relax, but the hills are calling me.”

“So you want to walk in the hot, hot sun, just to get to the top of the hill? And then you walk back down again? My girl I won’t be doing that with you. No mam, I walk enough already. I’m not going to hot up myself and sweat up myself. That’s not fun.”

“It is for me. Who can come with me?”

“You best book a tourist trip. I’ll ask Mr. Thomas to check out the details.”

“I don’t want to do it that way. When I go hiking in Canada I am the only Black person in the group. I’m in Jamaica, I want to hike with a Jamaican group.”

“The only one I can think of is those English people them. After forty years in England they come back to Jamaica a bit different. Some say mad. They are the ones you see walking up and down in the hot sun for exercise. You know what they say about mad dogs and English men. Add the women too in Jamaica.”

“Come with me just for a bit. We won’t go far.”

“I’ll come only if we take a taxi drive. You can feast your eyes and your clothes won’t get sweaty. Better yet, let’s just go to the beach. That’s how we Jamaicans relax.”

Sailing on a Half Moon

Walking the American Border

I am thinking of taking up a new hobby. It’s called wall-walking. I want to hike along the main walls in the world, built to separate communities. Imagine being outdoors, face warmed by the sun, dreadlocks quivering in the breeze. Open skies. The wall pointing the way ahead. One could not possibly get lost, as the wall is always there.

I have hiked along Hadrian’s Wall in Britain. Built by the Romans some 2,000 years ago, to the north were the barbarians and to the south was civilization. The wall snaked over the tree-less, scrub-covered moors. Up close it was solid, massive stone blocks cemented into place. From a distance it was a mere ribbon of beige, fighting not to disappear into the earth.

Hadrian’s Wall worked for a while. Until the barbarians breached it. Freedom fighters will fight. No wall is high enough to contain their hunger to be rid of conquerors. Even the ones offering improvements such as wine, roads and hot baths.

My next wall-walking stop would be the Great Wall of China. The mother of all walls, meanders some 21,000 kilometres over the land. This wall failed too. The Mongols jumped over it with their horses. Genghis Khan built an empire, stretching from Asia to Europe, beyond the length of the wall. The wall became the trade route for ideas, news, silk and spices.

I can still see the Berlin Wall falling, in my mind’s eye. Bats and hammers smashing the symbol of a divided country. I can hear the cheers as Germans waltzed in the streets. The wall had failed. I want to see the remnants of it, kept as a souvenir.

Who builds the walls has the most to fear. The enclosures may have started as a symbol of their power, but ended as a relic of their impotence.

Closer to home, I will have to trek along the newest wall in the world. Trump’s Wall. It will be built along the USA-Mexican border. It will slither over some 3,000 kilometres of desserts, mountains and rivers. The wall is ‘to make America great again,’ by keeping the Mexicans out. Some 150 years ago, the border was further north. The USA states of Texas, Arizona and California were all part of Mexico.

All the long walls failed in history. Why should Trump’s Wall be any different?

Sailing on a Half Moon