Living

Black History Month: The Self-Education Of Bee Quammie

Neither Blackness nor anti-Black racism is exclusive to the country to the south. Stories about the brilliance, beauty and complexity of Black Canadians might be ignored, but they aren’t hard to find. All you have to do is try, like I did

A photo of Bee Quammie.

(Illustration: Nashid Chroma)

It happened again.

Over the past year of racial reckonings, my existence as a Black woman—particularly an eloquent one willing to be opinionated on multiple platforms—has given me new value. Now more than ever, Canada has been discussing race and identity, and I’ve snatched up the writing, speaking and other opportunities that have come with it.

And still, it happened again.

It was in an email inviting me to be a guest on a podcast. This seemed intriguing, until I got to the final sentence: “We would love to have you on to share the Canadian African-American woman’s perspective!”

Sorry, which perspective?

Every time I’ve been called “African-American” by white Canadians, it seems like they’re reaching for a polite synonym for “Black.” Instead, they just sound silly and uninformed. First off, I’m not American. And if you don’t know the specific components of my hyphenated identity (“Black Jamaican-Canadian,” thank you very much), then “Black” is just fine.

The deeper issue is that this is just one example of how Black American narratives are too often thrown as a blanket over the perspectives of Black Canadians. In a country that has long smothered our histories and realities, far too few non-Black Canadians take the time to understand the nuances of Black experiences here. Instead, we use our proximity to the United States to ignore both the anti-Black racism and the contributions from Black people here in our own country.

I grew up in London, a southwestern Ontario city now known as a major destination hub for newcomers to Canada. In my childhood, the city was less diverse, but my parents found pockets of Blackness for us to inhabit. From time with extended family to regular visits to Toronto’s Little Jamaica enclave to summer trips shopping down Lafayette Boulevard in Detroit, I absorbed a kaleidoscope of Blackness. Early on, I understood that Blackness was not a monolith.

Yes, there are similarities through the expansive African diaspora, remixes of the same song. For descendants of the enslaved in the Caribbean or the Americas, surviving oppression gave us room for innovation in food, music, language and spirituality. Take, for example, the many popular dishes first made from the scraps given to us by our oppressors, culinary creations like chitlins (pig intestines) in the American South or saltfish (codfish scraps) in the Caribbean.

But while we are interconnected, we also have many differences, which add texture to the diasporic experience. From the legacy of Black immigrants to Canada, to the culture of the Divine Nine sororities and fraternities in the U.S., to the vast brilliance of Black music across the globe, there is so much richness in the African diaspora. A few years into elementary school, though, I quickly learned that the rest of the world didn’t see things quite the same way.

That’s when I realized that Black History Month celebrations only ever mentioned African-American historical figures and events. Morning announcements ended with the booming cadence of a powerful orator speaking about his dream. In class, we were taught the story of a tired seamstress who didn’t move to the back of the bus. Every February, the image of a bandana-wearing, pistol-toting Black woman who led enslaved folks to freedom was taped at the centre of our Black History Month poster.

Most crucially, we learned that, yes, slavery was terrible and unfair—but, luckily, Canada had lain at the end of the Underground Railroad, beckoning to runaways who sought freedom.

My teachers and fellow students seemed content with this sickeningly saccharine narrative, of Canada as a welcome home for those fleeing slavery, the end. As far as public school education went, once Black folks came to Canada, our identities evaporated into thin air. I seemed to be the only one who wanted to know what life had been like for my Black predecessors in Canada, and what we had contributed to the country.

I have never had any internal struggle loving or navigating my Blackness. But as a child, I did feel ungrounded as a first-generation Canadian. It was partly because I knew nothing of Black history here, although history wasn’t the only place an absence was felt. Black pop culture also meant African-American pop culture: While visiting cousins in New Jersey, I was immediately captivated by reruns of A Different World and the Soul Train Music Awards. I spent my allowance at magazine stands in Detroit, buying Honey, Sophisticate’s Black Hair and Essence. My mom would get books like Waiting to Exhale and Tina Turner’s autobiography, and I’d sneak them away to read myself.

There was nothing like these shows or magazines or books in London, so I craved every trip across the border. I wanted to absorb as much Black culture as I could. And while representation is not the sole marker of progress, these things were important and helped to shape me. What I didn’t realize when I was young, though, was that much of the Black culture I was consuming had no direct link to my everyday life in Canada.

That changed when I was 23 and moved to Toronto. I wouldn’t describe it as the place where I found myself, but it was the place where I blossomed. Toronto gave me more room to be me, and more room to enjoy a broad palette of Blackness that I knew existed but hadn’t been able to see before. I got my hair done at a salon in Little Jamaica on Eglinton Ave. W. I ate at Ethiopian restaurants on Danforth Ave. I’d leave a soca fete drenched in sweat on Saturday night and snap my fingers at a spoken word event on Sunday evening. Beautiful and complicated Blackness surrounded and sated me daily. And that complicated beauty made me start to really wonder why I didn’t see more of it in Canadian media, literature and history books.

Canada’s global currency has always relied on a narrative of being a docile, polite and passive nation built on the tenets of fairness and freedom. It has also relied on being able to tell that narrative mostly uninterrupted. To maintain that fairy tale, we have insisted that our neighbours to the south shoulder the perspectives of both Blackness and virulent anti-Black racism, while Canada remains “colour-blind.” In his 1971 book, The Blacks in Canada, Yale University professor Robin Winks—a white American who never lived here—wrote that Black people here “wanted nothing more than to be accepted as quiet Canadians” and were “unlikely to organize militant, noisy, pushy protests.” That has never been the truth, but the history and voices of Black Canadians who were not docile, polite and passive have been obscured.

They’re not impossible to find, though. You just have to try. After finishing my formal education, I started teaching myself and began to see even the Black Canadian history I did know from a different angle. Take Viola Desmond, known for being thrown out of the “whites-only” section of a Nova Scotia theatre in 1946. She became the face of the $10 bill in 2018, yet our own media outlets still call her “Canada’s Rosa Parks,” even though her action took place nine years before Parks’ protest.

My self-education confirmed that Canada does, in fact, have its own history of slavery, and its own decidedly un-docile figures to celebrate. Those include Marie-Joseph Angélique, convicted of setting fire to her slave master’s Old Montreal home in 1734. There’s also Chloe Cooley, whose loud, physical resistance to being sold to an American on the shore of the Niagara River in 1793 was so passionate that it led to the first law to limit slavery in the British Empire.

In researching anti-Black immigration laws, I uncovered the stories of Caribbean women who immigrated through the West Indian Domestic Scheme, a program launched in 1955 that brought Black women to work in the homes of white Canadians, leaving their families behind. I had to teach myself all of these things, despite 17 years of education in Canadian schools.

What does it mean to keep this history from children, Black and otherwise? What would it mean to give Black children a better sense of belonging, beyond hockey and Tim Hortons coffee? Would Canadians be able to see themselves more clearly and honestly if these truths were widely told? And what is the result of keeping these stories hidden from an entire country—and the rest of the world?

In 1967, none other than Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the annual Massey Lectures on CBC Radio. He, too, portrayed Canada as a polite paradise. “Canada is not merely a neighbour to Negroes,” he said. “Deep in our history of struggle for freedom, Canada was the north star. The Negro slave, denied education, dehumanized, imprisoned on cruel plantations, knew that far to the north a land existed where a fugitive slave, if he survived the horrors of the journey, could find freedom.”

In my mind, I imagine the white Canadians who heard him speak. Many must have been moved by his words and experiences—while simultaneously ignoring the words and experiences of Black people here, even being actively racist against them. I imagine the Black Canadians who heard him, too.

I wish I knew if they were moved, if they felt that Canada was the utopia of freedom that he described, whether they felt represented or ignored. I also wonder how King’s speech might have changed, had he known the stories of Marie-Joseph Angélique and Chloe Cooley before delivering it.

Fifty-four years later, much of this “Canada = good, America = bad” narrative persists. Too many Canadians would rather focus on American-based anti-Blackness than examine how it festers here. Last year’s grand-scale awakenings to anti-Blackness and oppression resulted in an enormous appetite for information, with endless news stories, panels and even corporate emails ending in lists of resources for people to learn more. Frustratingly, many reading lists were full of African-American books. Too many interviewees mentioned documentaries, activists and thinkers from the United States, with little to no inclusion of Black Canadian resources.

As I said starting off, I sat on a bunch of those panels. Many times I had to interrupt someone to ask why, when it comes to matters of Blackness, we automatically look to America to lead the conversation: “Does this reinforce that idea that racism is an American issue, irrelevant in a direct way to Canada?” I’d ask. “What does it mean when we can’t immediately name Black Canadian counterparts in these moments?” I’d implore. “What critical nuances are we missing in the Black Canadian experience when we, as Canadians, don’t look to those voices first?” I’d inquire.

Sometimes those questions were rhetorical; sometimes they were not. The most common response was silence, bloated by embarrassment.

For the past few years, I have visited my eldest daughter’s classes during Black History Month. I had to. When she was in junior kindergarten, her teacher explained that the extent of their recognition was a few facts on the morning announcements and one book on Rosa Parks. It was almost like time folded upon itself in that moment: I was back in elementary school, hearing the same things my daughter was now hearing, again.

So I put together a lesson relevant to little ones, using a Google Doodle about Viola Desmond to explain her story. I created an activity sheet on the engineer and inventor Elijah McCoy, encouraging the students to draw or write about the thing they might invent someday. And I brought in my stash of Carnival costumes and headpieces to teach them about Caribbean contributions to Canada, and the history of rebellion and celebration that was brought here.

The kids were curious and engaged, and they made the walls rattle when I asked them if they thought it was okay to treat someone differently because of the colour of their skin, like Ms. Desmond. “No!” they roared, with such ferocity that the principal came to peer in and see what was happening. I left feeling energized but conflicted. I was happy to share knowledge with the class, but I was sad knowing that the curriculum still hadn’t reached where it needed to.

When we talk about Black history, we must be deliberate about setting its foundation in Canada. Black experiences transcend the physical borders that limit them, but we must resist the murky idea of a homogeneous Black community. We must not try to fit Black Canadians into an assumed African-American template—or, perhaps worse, assuming there is no uniqueness or significance at all. Otherwise, we will be unable to understand the moment we find ourselves in presently, and unable to forge a better future that serves Black people in Canada.

If Blackness across the globe is a kaleidoscope, it’s time to shake things up, turn the lens and really focus on Black Canadian perspectives. Everyone should see the brilliance, beauty and complexity that has shaped—and continues to shape—this country.

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