Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Akua Benjamin Legacy Panel Looks Back to Move Forward

By Neil Armstrong

Photo credit: Nicole Brumley   Kiké Roach is the Unifor National Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University     

The event “Looking Back, Moving Forward” featuring Dr. Akua Benjamin and four panelists she invited to participate – Angela Robertson, Notisha Massaquoi, Anthony Morgan and Remi Warner – was the result of efforts by Unifor National Chair in Social Justice and Democracy, Kiké Roach, to get the recently retired professor to talk about her long storied history of activism.

Speaking at the start of the discussion on October 31 in Oakham House at Ryerson University, Roach, organizer of the Social Justice Week, noted that Dr. Benjamin taught at the university for 30 years in an institution where challenges for Black people exist.  She said Benjamin did not come to Ryerson in the late 80s without a struggle. People had to protest for her to become a professor and remain a professor at the university.

Dr. Benjamin said the evening was a dialogue with other voices who have worked in the community for many years.

“I was here because of my community. Students fought for this and I am supported by my community,” said the academic and social activist who this month (November) marks her 50th year living in Canada. She emigrated from Trinidad in 1969 and was fully engaged in the civil rights activism in Toronto when she arrived.

A leader within the groundbreaking Black Action Defense Committee, Benjamin has been central to resistance movements challenging anti-Black racism in Canadian policies, practices and institutions. 

Committed to building coalitions to agitate for systemic change, she has also held leadership roles within the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, the Congress of Black Women, as well as the Organization of Parents of Black Children. 

Dr. Benjamin was the first Black director at Ryerson University, and has played an essential role in cultivating Ryerson’s School of Social Work anti-oppressive, social justice and social transformation lens.

The panelists shared their strategies, tactics and modes of resistance to support the disruption of anti-Black racism in Canada. The aim of the event was to encourage, support, and sustain the work of activists, and community members as they advocate for social justice. 

Reflecting on the history of the Black community in the city, Dr. Benjamin said the community came from many nation states and intersected in various institutions. There were Caribbean Blacks, Continental Blacks, Blacks from Nova Scotia, and more. She noted that there were organizations that helped the Black community to settle such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, soccer clubs, recreational facilities, and the Negro Citizenship Club.

Photo credit: Nicole Brumley     Dr. Akua Benjamin, retired director of the School of Social Work at Ryerson University

The 1960s contributed to changes to Canada’s Immigration Act and there were Black institutions such as the groundbreaking community newspaper, Contrast, the Black Education Project, Harriet Tubman Organization, which all constituted for Benjamin the concept of resistance. There were struggles against colonialism, the anti-apartheid struggle and solidarity with the struggles of Black people in Nova Scotia.

“What is this thing called resistance? Resistance is in our DNA. We survived because of resistance,” said Dr. Benjamin who also mentioned other organizations such as the Black Action Defense Committee and the Universal African Improvement Association (UAIA).

She highlighted the contributions of Bromley Armstrong, Margaret Gittens, Charles Roach, Dudley Laws, Marlene Green and others.

Benjamin said Laws loved saying,“Out of differences we are one people,” which meant “out of those struggles we welded ourselves into one body.”

Each panelist was asked to address the questions: How can we really move forward? Where are we? Each started their presentations with brief tributes to Dr. Benjamin. 

Massaquoi recently retired after serving for 21 years as the executive director of Women’s Health in Women’s Hands, a community health centre that provides primary healthcare to Black women and women of colour from the Caribbean, African, Latin American and South Asian communities in Toronto.

She said Black women had to fight for its existence and staff had to barricade themselves in the office for one week to get funding for the organization from the government.

The former executive director noted that WHIWH offers several programs for Black women, addressing mental health, HIV and other health concerns. 

Massaquoi said WHIWH has had to fight steadfastly regardless of which political party is in power. On the impact of anti-Black racism on the health of Black communities, she said it is the driver for every health disparity that is being faced in the community.

Photo credit: Nicole Brumley  Seated with Dr. Akua Benjamin from left to right are the panelists: Remi Warner, Angela Robertson, Anthony Morgan and Notisha Massaquoi with friends

Morgan, training and development consultant of the Confronting Anti-Black Racism (CABR) Unit at the City of Toronto, said the Unit is a permanent office at the City and came out of decades of resistance and activism.

“It is a continuation of the resistance of Black communities, it is not a culmination,” he said, noting that in May 2018 the CABR Unit got its staff but the catalyst for it was March 2016 when Black Lives Matter – Toronto occupied the headquarters of the Toronto Police Service for two weeks.

He said the City realized that this was not typical and that something else must be happening to cause it. Morgan referenced the Stephen Lewis Report on Race Relations of 1992 which mentioned that Black youth are displaced, misunderstood and forgotten.

The Toronto Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism came out of 41 years’ worth of research and recommendations about addressing anti-Black racism in Toronto. These were presented to Black communities in the city to identify the priorities. Out of that process came 22 recommendations and 80 actions.

Morgan said the CABR Unit is guided in its work by the Partnership and Accountability Circle which keeps it accountable to the community.

In her presentation, Robertson, executive director of Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre, chose to call names of people and places that played pivotal roles in the development of the Black community.

She recognized Black activists such as Fran Endicott, Sherona Hall, Vera Cudjoe, Eva Smith, Ayanna Black, Charles Roach, Hetty Roach, Gwen and Lenny Johnston.

“These are folks that have been anchors of our community and without them many of us would not be here,” Robertson said.

She also spoke about places like Third World Books, “because I think that when we think about looking back and looking forward we need to think about place. We need to think about place, we need to think about safe spaces that allow us to talk about our liberation. We need to think about spaces that are not spaces that are infiltrated spaces where we can, in fact, plan our liberation and Third World Books was one of such places.”

Robertson acknowledged Akilah and Dari Meade who were in the room and referenced Wong’s restaurant.

“Wong’s restaurant for those who may not know was a small Caribbean Chinese restaurant north of Bathurst station, just south of Third World Books so when you went to Third World and you buy your books and you had an argument with Lenny and Gwen, more so Lenny, then you would retreat to Wong’s restaurant for some curried chicken, rice and peas, some red peas soup, some fried rice and some fried chicken and other delectable delights. But it was always a place of congregation so it was more than a restaurant. It was a place of congregation and community where you got to see Dari, you got to see Akilah, you got to see Akua, you got to see a whole host of other folks who may have just finished a march or a rally or a demonstration but somehow we all found place and a table at Wong’s restaurant.

 “I say those spaces and name those things because those are some of the intangibles that are important in our movement building, because the work that is needed and the work that’s required because of the prevalence and the persistence of anti-Black racism is punishing. It’s punishing; it can take joy out of everyday living and as Black people we need to find spaces where we put back joy in our lives,” she said.

Roberston also mentioned Margaret Gittens and others who were central in crafting the Stephen Lewis Report.

She referenced books such as Dionne Brand’s book “Thirsty” which she described as “an anchoring about the killing of Albert Johnson and that talks about the very presence and prevalence of racist police violence and its impact on our lives.”

Robertson also alluded to Dionne Brand and Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta’s book “Rivers Have Sources, Trees Have Roots: Speaking of Racism” which came out of the history of the Black Education Project.

There is also Enid Lee’s “Letters to Marcia: A Teacher’s Guide to Anti-Racist Education.”

She said the project of this moment is “the continuing project of our liberation in the face of white supremacy, in the face of anti-Black racism.”

Robertson feels that it is always important when Black people come together in Canada for them to talk about the alliance that they must have with Indigenous people of this land. She said governments have consistently sought to juxtapose “us and our liberation against indigenous people's subjugation.”

As someone whose work in grounded in women, feminist and Black queer organizing, she said, “The work that we do as Black folks for our liberation in the past looking to the future must bring an intersectional analysis. We cannot afford as Black people not to do that, that’s a luxury that I don’t think we can afford because there is really no liberation in liberating some Black people and leaving other Black people facing injustice.”

She said the movement must be one for change, not one for self-aggrandizement, “not a movement for our mobility, not a movement for ego but a movement that seeks to move us as a community, as a people, towards this place of liberation.” 

Speaking of this current moment, what she calls the “Trudeau Blackface moment,” Robertson asked those in attendance to move beyond his apology to “what is the accountability for delivering on real and substantive changes to address the anti-Black racism that is here in this society, in this community. This is not a moment where we need to relax and not continue to push and name the presence and the prevalence and the perniciousness of anti-Black racism. In fact, this is a moment when we need to lean in even more.”

Remi Warner, senior manager of the Human Rights Office at Toronto District School Board, spoke about his work and reorienting the office to serve the students and for it not to be seen as an entity within human resources.

He was able to reorient it to have greater systemic focus and a broader conception of human rights that does not place all of the onus on individuals after they’ve been discriminated against to come forward to press for their rights.

“We’re contesting the idea of human rights within the TDSB in such a way that has us responding to marginalized and Black and other students who are feeling the brunt and who are not the ones who come knocking on our door,” he said.

The 9th Social Justice Week at Ryerson University from October 28 to November 1 “asks us to examine, imagine, and ‘cook up’ what we need to implement progressive changes in our communities today.”

 This year’s multidisciplinary week of events brought together students, academics, scientists, artists, writers, community organizers, and the public to reflect on “their connection to the Earth and each other, to the food that nourishes us, to the injustices that divide us, and to the changes we need to make collectively for a better world where everyone has a seat at the table.”

 As part of an effort to break down barriers, this year’s Social Justice Week hopes to foster new networks of collaboration, innovation, and recipes for change, notes the website of the Unifor National Chair in Social Justice and Democracy.

Jamaican Groups Optimistic About Canada's Election Outcome

By Neil Armstrong

Photo contributed    Yvette Blackburn, a member of the Jamaica Diaspora Advisory Board

The Jamaica Diaspora Advisory Board and the Jamaican Canadian Association are optimistic about the prospects of Canada’s recently elected Liberal-led minority government.

On October 21, the Liberals won 157 seats -- just 13 short of gaining the majority they had – and will need the support of at least one other party to pass legislation. The Conservatives won 121 seats, Bloc Quebecois 32, New Democrats 24, Greens 3, Independent 1, and People’s Party none.

Yvette Blackburn, a member of the Jamaica Diaspora Advisory Board in Canada, says having the Liberals working with the New Democrats in a balance of power situation will actually aid the organization because they are two parties that, for the most part, put issues regarding Jamaica and the diaspora at the forefront.

“We know that [Justin] Trudeau has formally sent his immigration minister out to Jamaica to have discussions with regard to better ways to expedite aspects of the visa process and travel, etc., -- some pieces I’ve been working on so I can see that continuing.

“We know that Jagmeet [Singh] and the NDP are also primed to our issues and concerns when we think about aspects of investment, the economy, environment -- with what’s going on even with the Cockpit issues in Jamaica. I think we have ears that will be far more readily attuned to be able to assist us in being able to bridge the divides and being able to provide greater assistance in areas.”

Blackburn says the Jamaican community is in a unique position because Trudeau was very reliant on the immigrant population, especially the Black immigrant population coming from the Caribbean, “so I do believe that we can bend his ear a little bit more readily in the sense of listening to our issues and concerns.”

She says her group will have to “take advantage with all that took place and played out prior to the election to be able to show the value and be able to ensure that the Canadian government is also ready to look at one of its larger constituents who were there and support it.”

Photo contributed   Adaoma Patterson, president of the Jamaican Canadian Association

Meanwhile, the Jamaican Canadian Association has congratulated Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for winning a second mandate.

“We also salute all candidates who put their name forward in this election, especially those from our community. JCA looks forward to working with the government and all parties to address issues affecting our community,” says Adaoma Patterson, president of the JCA.

She noted that as a commitment to the International Decade of People of African Descent the Jamaican Canadian Association anticipates further investments that “mitigate the impact of systemic racism, improve or expand our cultural centres, and support our youth.”

In January 2018, the prime minister announced that Canada officially recognized the UN International Decade for People of African Descent spanning from 2015 to 2024.

On July 23, 2019, an engagement session was held with almost 40 stakeholder organizations representing a diverse range of Black communities and interests across Canada. Participants signaled support for the creation of a national institute dedicated to looking at issues that affect Black communities.

The government noted that the establishment of a Canadian Institute for People of African Descent would support Canada’s commitment to the Decade by advancing initiatives to address issues that affect Black communities.

The Jamaican Canadian Association sees this election outcome of a minority government as an opportunity for all parties work together to make life better for all Canadians.

“We hope to see significant progress on increasing the number of affordable housing units available to low-income families, funding for culturally appropriate mental health initiatives and support for start ups and small businesses including access to federal contracts,” says Patterson.

 She noted that the JCA is interested in greater supports for international students.

“Recent reports and our consultations identify the struggle many international students are facing and the difficulty in gaining permanent residency once they complete their studies. Funding specific services that address mental health, settlement and integration while removing onerous rules for temporary and permanent residence are important investments.”

On election night, Operation Black Vote Canada, a nonprofit and multi-partisan organization that supports the election of Black people to public office, congratulated the five Black or Caribbean candidates that were elected.

Photo contributed   Ahmed Hussen of York South-Weston and Greg Fergus of Hull-Aylmer in conversation with Justin Trudeau

Four were re-elected from the Liberal Party: Greg Fergus of Hull-Aylmer, Ahmed Hussen of York South-Weston, Dr. Hedy Fry of Vancouver Centre, and Emmanuel Dubourg of Bourassa. Matthew Green of Hamilton Centre was the only Black candidate who won from the New Democratic Party.

Fergus, who was first elected in the 2015 federal election and whose grandfather immigrated to Canada from Montserrat, was also president of the federal Black Caucus. Somalia-born Hussen served as Canada’s minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship since 2017. 

Photo credit: Eddie Grant     Dr. Hedy Fry of Vancouver Centre

Dr. Fry, who was born in Trinidad and is the longest serving female MP in Canadian history, has now won nine consecutive mandates since 1993. Haiti-born Dubourg has been a member of parliament for Bourassa in Quebec since 2013.

Photo contributed    Emmanuel Dubourg of Bourassa

In 2014, Green was elected the city councillor for Ward 3 in Hamilton – the first Black person to be elected to the council -- and after serving four years decided to seek election as Member of Parliament for Hamilton-Centre for the NDP.

“Let’s create a world where no one is left behind. Together, we can: save our environment and tackle catastrophic climate change, restore dignified affordable housing, and fight for fair economies,” said Green in his campaign platform.

Green follows in the footsteps of veteran politician David Christopherson, who has represented the riding of Hamilton Centre for the NDP in the House of Commons since 2004. 

Photo contributed     Matthew Green of Hamilton-Centre

In July 2018, Christopherson announced his plan to retire at the end of the 42nd Canadian Parliament and to not seek re-election in the 2019 federal election.

Christopherson and Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath attended Green’s victory celebration on the night of the election.

[An edited version of this story has been published in the North American Weekly Gleaner, Oct. 31-Nov. 6, 2019.]

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Black AIDS Prevention Organization Celebrates its 30th Anniversary

The Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (Black CAP), the largest service provider of its kind in Canada, is celebrating a milestone and will also honour its founders.

On November 21 at 7:00 p.m., the organization will hold its Joyful Giving 30th Anniversary Gala inside the Teck Suite of Galleries: Earth’s Treasures at the Royal Ontario Museum, 100 Queens Park in Toronto.

For the past 30 years, Black CAP, a volunteer-driven, charitable, not-for-profit community-based organization, has worked in partnership with institutions and individuals who support in principle and practice its mission, philosophy and activities.

Focused on curbing the HIV epidemic in Toronto’s African, Caribbean and Black (ACB) communities, its mission is to reduce the spread of HIV infection within these communities and to enhance the quality of life of ACB people living with, or affected by, HIV/AIDS. 

These communities are experiencing disproportionate cases of new infections which underscore the importance of Black CAP’s work. Only 1 in 35 people living in Canada are ACB, however, 1 in 7 people living with HIV in Canada are African, Caribbean or Black people. Issues of HIV-related stigma and discrimination, homophobia, anti-Black racism, immigration, poverty, and barriers to social inclusion impact their lives.

The Joyful Giving 30th Anniversary Celebration is a charity event aimed at raising funds to support clients who are new to Canada and grapple with mental health issues, medical costs, food insecurity, housing, immigration and other issues.

The celebration happens days before World AIDS Day – December 1 – which this year has the theme "Communities make the difference." The commemoration of World AIDS Day is an important opportunity to recognize the essential role that communities have played and continue to play in the AIDS response at the international, national and local levels. 

The Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention is a community of outreach experts, support specialists, and activists dedicated to improving health outcomes for ACB people who are living with, and affected by HIV. Its work is guided by the motto “Because All Black Peoples’ Lives are Important,” which serves as a reminder that ACB people are at especially high risk and are at even greater risk of experiencing negative outcomes when they are not connected to care and services.

For more information about the Joyful Giving 30th Anniversary Celebration, contact
 Nief Neamatt at 416-977-9955 or by email at

Black Authors Busy Launching Their Books During the Fall

By Neil Armstrong

Cynthia Reyes and Lauren Reyes-Grange at their book launch at A Different Booklist Cultural Centre on October 10, 2019

This fall has been a busy time for several Black and Caribbean authors who since its beginning have launched new books covering topics ranging from gardening, family, friendship, hair, history, racism and education to African Canadian leadership.

Former award-winning journalist, Cynthia Reyes, launched her new memoir, “Twigs in My Hair,” and the latest addition to her bestselling series of children’s book, “ Makes a New Friend,” on October 10 at the Black and Caribbean Book Affair at A Different Booklist Cultural Centre in Toronto.

It was a family affair as Reyes was joined by her co-author and daughter, Lauren Reyes-Grange, and “Twigs in My Hair” photographer and former award-winning journalist, her husband Hamlin Grange.

This unusual book launch brought together a family of outstanding writers and storytellers. Lauren is the co-author of “Myrtle Makes a New Friend,” the third book in the children’s series.

“Twigs in My Hair” is Cynthia’s third memoir. Her previous two memoirs, A” Good Home,” and “An Honest House,” are critically acclaimed bestsellers. This time, she explores her lifelong passion for gardens and nature and the surprising relationships and events that ensue. It is a humorous and profoundly personal story and a unique twist of the memoir genre which is complemented by photographs by Hamlin.

The Myrtle story, which teaches children about friendship and encourages them to “love their shell,” was written 28 years ago but the first book was published in 2017 to the delight of children and parents around the world. The Myrtle character was written by Cynthia for her nearly 5-year-old daughter, Lauren.

In Twigs, readers will meet a variety of interesting creatures, both animal and human, some competing for gardening produce or gardening glory.

Elsewhere in the city on the same day, Rachel Manley launched her book, “The Fellowship,” which tells the story of Jessica, the recipient of a prestigious Gunter Fellowship who leaves behind Jamaica, the only country she’s ever known, for Cambridge, Massachusetts, near the end of the twentieth century. In her fellowship year, she is to write a memoir about her father, a professor of mathematics at the University of the West Indies.

Attuned to watching for meaning below the surface of things, Jessica learns about the women with whom she shares her year, twenty women, all in middle age, all accomplished — considerably more accomplished than her slim volumes of poetry and one memoir allow her to feel. 

Olive Senior signing a copy of her book for Cherita Girvan-Campbell, president of Arts and Culture Jamaica Inc.

Olive Senior launched her children’s picture book “Boonoonoonous Hair!” on October 12 as part of the book affair.

Illustrated by the acclaimed artist Laura James, the book is about a young girl who learns to love her difficult-to-manage, voluminous and boonoonoonous hair.

On October 10, CBC Radio’s Ideas program aired the Margaret Laurence Lecture presented by Senior which was recorded at the Central Library in Halifax in May.

Since 1987, the Writers' Trust of Canada has selected a prominent Canadian author to deliver a lecture on the topic: "A Writer's Life."

Senior, the seventh of ten children, was born in 1941 and raised in rural Jamaica. After graduating high school, she came briefly to Canada as a Commonwealth Scholar to attend Carleton University in Ottawa. In the early 1990s, she moved to Canada full-time, settling in Toronto. 

Senior has published 18 books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and children's literature. Her work has been translated into several languages worldwide and has won many awards for her work, including the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and F.J. Bressani Literary Prize

Meanwhile, a discussion of some of the themes in “African Canadian Leadership: Continuity, Transition, and Transformation,” co-edited by Tamari Kitossa, Erica S. Lawson and Philip S.S. Howard, was held on October 15 at the book affair.

Challenging the myth of African Canadian leadership "in crisis," this book opens a broad vista of inquiry into the many and dynamic ways leadership practices occur in Black Canadian communities. 

It explores topics including Black women’s contributions to African Canadian communities, the Black Lives Matter movement, Black LGBTQ, HIV/AIDS advocacy, motherhood and grieving, mentoring, and anti-racism, contributors appraise the complex history and contemporary reality of blackness and leadership in Canada.

Kamala-Jean Gopie, author of The Story of Our School

The new works of Cynthia Reyes and Kamala-Jean Gopie, and Bernadette Gabay Dyer’s book published in 2018 were featured at “A Literary Evening – A Tribute to Miss Lou” organized by Arts and Culture Jamaica Inc. at the Consulate General of Jamaica on October 17.

Gopie’s “The Story of Our School” relates how the school that she built in Malawi became a reality.

The philanthropist and former educator recently returned from Malawi where she presented copies of the book to the students at the school.

 With the help of Josephine Vaccaro-Chang, a publisher of children’s books who sent books to the school, they collaborated to create the book for the children at the school.  

Bernadette Gabay Dyer, author of Chasing the Banyan Wind

In “Chasing the Banyan Wind,” Dyer introduces readers to the mid 1920s when an English family, Jonathan and Wilemina Gunn, and their two young children, Dunstan and Eliza emigrate to the Caribbean island of Jamaica. 

With help from locals they build a home in a remote rural location on the island's north coast. Previous perceptions of the island do not prepare them for the reality of the island's diverse English-speaking population that includes Negroes, East Indians, Chinese, Jews, Europeans and Syrians.

The 2019 Black and Caribbean Book Affair at A Different Booklist Cultural Centre also included book launches by these authors:

Nadia L. Hohn at the launch of her book A Likkle Miss Lou: How Jamaican Poet Louise Bennett Coverley Found Her Voice on September 14, 2019

Nadia L. Hohn – “A Likkle Miss Lou: How Jamaican Poet Louise Bennett Coverley Found Her Voice” illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes. It is a new picture book that celebrates the iconic Jamaican-Canadian poet, folklorist, writer and educator who was born 100 years ago.

Rabindranath Maharaj – “Fatboy Fall Down,” a novel about a man trying to understand his place in the world.

Photo credit: Geeta Raghunanan    Morgan Campbell of the Toronto Star, right, hosting Douglas Gary Freeman's book launch at A Different Booklist Cultural Centre.

Douglas Gary Freeman’s novel “Exile Blues” which Canada’s 7th Parliamentary Poet Laureate, George Elliott Clarke, describes as “a fictionalized autobiography at its best. It’s the novel Malcolm X might have written had he not suffered martyrdom.”

Calvin Lawrence with Miles Howe – “Black Cop: My 36 years in police work, and my career-ending experiences with official racism.” Lawrence’s story lays bare the key failures of Canadian police organizations that operate on the basis that only white Canadians are entitled to the rights promised to all by the rule of law and the Canadian Charter of Rights.

Photo credit: Miguel San Vicente   Calvin Lawrence at his book launch on October 11, 2019

Nina Reid-Maroney, Boulou Ebanda de B’Béri and Wanda Thomas Bernard – “Women in the “Promised Land”: Essay in African Canadian History” reframes Canadian history through the lens of African Canadian women’s lived experience.


Upcoming Book Launches at A Different Booklist Cultural Centre, 777-779 Bathurst Street in Toronto in November:

“Another Mother” by Ross Kenneth Urken on November 1, 7:00 p.m. A Jewish young man entering adulthood realizes there is so much he has yet to learn about the woman who lent him her accent and with whom he shared an unlikely kindred spirit.

“Behind the Frontline” by Alana Jones on November 8, 6:30-8:30 p.m. with special musical guest Jäjé (HoneyJam 2019 alumna). It is “a fictionalized glimpse into the lives of those individuals providing  support on the Frontlines and the individuals receiving support from Frontline workers.”

“America The Beautiful and Violent: Black Youth and Neighbourhood Trauma in Chicago” by Dexter R. Voisin on November 22, 7:00 p.m. The book provides a compelling and social-justice-oriented analysis of current trends in neighbourhood violence in light of the historical and structural factors that have reproduced entrenched patterns of racial and economic inequality.

AND, Congratulations to Amanda Parris, winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama for her book “Other Side of the Game” published by Playwrights Canada Press. She is one of seven English-language winners who will receive their awards in Ottawa on December 11 and 12. They will also present public readings of their works then.

Amanda Parris and Itah Sadu at the launch of "Other Side of the Game" at A Different Booklist Cultural Centre on May 21, 2019
 Amanda launched her book at A Different Booklist Cultural Centre in May 2019.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Louise Bennett-Coverley Celebrated at York University

By Neil Armstrong

From left: Lillian Allen, Olive Senior, Clive Forrester, Pamela Appelt and Honor Ford-Smith at York University, Toronto on September 17, 2019

Scholar, poet and playwright Honor Ford-Smith says no other performer before Bob Marley was as loved by Jamaicans of all classes and race than Louise Bennett.

“Though most people have a general sense of her as a performer who advocated for the Jamaican language and culture few are aware of the breadth of her contribution and the context within which she worked,” Ford-Smith said while speaking about Bennett’s achievements in the context of her time.

She was speaking on a panel about the life and legacy of Louise Bennett-Coverley which included Olive Senior, Lillian Allen, Clive Forrester and Pamela Appelt at an event organized by the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora at York University in Toronto on September 17.

Ford-Smith said Miss Lou came to voice in the context of worldwide anti-colonial resistance, the most vibrant and varied social movement of the last century. When Bennett was born in 1919 European colonial powers directly controlled about eighty per cent of the globe.

“That this is no longer the case has to with the achievements of the social movements with which her life and work intersected. Bennett’s work overlapped with several generations of men who are far better known nationally than she is for their critique of the ideas and practices that underpinned the colonial regime.”

One such writer was Aimé Césaire, the celebrated Martinican founder of Negritude, the poet, playwright and patriarch of the transformation of the French Antilles.

She said Bennett’s work unlike Césaire was marked by the use of laughter as “a weapon and with it she broke through those bars of hunger and poverty that created those prisons of despair again and again over a period of more than sixty years.”

“Never a sterile spectator she insisted on breaking the barriers between spectator and participants in a search for a social progress and a social unity in a deeply divided island. Her words pick sense out of the nonsense of calamity to reveal a sea of vibrant possibility created by the people that she loved.”

The professor said Bennett’s work was part of the process of voicing the intellectual and cultural ideas of the Caribbean. She noted that the difference between Bennett and men like CLR James, Césaire and others was that she was a woman and one of the only black women of her generation and race to come to visible and popular voice in the context of the anti-colonial struggle.

Ford-Smith noted that unlike Césaire and James she chose to speak from the position of a working class peasant woman and to speak in the language that they spoke. She was neither working class nor peasant but that was what her persona became.

She said Miss Lou’s brilliance was that she did not do this and the price that she paid for it was that she was not taken seriously as an intellectual until quite recently.

Ford-Smith said Bennett was supported by two significant developments which are often forgotten in describing her trajectory. First, she was supported by a popular performance tradition which was considered in its time quite vulgar and which had developed a significant following by the 1930s.

She noted that Miss Lou’s early career was supported by the women’s movement of the time. Black feminists like Amy Bailey, Mary Morris Knibb and Madame de Mena Aiken of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) had fought for women’s political rights. This movement became subsumed into the Jamaica Federation of Women for whom Bennett worked as a kind of cultural animator.

 Senior, a poet and author, said the early decision by Bennett to give voice to the ordinary people of Jamaica was one that she boldly defended.

“In the process Miss Lou opened the gates for not only a long list of spoken word artists and performers but was also a profound influence in freeing up the so-called literary heavyweights from the straightjacket of conformity. Miss Lou did not say we must throw out or disrespect the English language, what she affirmed was that we should also claim respect for our own language alongside our inherited English tongue.”

Senior said this opened the gateway for writers such as herself who was struggling to find “our own voices, one that would allow us to be true to ourselves and to the culture we come from while writing our way into a global culture.”

She said it is important to consider Miss Lou as a teacher who had subtle messages enshrined in her own persona and activities – “the legacy she bequeathed to us as gifts in the form of story, the gift of memory, history and ancestry, the gift of manners and broughtupsy, the gift of social harmony.”

Senior said the greatest monument to Miss Lou “that we can create is this -- to demonstrate by gesture and by example the value of all human life, to create stories for our youth that are woven from the fibre of the everyday strengthened with the warp of ancestral wisdom, to find the means to allow youth themselves to tell their own stories as a way of finding the lessons within.”

Senior said Miss Lou must not be seen as simply an icon for that is no more than a picture, a surface representation of a revered person.

She said perhaps then the conversation should be about Miss Lou as a national hero, not a hero of deeds but of words, words that are mightier than the sword.

Forrester, a professor of literature and language at the University of Waterloo who developed two courses at York University in 2008, examined the journey of the Jamaican language from the plantation to where it could be at the end of this year.

Forrester noted that there were people developing the Jamaican identity in 1865 and between that time and 1962 Louise Bennett would come to prominence.

Forrester said in November this year there will be a petition opened on the website of the Office of the Prime Minister in Jamaica requesting that people sign it to indicate whether they want Jamaican to be an official language.

Professor Michelle A. Johnson, moderator of the panel discussion examining the life and legacy of Louise Bennett-Coverley (Miss Lou) on September 17 at York University

Allen, a dub poet and professor, said Miss Lou is one of the most significant and important individuals to be produced by Jamaica.

She performed a poem she wrote as a tribute to Miss Lou 25 years ago recognizing the influence that the late cultural icon had on her, Bob Marley, and other reggae artists.

Sharing her memories of Bennett-Coverley, Pamela Appelt, co-executor of the Louise Bennett Estate, said in 1990 while a judge of the Court of Canadian Citizenship she administered the oath of citizenship to Miss Lou who immigrated to Toronto with her husband, Eric Coverley in 1985.

 Miss Lou lived in Toronto, Canada for 21 years and died there on July 26, 2006.

[An edited version of this story was published in the North American Weekly Gleaner, September 26-October 2, 2019.]