Saturday, 5 November 2016

A Conversation on Anti-Black Racism and a Lecure about Miss Lou's Anansi Poetics

By Neil Armstrong

It was such a delight to attend two events on different university campuses this week that were insightful, cleverly presented, and provided much food for thought upon my departure.

Those two events were: “A New World is Possible: A Conversation on Anti-Black Racism” Mandela Social Justice Annual Lecture – part of Ryerson University’s Social Justice Week on Wednesday (Nov. 2) – and the 2016-2017 Michael Baptista Lecture organized by the Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC) at York University on Thursday (Nov. 3).

The Conversation included keynote speaker, Dionne Brand, renowned poet, novelist and essayist, with Black Lives Matter-Toronto co-founders, Sandy Hudson and Rodney Diverlus as respondents.

Brand began by thanking Akua Benjamin and Winnie Ng for their groundbreaking work and paid an homage to Black Lives Matter-Toronto, congratulating its members for the work that they continue to do. The homage was from her generation to the generation of Black Lives Matter-Toronto.

She read an excerpt from “The Blue Clerk,” a book she just finished writing that is not yet published. This was a section in which the author meets her “early, tender self” on the subway – “a woman with a face empty of the meaning of failure.”

“This tender self is unassailable, undiminished, unsedimented, raw and conscious,” Brand reads.

She ends with the statement:
 “To Black Lives Matter-Toronto, you are our tender selves. You’re our most badass self too. And I know you do this work out of self-love, out of admiration for our history and of the need to save our lives, and I want you to know that you are deeply loved.

“You speak into the future, you speak in a future tense. You are as Lorraine Hansberry said ‘young, gifted and black.’ And you do as Essex Hemphill did when he wrote, ‘I want to start an organization to save my life. If whales, snails, dogs, cats, Chrysler and Nixon can be saved, the lives of black men [and I add here all black people] are priceless and can be saved.’

“I want you to know how grateful we are that you’ve come along and that you have started organizations to save our lives. And I want you to know that you sit in our love and I want you to remember that love when you are attacked and when you are beleaguered. And not only that, but to say that you carry the bones of our ancestors – those who survived and those who did not survive those ships. We, here in this room, are lucky, lucky to have you engaged in the struggle for possible new worlds. We know why you’re out there. We see and hear you and that is all that matters.”

Brand said one of the questions of her life has been – “What is it to write now?
Writing in my time, writing in the time of unrelenting racism and anti-blackness. How to write?”

“All of my work has been in meditation on blackness and meditation on living in my time. When I began writing forty years ago, I thought a new world was possible. I had this conversation with Otis Richmond. Otis had come to Toronto fleeing the draft, in fact fleeing prison, because he had refused to go to the Vietnam War saying that black people didn’t have anything to defend there because they were second class citizens anyway in the US. We became friends in the 70s and he said to me one day, ‘Dionne, do you think it’s going to happen in our lifetime?’ And he said it with a certain weariness, and I said, ‘yeah, what are you talking about, of course.’ I’m still working on it. So, I thought a new world was possible then, I still do. I began writing for that new world and I took as a mantra the sentence by Amilcar Cabral, I think. He said, ‘we are not the people who will live in the world we’re trying to make.’”

Showing a slide of the pioneering Contrast newspaper from 1971 [an exhibition, Welcome to Blackhurst St., now on at Markham House celebrates Black History in the Bathurst/Bloor area through the pages of the newspaper], Brand said that was where she began.

On the cover of the newspaper where the photos of the various black figures who were attending a Black People’s Conference in Toronto. She was 18 then.

“Amiri Baraka was to be the main speaker. It was a massive conference. It was at Harbord Collegiate. It was the middle of Black Power Movement, organizations like the Black Students Union at UofT existed, the Black Education Project, the African Liberation Support Committee, the Black Youth Organization, the UNIA, many, many more. Our outview then was national and Pan American, Pan African, international really.”

Brand read her poetry at the conference and said the reception “was warm and kind for all of us and it is that reception, that affirmation that has kept me writing. I still see my literary work as writing in celebration and defense of black living in its full range and breadth.”

She read from several of her works on Wednesday and noted that: “ I want to share some of this with you not to prove that the more things change the more they remain the same but to say how as an artist and a writer I have attended to this idea -- like other black writers living and gone -- how I have tried to be vigilant in looking, seeing, illustrating, recording and improvising on the agility with which black people live our everyday lives surviving as we do in the post-apocalypse of slavery and in the historical and contemporary makings of life.”

“Christina Sharpe calls it the weather in her book just recently out called “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being.” She calls it the weather – anti-blackness, white supremacy, racism is the weather we live in. I was so fascinated by that concept, the really interesting way of looking at it. Its everydayness, its brutalities, its casual presence, its tangential presence or what I call an uncertain pond, the violence of glances, the brisk decisions of air, the casual homicides of dresses and there’s the unmasking of this casualness that we’re always engaged in.”

Hudson is a graduate student at the University of Toronto studying social justice education. Her research focuses on anti-black racism and decolonization.

Welcomed with the chorus, “Black Lives – They Matter” and affirming that, “I Believe that We will Win,” Hudson described what she is involved in as rough work. “It has really been a rough year,” she said but noted that, “It’s a very beautiful time to be black.”

Hudson said she felt that “we’re in the midst of a new Black Renaissance” that the belief in winning is important from the get-go in the work that Black Lives Matter-Toronto does.

She noted that the struggle against anti-black racism is a struggle for decolonization and that the colonizers required land and labour and needed to eliminate the humanity of black people to achieve this.

Hudson challenged notions that slavery was never present in Canada and that Black History here began with “the Underground Railroad and ends with a multicultural utopia.” She underscored the historic role that Europe played in the present matters affecting Haiti – the first black independent republic having to pay the colonizers money for the loss of their slave labour. Canada is implicated in this colonial narrative.

Hudson called for a radical rethinking of “what security and safety means in our community” and noted that Black Lives Matter-Toronto is part of a long line of resistance from the first person left The Door of No Return.

She ended by quoting from Assata Shakur’s autobiography:

 “It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

Diverlus, a dancer who speaks powerfully through the movement of his body performed a work which called for “Liberation Now,” examining the struggle against anti-black racism and rallying supporters, while asking the question “what are you doing?” for the cause.

Dr. Denise O’Neil Green, associate vice provost/vice president, equity, diversity and inclusion, Ryerson University was the moderator of the conversation.


Dr. Carolyn Cooper, recently retired professor of literature and cultural studies, University of the West Indies (Mona campus) presented the Michael Baptista Lecture which was in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the passing of “Miss Lou” (1919-2006), Jamaica’s iconic and beloved poet and folklorist.
The lecture was entitled: 'Disguise Up De English Language':  Louise Bennett's Anansi Poetics
In her multiple roles as poet, storyteller, folklorist, actress, dramatist and comedian, Louise Bennett deployed humour to simultaneously mask and expose a whole range of grave socio-political issues in “post-colonial” Jamaica.  

The devaluation of African-derived culture, particularly language, was a central preoccupation in Bennett's oeuvre. Like the trickster, Anansi, Bennett assumed many voices to tell the complex story of cultural identity in Jamaica.

Louise Bennett-Coverley amassed an impressive body of artistic work beginning in the late 1930s and covering more than 50 years. 

Her contributions included poetry, Jamaican folk music, work on television and radio, and on the theatre stage. She spent the last decade of her life in Canada and was awarded an honorary degree from York University in 1998.

“I begin with Louise Bennett herself. In this video clip she speaks about language and the value of music in shaping a community at play and at work. When you see and hear the joy of children reveling in their culture, you will begin to apprehend the epic tragedy that results from the school system in Jamaica to take the children’s first language seriously as a medium of instruction in primary schools. You will also hear the musicologist, Olive Lewin, speaking about the power of music,” said Professor Cooper in her opening remarks.

The lecture was co-sponsored by the Department of Humanities, Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and its Diasporas, and the Jean Augustine Chair in Education.

I will post a reportage about Dr. Cooper's lecture soon.
Left-right: Dionne Brand, Carolyn Cooper, Olive Senior and Ramabai Espinet.

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