Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Show higlights the resilience and courage of Toronto's Black community at KUUMBA 2017

Tiki Mercury-Clarke                                             Photo contributed
By Neil Armstrong

Musicologist Tiki Mercury-Clarke is promising a lot in her solo performance, “Toronto Black Then,” a musical storytelling presentation about “growing up in Toronto, Black-in-the-day. “

She’ll be singing, playing the piano and storytelling in this autobiographical piece which showcases instances of her life in Toronto in the late 1950s and 1960s, and putting them in historical context.

“So they’ll be trying to paint a sense of not only what personally I experienced but our community as well, and the community’s response to the times,” says Mercury-Clarke.

She says it’s an area that she thinks hasn’t had enough of a voice and the Canadian-born Black community in the city was almost invisible and not listened to because their numbers were so small.

“And then when the immigration laws were finally changed and allowed in more folks who look like us, we were again overwhelmed just in sheer numbers because within a very short time, within a generation we went to an even smaller minority position. So a lot of the experiences of the community at that time just got sort of got lost in the shuffle.”

The jazz artist, singer-pianist, storyteller, lyricist, composer and cultural historian says she recognizes that mainstream media has never been open and truthful about white supremacy in Canada and how it impacts on minority groups.

“So that kind of thing filtered into the mindset of our own people where things that they experienced that they should actually celebrate because it's a story of courage and dignity in the face of a lot of hostility they have kept it very quiet as well.”

As it turns out this is the year of Canada’s 150th anniversary and Mercury-Clarke says, “sometimes the ancestors work things out that way” for this musical creation to happen now.

She has done bits and pieces in a number of her nightclub shows and did a teaser in November at the “When Blackhurst Street” exhibition at Markham Gallery.

She has designed it so she can plug in various events and experiences of her eventful life at different times depending on what the audience is.

Inspired by her grandfather who was a church minister and scholar, Mercury-Clarke says he “inoculated me or vaccinated me against a lot of attempts to have me accept an ideology of black inferiority and its corollary, white superiority.”
“When other kids were getting stories about Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and all these other things, I was actually getting stories about Queen Nzinga, Hatshepsut and very aware that there was a time when we ruled the world and ruled ourselves. And it really changes how you react to attempts to try to take that away when you’re taught that at a very early age and that becomes part of your mindset. You look at the world in a very different way than when you haven’t had anything and other people are actually filling your mind.”

She remembers in Grade 1 going to a new school in the suburb of Sheppard and Bathurst area at Christmas time.

In the public schools, students had to colour nativity scenes and things of that nature but in her family her grandfather was a minister of the British Methodist Episcopal church and a Marcus Garveyite.

He taught them that at the time of the bible the people depicted in the bible were people of colour. “And not only people of colour, they were very dark people of colour and in fact, that whole area of what is now called Palestine and Israel was an extension of the ancient Egyptian empire which is a black empire.”

In her house, Jesus, Mary and Joseph were all black people so when she was asked at school to colour in a stencil of the nativity scene she made the people black because it never occurred to her that they could be anything else.

“And the teacher lost her mind. She just lost her mind and I didn’t understand what was happening. She was saying things like ‘you make them dirty; you make them filthy, how could you do that?’ And I’m thinking in my child’s mind, okay, I must have been sloppy when I was colouring them, I went outside the lines and I smudged it somehow.”

The teacher yanked the picture out of her hand, ripped it to shreds and brought another black stencil and told her to do it right. She carefully did so and do it black again.

Mercury-Clarke also shared a story about the book, The Story of Little Black Sambo, being read by the teacher in the classroom and she was made to sit on a stool at the front of the class with the teacher making references to her appearance and what the book described.

“But I don’t want people to think that it’s an entirely depressing show; it’s a very positive show. I also look at the church and its influence but also its activities in very much a close-up way. I want to pay tribute to our African spirit.”

Her show will take place on Feb. 4, 7:00 p.m.-8:30 p.m. in Miss Lou’s Room at the Harbourfront Centre.
It is presented by A Different Booklist in collaboration with the Harbourfront Centre as part of the 2017 KUUMBA Black History Month celebration.

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