Black History in Canada: A Slave to Athletic Success?

Canada BHM Athletes Poster Here is the first thought that came to mind when I saw the above poster to celebrate Black History Month in Canada:

Lookey, lookey at them fine, fine specimens hee-yuh,’ said the plantation owner.

I grant, the poster’s not that bad. The achievements of blacks in sport in Canada and across North America can’t be denied. It’s me, I guess.

Growing up as one of the six black folks in what was, in the 70s and 80s, one of the ethnically whitest, most racially non-diverse enclaves in the country, I confess to being a little sensitive about the issue. I often felt people were summing me up and reacting to me as if I was a linebacker for the Pittsburg Steelers. I’m in my early forties now, so it doesn’t happen so much anymore, but the poster picks the scabs of many battle scars endured fighting against the blinkered image.

Measha Brueggergosman. Opera Singer. Descendant of Black Loyalists in New Brunswick.

Measha Brueggergosman. Opera Singer, musician. Descendant of Black Loyalists who settled in New Brunswick in the late 1700s.

Not that I’ve got an issue with linebackers. It’s just that I never was one and never wanted to be one. I’ve always been a nerdy, bookish, academically gifted, artsy-fartsy kind of guy more than I was ever a swaggering super-jock. If you’d met me at anytime in my life and actually listened to the things coming from my mouth you’d be an idiot to mistake me for a jock unless that’s what you were intent on seeing.

I don’t think it’s controversial to say there’s a fairly strong existing stereotype about blacks and athleticism, which the poster merely reinforces. There are worse things to be viewed as than “athletic,” I suppose. But the propagation of a stereotype seems out of touch with the intention of widening Canadian consciousness about the smattering of blacks among them.

Historically, blacks in Canada traced their roots to one source: escapees from US slavery. The first blacks to arrive in any numbers were the Black Loyalists from the time of the US Revolutionary War in the late 1700s. Others came during the mid to late 1800s in the underground railroads fleeing fugitive slavery laws in the US. The next wave of black migrants to Canada consisted of economic or political émigrés from Caribbean island nations such as Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago. Many were themselves descendants of slaves brought by the French and British over the previous centuries. In the past twenty-five years migrants fleeing instability from post-colonial African nations have rounded out the community of blacks in Canada.

It’s a proud Canadian legacy for blacks; our presence is explained by the refuge from slavery, persecution, or economic insecurity this country afforded. The narrative of Canadian blacks on the whole is largely devoid of the ugly, systemic, political, and culturally-ingrained racism that remains a facet of black life in the United States today. Identifying blacks with sport as a way of highlighting their collective achievements strikes me as a decidedly American thing to do. Given these ideas originate in slavery, racism, and disenfranchisement those are some sordid coat-tails to be riding for a celebratory gesture in Canada.

George Elliott Clarke. Poet, playwright. Descendant of African-American refugees of the War of 1812 who settled in Nova Scotia.

George Elliott Clarke. Poet, playwright. Descendant of African-American refugees of the War of 1812 who settled in Nova Scotia.

In the western Canadian city where I grew up, I was always the only black person in my social setting – including within my own white, WASP family. Neither my African-American biological father nor any of his family were a presence in my life. The community of blacks, or of any other visible minority, was virtually non-existent. Black communities of any size were all in eastern Canada – New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Southern Ontario; places far afield from where I was. The non-existence of black people in my community meant the US media was instrumental in shaping local perceptions of blacks, including my own.

It’s a sociological fact in the US: disenfranchised blacks haven’t had the opportunities that would have encouraged a focus on non-athletic pursuits. I think it’s fair to say their desire to ingratiate themselves to the descendants of the former slave owners has been hampered by countless examples of racism they are still subjected to. The playing field has never really been level when it’s time to choose among equally qualified white or black prospects to fill the rosters of “Team Law Firm,” “Team Investment Bank,” or “Team Fortune 500 Company.”

Disenfranchised American black kids with any athletic talents have wisely made sports their main focus. It has proven to be the most viable avenue out of poverty than other pursuits, at least up until very recently. Even if it goes against their true desires, white sports franchise owners exclude blacks from their teams at their peril. Winning is profitable. It’s a milder form of modern slavery – let’s face it, black asses are still owned – but at least the property gets to share in the wealth they create. In USA Inc. the acquired wealth of professional black athletes really does change their powerless, disenfranchised social status. For those with the abilities, athletics has been the great equalizer.

K-OS. Kevin Brereton. Singer, songwriter, music producer. Roots in Trinidad and Tobago emigres residing in Southern Ontario.

K-OS. Kevin Brereton. Singer, songwriter, music producer. Roots in Trinidad and Tobago emigres residing in Southern Ontario.

All that is to say, there are obvious reasons blacks are highly represented in sport in the United States that should easily undermine lingering stereotypes about blacks being genetically made for physical pursuits and nothing else. The problem is these ideas are programmed in the US cultural DNA thanks to slavery and racism. It’s difficult to compete against such endemic prejudices infiltrating our collective minds with the explosion of US mass media and culture, which has been a dominant force in Canada for decades.

As a kid, I was curious about what the black side of me was all about. I consumed whatever I could about blacks from American culture to fill in the gaps in my first-hand experience. I was privy to a horribly unflattering impression. Black men were depicted as jive-talking, pimping, gang-banging, hyper-macho, deadbeat dad, ghetto-living, hyper-aggressive, super-athletes. As I grew older I understood the narrative as radically flawed, but for a long time it left me ambiguous about connecting with my black identity. I was so consumed by the disparaging impressions it seemed hardly worth the effort to identify with something so apparently disreputable.

Dionne Brand. Poet, author, essayist. Immigrated to Toronto from Trinidad and Tobago.

Dionne Brand. Poet, author, essayist. Immigrated to Toronto from Trinidad and Tobago in the early 1970s.

The constancy of the same negative, reductionist narrative is compelling when you live in a place that doesn’t have real, regular black folks to offset them. Where I lived, neither the blacks of US cultural lore, nor real live blacks – janitors, lawyers, bus drivers, or doctors – were among us. You don’t need to be Margaret Mead to know how stereotypes work in a Western mind prone to simple categorizations; in the absence of real contact with the phenomenon you’re trying to understand, the caricatures you’re exposed to will stand in as a substitute.

My white, establishment grandfather was among the city’s corporate elite. He had CEOs, politicians, old and new money friends in his social network. At our country club, he would tout my latest academic achievements, my grades, or my brilliant future as a doctor, lawyer, or CEO. All his white upper-crust friends could say in response was  “Cripes, the kid’s built like a brick shit-house Don. He’s gonna tear up the gridiron.” I endured that scenario dozens of times, and I blame it for my knee jerk disdain for golfers and corporate white guys, even though I count both in my immediate family.

Imagine what it does to a young man’s outlook and motivation when he fears his talents will not be enough to win the approbation of those whites with the power of deciding his future; when he has first-hand knowledge they see him as nothing more than a gladiator on a football field. This is precisely how even mild racism can deflate self-esteem and motivation among those directly targeted by it. I can’t say this is the experience of blacks in parts of Canada where their numbers in the community were abundant. Where I grew up, this mild aspect of prejudice was my experience and it was demoralizing because of its persistence.

I begrudgingly admit it. I am built like a brick shit-house. I look like what everybody believes a black man ought to look like. Through adolescence and into early-adulthood I had little fan clubs of what I call “jungle-curious” white girls and women with daddy issues pursuing me like a pack of wolves to a wounded Elk. They weren’t seduced by me personally as much as by their fantasies of me as the hyper-sexual, hyper-physical, devil-may-care black man imprinted in their minds by their magazines, movies, and television sets.

Malcolm Gladwell. Journalist, author, speaker. Like me, half-black. Black roots from his Jamaican mother.

Malcolm Gladwell. Journalist, author, speaker. Like me, half-black, but unlike me, could pass for white if pressed. Black roots from his Jamaican mother. Resident of Southern Ontario.

As an adult with brains, abilities, and credentials it is infuriating to have those elements subsumed beneath another’s idea of me as an object, either of pleasure or derision. My experiences as a black man seem eerily similar to the grievances I hear of women trying to succeed in male-dominated environments. I know how frustrating it is for a woman to have her abilities, credentials and achievements undone by the dysfunctional physical energies her presence unleashes in others, how adverse inferences about her qualities are affixed by strong biases others employ to distort her actions.

You feel as though whatever you say or do, whoever you are, is being dismissed beneath another’s culturally-influenced projections of what they believe you to be. It becomes impossible to convey what you intend because the privilege of crafting your message was never in your hands. It feels as though you are constantly overlooked, even if you possess talents that surpass those of the white guys enjoying the pecuniary rewards in whatever domain you happen to occupy.

White men have no idea the relative luxury they enjoy by having a modicum of control over others’ perceptions of them. When it comes to shaping others’ impressions, it is most often theirs to lose. It’s a courtesy not extended to black men or women of any colour across most social spaces in North America.

Michaëlle Jean. Journalist, Governor-General of Canada, International Stateswoman. Arrived in Canada as a refugee from Haiti, settling in Quebec.

Michaëlle Jean. Journalist, Governor-General of Canada, International Stateswoman. Arrived in Canada as a refugee from Haiti, settling in Quebec.

In Canada, having people dismiss my intelligence because they assume I’m a dumb, cocky, sexually predacious meat-head is not as bad as being mistaken for a thug and being shot, as is too often happening to my brothers in the US. I am glad in some ways to have the relative luxury of whining about being misunderstood than fearing death at the hands of law enforcement. That is what makes me want to celebrate as a black man in Canada. I feel safe and relatively free, even if at times I am unfairly summed up.

It’s why I wish a poster for Black History month would have steered clear of shining another bright, white light on the athletic achievements of blacks, as if it said something seminal about the black community in Canada. It’s kind of lame and underwhelming given the nature of what our presence in this country symbolizes.

In the end, I don’t think it is just me. I think it’s a blunder. When I see this poster I imagine the ghosts of my ancestors lamenting the fact their descendants are viewed like the slaves they once were; that our collective success in athletic pursuits has encouraged a new generation of plantation owners to look upon us as purely physical specimens.

The idea doesn’t leave me in a celebratory mood.

Good Things Come to Those Who Don’t Wait (For Death)

This costs nothing and means everything when you're gone.

This costs nothing and means everything when you’re gone.

We’re all going to die. Not necessarily soon, but eventually. I hope that doesn’t come as a surprise.

We have to remind ourselves sometimes, especially when we’re being unreasonably harsh, either on ourselves or toward others we know and love. Denial about the inevitable keeps the poker flame well-lit, especially when life is spending a little too much time in the fast lane.

When we’re in that head-space we’re not really enjoying the gift. Sometimes a bucket of cold, hard truth can snap us out of the ignorant funk.

It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. You’re so wrapped up in the process of ‘doing’ you forget yourself.  You forget why you’re so engrossed, but since you’re in it, you’re in it. Even if you know you’re being a shithead, you don’t know how else to operate to get you through.

You believe you are what you are; that fundamental change is impossible and you’re stuck on the path you put yourself on long ago. You’re going to react as you’ve always done, even if sometimes you wish you hadn’t, because it’s got you where you are.

There’s a pang inside you suggesting something’s not right, but you can’t figure out what it is or how to shift gears. You’ll stay on your hamster wheel even though it may be crushing your spirit and literally killing you. Don’t wait until you’re facing death to come to realizations needed to stir change.

Think about death. It will help clarify what needs to change in time for you to reap the benefits in your life. Maybe you’ll spread some of the grace from your awareness to others who could use a kick in the ass. You won’t regret it when you are really about to die. You won’t regret it now either, if you can get going.

Because you’re still living like a teenager who thinks they’re going to live forever, small, insignificant problems are amplified in your mind. Let’s say you’re running late. Not late to save a dying patient on an operating table, but late for a meeting. Late for a haircut. Late for work at your office job.

You’re worried about inconveniencing someone, how that makes you come off in their eyes. You fear your boss sending you a passive aggressive e-mail for not showing up to the office on time. Your boss needs to get a grip too. Since you’re going to die, you shouldn’t be so afraid to tell them that.

But you worry about those things because you take your mortality for granted. Those worries translate into self-absorption – pressing into the world so firmly as to make it align with your neurotic vision of where everything ought to be. It sucks you dry, and your dessicated spirit sucks the life out of others around you.

Today, it’s because you’re late. Another day you got in a fight with your spouse, or someone didn’t give you what you thought was your entitlement. Someone took umbrage with you for no good reason. It’s always something.

You jump in your car, speeding through town like a maniac. You zip past school zones, cut people off, weave in and out of traffic. You don’t let the buses into traffic. They’re carrying dozens of passengers who are too poor to own a car, or who are trying to keep their SUV off the roads to spare the earth a few metric tonnes of extra pollution.

You give people the finger, honk your horn, blast through red lights, and flout public safety. You text to say ‘you’re on your way’ as if everyone else’s life depended on it. You’re a total menace to society. Why? Because you are late. Or you’ve just got to see the text that’s come in. Those incoming texts or tweets are always so riven with epiphanies as to make risking your total destruction worthwhile.

Perspective has been lost. It’s made you wilfully ignorant of the serious harm you invite on others because you cheapen life with your habit of forgetting about where it’s all headed. If that isn’t your intention, perspective needs to be re-acquired. Here’s something: you won’t care about any of the things that get you riled up when you’re dead.

Holding hands silhouette

Laugh. Dance. Play. Love. Fall in love too, even if there’s a risk. Do these things because the intentions are pure and simple. They make life remarkable.

When you are facing death the important things crystallize. Why wait? Put yourself in that head-space now to sharpen your thinking.

You will see how important it is your kids know you really love them. It will matter you have great, loving relationships. It will matter if you can look in the mirror and honestly say your presence on this planet is, on the whole, mostly positive. It will matter how you treat others, including strangers.

The only way these meaningful things can really resonate in your life is if you invest your time and energy in cultivating them now. Later may never come if you die unexpectedly.

It’s two o’clock in the afternoon and you get an urgent, out-of-the-blue task from a higher-up saying they “need” that such-and-such thing done by tomorrow at noon. You know he’s been sitting on the issue for weeks. Now it’s come to a head – your head, in fact.

You know in your heart the demand is extremely unreasonable. You know you’re going to be at the office until late and maybe have to do the work at home when you’d rather be tucking your kids into bed. The idea the higher up doesn’t care fuels your fire. Say something. Don’t just say “yes.” Let them know what they’ve asked of you. Maybe they genuinely weren’t aware.

Stand up for the quality of your precious life and for that of others. Be brave. It’s a cliché but one that is all too suffused with truth to flout, especially when it’s your life on the line. When we’re facing death, all bets are off with fear. It doesn’t help then and it isn’t helping now.

It’s time to stop allowing yourself to become so apoplectic because of others. After a point, your outrage becomes more your fault than theirs. Try to be more measured in your righteous indignation. You’re going to die soon and you don’t want to go out like that – with your head swirling in acrimony. As Mr. T says “pity the fools.” Let people try to make their problems yours because they’re ignoramuses. Don’t let them succeed.

Ensure people respect your life in their dealings with you. Those who constantly violate your boundaries have to be met with the sound of your feet walking in the other direction. This will keep your sanity safely from their crosshairs. You are worth it.

If a person’s bad behaviour is uncharacteristic figure out what ails them and turn their tactics into an opportunity to enlighten. Let people have a bad day without making it worse by reacting to it poorly yourself. Nobody is born a jerk and a fool. Everyone is capable of change eventually. And sometimes, a fool needs a hug.

Living in the world as if it was your last days is liberating. You’ll say and do things that really, really matter and won’t waste your energies engaged in pointless battles with those facets of our wealthy, privileged Western existence that unconsciously spread misery. You won’t waste your time in places or with people who are disrespectful, ignorant, or foolish. You’ll feel sorry for them as you expunge them from your richer, fuller life.

The new-found lightness of your existence will be the graceful foil in their angry, ignorant faces. Gandhi stared down centuries of colonial rule with ahimsa, so you can probably withstand the indignities in your relatively fortunate life.

If you can’t help allowing things and people getting under your skin, or if you try to dominate and control your surroundings your life will become decidedly smaller for it. The legacy you’ll leave behind will be full of broken bridges and an earth scorched by so many misdeeds necessary to chase the pointless goal of cupping the whole world in your greedy, selfish hands.

Meanwhile, there are so many tangible, meaningful things that command your attention and withstand your neglect. Focus on the meaningful things in your life as if you’re never going to see them again. Don’t wait for the doctor to tell you you have cancer to start getting that done.

When you are fully conscious of how precious your life is, the potentially negative entanglements you are so easily hooked into are easily ignored. When someone you love says or does something hurtful, your heart will quickly trump your fragile, injured ego. Instead of reacting in defense and making things worse you’ll ask “are you okay?” swinging the whole encounter in a totally different direction for the better. When your child is out of line, instead of reacting with scorn, imagine it’s the last encounter you’ll have with them and let that guide your next action.

Your ego takes a back seat when you’re focused on doing what matters to make your remaining days on the planet peaceful and joyful. You will walk the earth differently if you think “maybe this will be the last,” and will find a way to enjoy things, even if they are unpleasant. At least you’re alive to have an opinion either way; a privilege deprived so many millions every day.

Make the time.

Make the time. It costs nothing and its value is infinite.

“Okay, so I’m supposed to act like my death is imminent. Do I go and quit my job and travel, climb Mount Everest, buy things I’ve always wanted, go skydiving, and exist on credit? I have responsibilities,” you say.

What a fucking cliché. You have what you need to make your life what you want it to be right now and still respect all your obligations. You aren’t obliged to live in a four thousand square foot home and make a million dollars a year. You aren’t obliged to spread insensitivity, greed, and acrimony as you set about to conquer the world. Your mind is still beholden to the common idea that the most sophisticated being in all of the natural world was evolved to amass wealth, subjugate the planet, and buy stuff.

Shame on you for steadfastly believing something so ruinous to your well-being and your relationship with the important people in your life; not to mention the planet and all the creatures on it. If you were dying tomorrow you know you wouldn’t spend your last days shopping or amassing more wealth.

You would want to share your precious love with those who care about you. The other things you typically fret over would slide off your consciousness. The beauty in the multitude of simple, little phenomena in your everyday life will not escape your notice. The need to acquire luxuriant adornments vanishes in an instant because you know they add nothing truly meaningful to your life.

Here is something to be afraid of: dying before you really, truly lived.

There is good news to be plucked right from the heart of the bad. You’re a homo sapiens, the only creature capable of pondering its own death and with the capacity for insight on how to chart the wisest way forward. You’re running late in the exercise, but make your steps a little more intentional from here on out, you dig?

So think about your death. It will help transform a life too often mired in the small and pointless into one that is infinite and rich with meaningful experience.

The Joyful Odyssey of Charlotte and James

PHOTO CREDIT - Melanie Greenwood

PHOTO CREDIT – Melanie Greenwood

Mother rented a cottage that summer to grieve her failed marriage. I drowned my sorrows at the beach, in comic books.

“Come on, grumpy,” Charlotte gestured, out of the blue.

My brooding heart was overpowered by her love. When summer ended we never saw each other again, but the memory of her tender flesh was engraved in all my senses.

Our lives had taken their toll, but hope emerged after reconnecting online. I waited in the gazebo, wondering what damage the years had done.

“Come on, James.”

We went joyfully into the garden maze, as if we’d been waiting all along for the other to guide us through.

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This has been an installment of the Friday Fictioneers Challenge. If you would like to give the challenge a try, start at Rochelle’s Purple Blog and join the fun.

Here’s the concept: A weekly picture is posted, and the writer is challenged to produce one-hundred (more or less) words of some sort of fiction with a complete plot (beginning, middle and end).

Have fun and happy writing!