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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.

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