Last night, I just about broke out into hives reading this essay by Alyson Renaldo, “Black Canadian Like Me,” over at The Root. The piece addresses issues that as a black Canadian, I have some familiarity with. When I cross the border into the U.S., I prepare myself to be asked about my accent, if Tim Horton is our president, if I speak French. It isn’t uncommon for me to encounter people who are astoundingly ignorant about anything related to Canada, and I’ve developed a thick skin about it.
For Ms. Renaldo, the idea that black Americans may be ignorant of black Canadian culture was made clear when she attended a Jill Scott concert, and the singer riffed on the ostensibly universal experience of eating soul food.
One of my friends jokingly turned to the rest of us with, “I don’t think they know there are others on the planet with them. Maybe she thinks the ‘c’ in ‘Canada’ really stands for ‘Carolinas.’ ” We laughed. I chimed in with, “After the concert, let’s go to Romania and talk love over curry and roti.” We howled with laughter and went on enjoying the concert.
In truth, however, our comments were made not from humor but from disappointment, which we all felt but chose to ignore. After all, we were here to celebrate Jill’s uniqueness and relevance. Her assumption that her cultural experiences should mirror ours, here, in a completely different country, suggested that she didn’t value our uniqueness and relevance.
Unfortunately, Renaldo tackles these issues in a haphazard, disjointed way. She starts by expressing her disappointment that Jill Scott didn’t change her lyrics to make them resonate with her Canadian audience (“why Candied Yams and not Guava Cheese, Jill?”), and relates this to the (apparent) dismissal of black Canadians’ experiences. She then makes an untidy segue into her life of otherness as a young black woman dealing with “White Canadian apathy toward black Canadians,” and her expectation that she wouldn’t have this otherness reinforced once she moved to the U.S., a country that is “remotely aware of its minority population” (an expectation that’s pretty naïve).
And then, the article goes terribly awry. She describes growing up with “West Indian sensibilities”, and then proceeds to make some pretty broad based erroneous assumptions that the rest of black Canada shares not only her upbringing, but her sentiments, as well.
Someone wasn’t paying attention in history class. Black Canadians – like black Americans, or black Brazilians, or black Africans, or black West Indians – are not one homogeneous mass of curry-goat-eating, soca-dancing-reggae-listening people. George Elliot Clarke describes Canadian blackness as an identity “rich with contradictions and fissures.” But Renaldo is using the experiences of her particular social circle (middle class, well-to-do Caribbean folk) and morphing them into her own approximation of the total black Canadian experience.
Black Canadians are not all West Indian Immigrants. They are also descendants of Black Loyalists in Eastern Canada, and descendants of the fugitive slaves that escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad , and the first and second generation Canadians whose families immigrated from Continental Africa, and diasporan immigrants from South and Central America. Many don’t live a “middle class existence”, either, and for the 1 in 4 black Canadian families classified as low income, life certainly isn’t “idyllic”.#
She feels marginalized, and I get that. She feels misunderstood, and confused that the Utopian America that existed in her mind, where all black people love each other and get along, isn’t a real place. She’s pissed that she’s been asked in the past to be the mouthpiece of a people she doesn’t even understand herself. Fair enough.
But Renaldo’s article (and the ensuing vitriol in the comments section) is indicative of just how dangerous such a myopic, narrow imagining of blackness is. In her bid to define her own sense of belonging, she pieces together a sloppy narrative of black Canadians that effectively excludes the stories of so many people she supposedly represents.
Stephanie Okola is a Kenyan-Jamaican law student who lives in Toronto.