Tales from the 2.9 — The Black Canadians Sharing their Stories in a Digital Age — #23: Zetta Elliott, PhD, Writer-in-Residence, Weeksville Heritage Center

Tales from the 2.9 — Dr. Zetta Elliott (Featured Image)

Sometimes Canadians don’t stay in Canada — we like telling ourselves that we’ve built a utopia and that our country’s one of the best places to live on Earth, but that doesn’t make it perfect — we’ve still plenty of issues lurking beneath the surface, and unfortunately, the 2.9% of Canadians who identify as Black are far too familiar with far too many of them.

Dr. Zetta Elliott—born Canadian, but currently found in Brooklyn where she’s the writer-in-residence at the Weeksville Heritage Center—didn’t leave Canada filled with warm feelings. In fact, her contribution to Tales from the 2.9 details a life where she couldn’t fully reach her potential as a Black woman without leaving Canada. But that’s exactly why I’m glad to share her piece with you today — life as a minority’s rarely a bed of roses; heck, this entire project started when I realized that there weren’t proportionally enough of us in Canada to have a single Minister represent us in the federal Cabinet!

All that said, please take some time and read today’s entry. It’s well worth the read, and that’s saying something considering some of the stellar submissions we’ve seen this month!

Catch you at the next installment!

Tales from the 2.9 — Zetta ElliottBorn in Canada, Zetta Elliott moved to the US in 1994 to pursue her PhD in American Studies at NYU. Her poetry has been published in several anthologies, and her plays have been staged in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland. Her essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, School Library Journal, and Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures. She is the author of eighteen books for young readers, including the award-winning picture book Bird. Her urban fantasy novel, Ship of Souls, was named a Booklist Top Ten Sci-fi/Fantasy Title for Youth and was a finalist for the Phillis Wheatley Book Award. Her own imprint, Rosetta Press, generates culturally relevant stories that center children who have been marginalized, misrepresented, and/or rendered invisible in traditional children’s literature. Elliott is an advocate for greater diversity and equity in publishing, and currently serves as writer-in-residence at Weeksville Heritage Center. She lives in Brooklyn.

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1) When you think of Black History Month, what are some of the stories and images that come to mind?

When I was growing up in Canada in the ’70s and ’80s, there was no Black History Month. As an expat who has lived in the US for over 20 years, I don’t have many positive memories of Canada when it comes to the development of my Black identity. My family happens to have African American roots, which I’m researching right now (with funds from the Canada Arts Council). I understand why my enslaved ancestors might have seen Canada as their best option in 1820, but I also understand why—once they got here—some of them chose to cross the color line and leave their Blackness behind. I was a Black Studies professor for almost a decade but that wouldn’t have happened if I had stayed in Canada (where I never had a Black educator until my last year of university). I’m the author of nearly 20 books for young readers that blend Black history with magic—that also wouldn’t have happened if I had stayed in Canada. I often draw inspiration from Dionne Brand’s book A Map to the Door of No Return; in it she writes that people of African descent have had to develop a “mastery of way-finding.” So I guess when I think about Canada and Black History, I think of all the ways we’ve found to survive and make our stories known—even if that means re-crossing the border.

2) The Black Experience we’re largely exposed to in the media is that of our southern neighbours and the struggles they’ve faced. What’s your experience been as a Black person in Canada, and what have you learned from it?

I wrote about my life in Canada in my memoir, Stranger in the Family. And that title pretty much sums up my experience as a Black woman in a country that I found to be hostile and/or indifferent to Blacks. My father was an Afro-Caribbean immigrant who arrived in Toronto at 15 but attended high school and college in the US. He used to say, “I can’t get anything started in Canada,” and he ultimately returned to the US in 1990. That opened the door for me to move to the US, too, and I left Canada because all I could see were closed doors. Everything seemed so much harder in “the Great White North,” and racial advances in the US take 10-20 years to take hold in Canada. I found it hard to build community in Toronto and yet felt immediately embraced by the Black community in the US. There’s not much I miss about my early life in Canada—besides Shreddies and butter tarts!

3) In sharing your voice with the world, what impression do you hope to leave on the world with everything you do?

I hope my example—as a Black feminist writer and educator—lets young people know what’s possible for them, too. I never read any Black Canadian authors as a child and never met an author until I started graduate school at NYU. I hope my books let kids know that magic can happen to anyone, anywhere. I’m still trying to decolonize my imagination after consuming so much imperialist British literature in Canada, and I hope young people—by having “mirror books”—won’t have to spend as much time decolonizing their minds, too.

4) We all benefit from good mentors who guide us along the way to make sure we reach our potential in life. Who was your mentor to teach you from a cultural standpoint, and what’s the greatest lesson you learned from them?

My father really struggled with his Black identity because he grew up in poverty in the Caribbean, and was raised by a religious grandmother who told him to pinch his nose so he look more like “the buckra.” He married a woman who identified as white and felt that would ensure that his children would have every advantage as light-skinned Blacks. But then he had a “Black Power” moment, separated from my mother, and became an activist within the Department of Education in Toronto. He ran a summer camp where we watched Roots and learned about ancient African civilizations. But then his radical moment ended, and he married a Caribbean woman who convinced him he needed to perm his “hard” hair. She got me perming my hair, too, and I only stopped when I moved to Brooklyn and met a group of Black women artists/activists who wore their hair natural. So I’d say I learned from my father that the struggle to love yourself requires you to dig up the roots of self-loathing. And that sometimes means distancing yourself from those who love you but can’t or won’t decolonize their minds. My maternal grandmother looked white but identified as “colored,” and her refusal to “pass” for white like her relatives truly inspired me as a young woman. Sometimes being true to yourself means being alone…   

5) If you could say just one thing to the rest of the 2.9%, what would it be?

Speak up for your children! Find out what they’re learning in school, see what’s available at the public library, and advocate for materials that reflect the histories and cultures of the African diaspora ALL YEAR ROUND. If there aren’t any books that provide a mirror for your child, you might need to make that book yourself. I write the books I wish I’d had as a child. Make sure your child has material that empowers her/him and makes her/him feel valued and loved.

Tales from the 2.9 is an ongoing series on CaseyPalmer.com showcasing Black Canadian content creators and the experiences they’ve had growing up Black in Canada!

Author: Casey E. Palmer

Calling the Great White North his home, Casey‘s spent the last few decades in pursuit of creating killer content. From novels as a kid, comics as a teen, to blogs and photos once he could grow a beard, he’ll use whatever’s around him to create amazing stuff. When he’s not creating, he’s parenting, exploring and trying to make life as awesome as possible for everyone around him. Because a boring life’s not a life worth living!

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