When I started this project, it had a straightforward premise—to let Black Canadians share their stories, seldom seen in our history books.
And that worked at first—interviewing my fellow creators and weaving our stories together into something everyone could understand—but what I didn’t realise was how much I’d learn from them, the breadth of our experiences slowly reshaping the way I think.
In the beginning, I worried about the perception—how others would view my brand if my work grew too serious. But the deeper I dug, the less I toed the line—I wrote and wrote and wrote again until I had but one deceptively simple question:
The Quest for Blackness.
“You made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.”
— Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between Me and the World (2015)
Blackness. What is Blackness? What is this thing we know is flowing through our veins, making us a little different from most of the world around us even if we can’t quite define it ourselves?
To most people, Blackness is just a label. It’s the thing that defines a people darker than themselves, a people connected to basketball, hip-hop and Spike Lee joints. They might not ever stop to think about it, but what so many see is just what’s on the surface, not understanding everything underneath, because they’ve never had to live it.
But what of the 3.5% of us who do? For us, it could be anything. Where you come from. How you think. It’s a web of traditions, experiences and unwritten rules, continually shifting but ever-present in a world that sees us as different. But with the discrimination, dehumanisation and just plain racism that happens every day, sometimes the Blackness is all that we’ve got. And though we’d like to think this couldn’t possibly be true and that anti-Black behaviour is a thing of the past, it only takes a little digging to find a story with a very different take on the matter.
The Difference Between Black History in Canada and the US is That There’s Very Little Difference at All….
When it comes to Black History Month, one thing Canadians often pride themselves over is how little slavery was part of our narrative compared to that of our southern cousins in the United States. After all, runaway slaves sought haven in Canada, did they not? It was a land where they could be equal and not the “three-fifths of a man” prescribed by less favourable laws not so far away.
However, if you buy into that narrative, there’s a lot you’re still missing from the picture.
Though Canada avoided the brunt of slavery, introducing laws prohibiting the practise before becoming a country in 1867 (but only after benefitting from it for at least two hundred years), many of the attitudes and prejudices toward Black people persisted long after. And that’s led to many of the complications with our identity that we still face today.
Take the case of Viola Desmond, for example, convicted for the crime of challenging racial segregation in Nova Scotia by refusing to leave the whites-only area of the Roseland Theatre in 1946.
Naturally, life was very different in 1946, a country finding its way back to normalcy after coming out victorious in the Second World War just the year before. We know of it as an era of prosperity and growth, but something tells me it wasn’t that way for everyone.
The Blackness the World Told Us Was All That We Were.
It is a difficult matter to classify mankind, for there is scarcely any one characteristic belonging exclusively to a single race, though clime and other influences have modified the structure of certain races to such an extent that they are easily recognized as differing from other races in distant localities. Scientists have offered many classifications, but none has yet appeared to be altogether satisfactory. The one most generally known is that made by Blumenbach, near the beginning of the nineteenth century. The chief basis of his classification was the color of the skin, the shape and size of the head and peculiarities of the features. Blumenbach recognized five distinct races, namely, the Caucasian, or white race; the Mongolian, or yellow race; the Malay, or brown race; the Negro, or black race; the American, or red race.
— “Races of Men.” The New Educator Encylopedia. 1946. Print.
In an era where people lived differently, acted differently and thought differently, the easiest way to understand them is by reading what they read, seeing what they saw, and hearing what they heard.
In 2020, we can tell you that Blackness isn’t a monolith—we didn’t choose this label. Still, we’ve worked to make it our own despite our differences, respecting what makes us all different across the diaspora instead of trying to assimilate into one thing. Events like Black History Month help add some humanity to our melanin, showing the nation we’re more than what popular media provides. No matter how much it links poverty, gun violence and broken family structures to our world, there’s plenty to learn about what it means to be Black.
That said, though it’s far from perfect, it’s still a long way from how it was back in ’46.
The Blackness That Never Went Farther Than Skin Deep.
Back in 1946, for the most part, our skin colour was the only thing the rest of the country saw of us. And really, how many of us were there to tell Canada anything different? We’re currently 3.5% of the population. In 1991, we were only 0.8%. Our 0.21% in 1921 is a grim reminder that we’ve had to fight a long time to be anything more than an afterthought in this country, the need to be understood growing more important as our numbers increase exponentially.
This, though, wasn’t the case in 1946, where we can estimate the Black populations at around 0.4% of Canada. Let’s look at what The New Educator Encyclopedia had to say about us back then.
The general name for a division of the human race whose chief characteristics are a dark skin, woolly or kinky hair, flat nose, thick lips and long skull.
— “Negro.” The New Educator Encylopedia. 1946. Print.
In 1946, though we numbered in the tens of thousands (we had around 11.5 million Canadians as of 1941), many saw us as little more than our physical characteristics, seeking to classify us rather than see us as individuals.
The Blackness That Still Haunts Us Today.
But don’t think for a second that it grew any better once they went more than skin deep as we see later in the entry:
…Negroes as a race are more emotional than white peoples, but authorities are not agreed on the prevalent idea that they represent a lower intellectual type. In the United States the rapidity with which they became civilized has often been contrasted with the aloofness of the Indian whose tribal instincts were uprooted with difficulty.
— “Negro.” The New Educator Encylopedia. 1946. Print.
So even though we like to think that racism ended long ago and that Black people should move on and get over it, it’s not like 1946 was all that long ago. Hell, Don Cherry would’ve been twelve when this encyclopedia came out—there are still plenty of people around who grew up with views like these as a matter of public opinion, and it took a long time to work past the ripple effects they made years into the future.
In a lot of ways, we’re still dealing with them today.
The Best Part About Blackness Is That It Can Be Whatever We WANT It To Be.
So I ask you again—what is Blackness?
It’s a lot easier to say what it’s not—it’s not just the colour of our skin, a measure of how much we belong to the community, or how closely our bloodlines adhere to our countries of origin. It’s not a tool we use to exclude, a crutch for pointing the finger at others when we can work from within to build ourselves up, or a thing to celebrate but a few times a year.
The truth is that you can’t define Blackness so easily, and we probably need to accept that. It’s probably safe to say we could’ve done without Blumenbach trying to classify us all in the first place, even if his intentions were purely scientific.
But we’re here now, and despite two hundred years as the “black race” and at least two hundred more as property, in 2020 we have the power and agency to make Blackness whatever we want it to be.
It’s not a change that can happen overnight—the journey here took centuries, not seconds—but just as gender, religion and sexuality are transforming as the decades roll on, maybe race will eventually do the same.
But I said it before—this is just 3.5% of the country we’re talking about. What’s equally as important—if not more so—is shaping what the other 96.5% of the country thinks of us. Which is what we’ll cover in the next post for 2020’s Live from the 3.5—”Canada’s Dance with Diversity (A Toronto Does Not a Canada Make)”.
Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you then!
Until the next, I remain,
Want more from Live from the 3.5? Check out the other posts here!