As a Black Canadian man now living life in his 30s, I’m still very much piecing my story together.
Black History Month or no, I didn’t learn much about the Black Canadians who came before me growing up. Sure, we finally designated February as our own in 1995, but what good is that when there’re no Black kids in your classes to study it with? And if Black history means just the history of Black people once they’ve entered the country, do we then just ignore the rich multinational tale of all the Blacks who came here by choice? There’s no one answer to any of this, and Jael put it quite well—it’s a narrative we constantly need to shape and own for ourselves, lest the national thirst for a homogeneous Canadian identity erase everything that’s defined our community.
As Founder and Artistic Director for the Festival of Literary Diversity, I’m sure that Jael Richardson sometimes feels pigeonholed by this endless pursuit, but as marred as our ongoing narrative is by trauma, colonialism and societal pressures, take a reminder from her—we are more than just our skin colour.
As we continue exploring the vastness that is Canadian Black culture, we need to remember diversity’s more than just our countries of origin or the languages we speak. It’s our sexual orientations. Our gender identifications. Our lifestyles, our environments—28 days isn’t nearly enough to peel back every layer of Black Canadian identity… but it’s a start.
Enjoy Jael’s entry and see you tomorrow,
What does being Black Canadian mean to you?
Being black means being a part of a complex history – it means being the descendant of incredibly brave and resilient people. It means constantly working to re-craft history by creating a present and a future that reinserts our stories into a national identity that threatens to erase us and shape us in ways that reduce, restrict, and limit us. Being Canadian means being a part of a country that has created an opportunity for my family that we would not have anywhere else. It’s a place where I’ve been able to thrive, and it is the place that will always be the first and only place I call home. Being a Black Canadian means carrying both of these truths– accepting and embracing the way they live inside me.
What’s your experience been like as a Black Canadian and how has it shaped who you are today?
My father is the winningest quarterback in NCAA history. But because he was black, he was not able to play in the NFL. The Canadian Football League took him in and gave him the opportunity to thrive as an athlete and business professional. He won the Grey Cup. And he stayed. Canada is where he bought his first house. It’s where his faith grew and where he chose to raise his family. I have lived a comfortable life in Canada, as a result; I’ve never worried about money. I’ve gotten an education, free of debt. I’ve published two books. I’ve started my own not-for-profit organisation.
I say all this because each piece of that story is critical to where I am now. I don’t think I would have published a book or started a not-for-profit if I hadn’t had the financial means and mental space to do so, and these projects – my books and the literary festival I founded – have played an instrumental role in shaping who I am as a Canadian woman of colour. They have allowed me to embrace who I am, and they have given me the platform to share that pride with others (and to allow others to do the same). Maya Angelou wrote of the agony of the “untold story” inside you. I think in many ways, if I had lived anywhere else, I would be living a kind of agony – the pain of undiscovered personal truths and an unmined identity.
What’s something you’d like to see more of within the Black Canadian community?
I’d like to see a more intersectional approach to the work of elevating Black Canadian voices. I’d like to see more people with various life stories and abilities elevated and celebrated in our community. We need to be concerned with the position of ALL black Canadians – those of different abilities, cultures, creeds, genders, sexual orientations, particularly those who have felt most marginalised in the past. If we want to grow together as a community, we have to embrace all voices.
What do you think those outside the Black Canadian community need to better understand in order to coexist with Black Canadians in a respectful and considerate way?
I think people need to understand the roots and history of black trauma – beyond just the history of slavery. I think they need to understand how the displacement of black bodies continues to impact the ways in which black families connect with one another – the way we handle trauma and relationships and mental health. I think they need to understand how colonialism continues to marginalise black stories and black voices. I think they need to understand how mainstream images of beauty impact black women in unique and difficult ways, starting from a very young age, in ways that many of us never truly recover from. I think they need to understand the pressures a black man faces and the unique fears that contribute to their sense of personal identity – and the ways that this manifests itself in different ways, depending on the person. They need to understand why they will never be able to truly understand this experience, and why they should never claim that they can. They should aim to identify their personal privilege and they should work to develop the courage and wisdom to call it out in others.
If your life could teach but one thing to your fellow Black Canadians, what would it be?
I think I would want black Canadians to know that they are unique, that they have a story that is worthy and special. I think they should embrace that uniqueness and fight for it. I think we should support one another and make room for future generations.
Jael Richardson is the author of The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lesson, a Father’s Life, a memoir based on her relationship with her father, CFL quarterback Chuck Ealey. The book received a CBC Bookie Award and earned Richardson an Acclaim Award and a My People Award. A children’s book is coming May 2016. In 2013, Richardson was a book columnist on CBC’s q and served as the Toronto District School Board’s Writer-in-Residence. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph and lives in Brampton, Ontario where she serves as the Artistic Director for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD).