Tuesday, June 29, 2010


“No more Latin, no more French, no more sitting on teacher old bench” was a chant often heard in the Guyana of my youth at the end of the school year. For the entire month of August, part of July and part of September there was no school. Not surprisingly it used to be a grave insult to suggest to any Guyanese man, woman or child that they must have attended school in August. Since there is no school in August the assumption would be that the person who was told that they had attended school in August was uneducated/unintelligent. The time of year was popularly referred to as “August holidays” and many families packed up and moved across the country to spend time with relatives. Berbicians who had relatives in Demerara or Essequibo would send their children to visit for a few weeks and vice versa. My siblings and I visited relatives at interesting places like Courtland, Fyrish, Linden, Sandvoort and Wismar and they visited us at the many interesting places where we lived including Agricola, Kitty and Wortmanville. The Rupununi was a bit of a distance from most of our relatives so there was not much visiting when we lived there.

The several weeks away from formal education during the “August holidays” seemed like a magical time when we traveled by train from Georgetown to Rosignol along the East coast of Demerara and the West coast of Berbice. During those travels I received my earliest science lessons from my parents explaining how the MV Torani (ferry boat) was able to stay afloat with passengers and vehicles as it crossed the Berbice River taking us from Rosignol to New Amsterdam. History lessons about the people of Buxton (East coast Demerara) who stopped the British governor’s train (as it attempted to travel past Buxton) and demanded fair treatment from the colonial government were also part of our journey.

Spending time at my grandparents’ home was a history lesson in itself with the images of African royalty and landmarks like the Sankore University of Timbuktu that decorated the walls and also the many old copies of Ebony and Jet magazines that were meticulously preserved and stored for us. It was fascinating to read stories of events that took place when our grandparents were young and our parents were children. The story-telling times at night were some of the best times spent during those holiday weeks. We learnt about our ancestors who were taken from Angola, the Congo, Ghana, Nigeria etc., and the fact that some of them were first taken to places like Antigua, Brazil and Suriname before being moved (sold during slavery) or moving (after Emancipation) to Guyana. There were also very scary stories about Bacoo, Moongazer and Ol’Higue that would have us scurrying off to bed, scared to be outside after dark. As an adult I realize that those stories were told to ensure that children would not be tempted to wander away from home after dark, they were designed to keep us safe. When my children, nieces and nephews were small I tried telling them the same stories but they were not scared; they were fascinated and had so many questions that I could not answer that I eventually gave up. The scary stories did not travel well from Guyana to Canada.

Similar to the “August holidays” I enjoyed as a child in Guyana, in Toronto there are several weeks of “summer holidays” for students from elementary school and secondary schools. During the next two months unless students are attending summer school they are away from formal education and free to enjoy the summer weather without thinking about assignments and exams.

June 21 was the official beginning of summer, even though we have been enjoying summer like weather for more than a month. With the many video games and other electronic gadgets many children do not have the experience of spending quality time with their elders. This is not part of the modern North American culture. However, from speaking with older African Canadians whose families have been here for generations they recount similar experiences to mine of traveling to visit relatives in small town Ontario, Nova Scotia and British Columbia during the summers of their childhood. There they would hear from their older relatives, stories about their ancestors and the history of their communities.

In her 2005 published book Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island African American author Jill Nelson writes about the enchantment of the summer vacations her family spent on Martha’s Vineyard one of the few places where middle class African Americans could escape the daily grind and living with the daily reality of racism. It was a magical place for the children whose parents could afford a summer vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard. Many other African Americans living in Northern cities choose to send their children down south to spend time with relatives. Sometimes not such a wise decision for some families including Emmett Till’s mother Mamie Till who sent her 14 year old child from Chicago to Money, Mississippi in the summer of 1955 to spend time with his great-uncle Mose Wright. (http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=536339677935896178#)

Thankfully not every family experienced the heart wrenching tragedy of the Till family. There are several delightful books of African American children enjoying their summer visits to relatives down south including Donald Crews’ Big Mama’s published in 1991 which tells the story of four African-American children and their mother traveling by train to visit grandparents in the rural town of Cottondale in Florida and the joy they experience spending the summer at Big Mama’s. Crews’ follow-up book Shortcut published in 1992 continues the story of the four children spending their summer at Big Mama’s and their alarming adventure that resulted from not following Big Mama’s safety rules.

How are you spending your summer?

Thursday, June 17, 2010


In my Daddy’s arms I am tall and close to the sun
and warm in my Daddy’s arms
In my Daddy’s arms I am strong and dark like him and laughing
Happier than the circus clowns with red painted grins
When Daddy spins me round and round
and the whole world is crazy upside down
I am big and strong and proud like him
In Daddy’s arms my Daddy

By Folami Abiade

Excerpt from In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers illustrated by Javaka Steptoe published 1997

Sunday, June 20 is Fathers Day. In North America a special day to honour fathers was first suggested in 1909 and first observed on June 19, 1910. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson issued the first presidential proclamation honouring fathers, designating the third Sunday in June as Father's Day. Six years later, in 1972 the day was made a national holiday when President Richard Nixon signed it into law. On June 20 some fathers and grand fathers will receive cards, ties, shirts, jewelry, artwork from class projects etc., as their children and grandchildren honour them.

The beautifully illustrated book In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers is a special tribute to a distinct group of men, “African American fathers.” This term encompasses more than African men born in the USA. It includes those in the Diaspora who live outside of the African continent and were disconnected from their roots through slavery and colonization. During the Maafa, the enslavement and upheaval of African people, the family structure was fractured; mothers and fathers were robbed of the ability to parent their children. During those dreadful times African men were sometimes not even allowed to see their children. Mothers would at least have their children with them for a few months or even a few years before they were sold but many fathers never even knew that a child existed which carried their genes and DNA. In spite of these circumstances our history tells us that African men persisted against all odds in their fathering roles; if not to their biological children then to children in their community.

These men were loving, nurturing and protective fathers. There are several written resources by enslaved African men and women as well as a collection of voice recorded interviews with formerly enslaved Africans documenting the positive parenting roles of African fathers during slavery. In her 2005 published book “Black Fatherhood: Reconnecting With Our Legacy” Dana Ross writes: “Black men during this era were dehumanized, humiliated and oppressed; however it did not deter them from being nurturing, loving, fathers, caretakers and entrepreneurs. They were able to rise above the social system set against them by pulling on their inner strength and love for their families. Even though some inevitably fell prey to the institution of slavery, there are more than enough documented stories and recorded family histories which evidence the significant and prominent role of Black fathers. These men were able to overcome the adversities of the institution of slavery on the strength of their family; leaving us a legacy to reconnect with.” http://www.blackinformant.com/our-expression/black-fatherhood-reconnecting-with-our-legacy-trailer

Many enslaved African men took great pride in their ability to care for their families and sacrificed their lives for their children. Some of these men refused to run to freedom when the opportunity presented itself because it would have meant leaving their children in slavery. There were enslaved men who bought their freedom as well as the freedom of their wives and children. The story of the Estes and Stark families who left Missouri and moved to British Columbia (BC) via California in 1860 is a case in point.

Howard Estes was an enslaved African from Missouri who was “owned” by Tom Estes while his wife and children were owned by Charles Leopold. Howard made an arrangement with his “owner” to buy his freedom but after the owner received the money he reneged on the promised freedom. Howard Estes who at that time was mining gold in California refused to return to slavery and instead continued to work and sent money to the “owner” of his wife and children to buy their freedom. Tom Estes took Charles Leopold to court claiming that any money Leopold received from Howard Estes as payment for his family’s freedom rightfully belonged to him (Tom Estes) since he “owned” Howard Estes. Leopold kept the money and unlike Tom Estes gave Hannah Estes and her children to Howard Estes since he had bought their freedom. The Estes family moved to California but because of vicious racial persecution eventually moved to BC. The African American community of California had received a letter of invitation from then governor of Vancouver Island James Douglas (born in British Guiana to an enslaved African mother and Scottish father.) Several African American families moved from California to BC including Sylvia Estes Stark (Howard Estes’ daughter) and her husband Louis Stark who are considered pioneers and significant historical figures in BC.

As we honour fathers and father figures on Sunday, June 20 we need to remember the legacy of those who went before us and set the example as excellent role models. The Ashanti proverb: When you follow in the path of your father, you learn to walk like him is an apt reminder. Today we read about African men who in spite of the odds; having to deal with racial profiling, the racialization of poverty, lack of job opportunities etc., continue to make sacrifices as they lovingly guide and nurture their children’s physical, spiritual and emotional growth as they also contribute to their community. The lives of these men are documented in books like Be A Father to Your Child edited by April R. Silver published 2008 which begins with the African proverb “We come here so we may learn to be better ancestors.” The best kept secret: single black fathers by Roberta L. Coles published in 2009 documents the struggles and triumphs of single African American men raising their children. Pop: A Celebration of Black Fatherhood by Carol Ross published in 2007 offers a fascinating look portrayed through photographs at a group of loving and nurturing African fathers interacting with their children.

Not all the wonderful dedicated African fathers are featured in books, some of them live here in Toronto and we see them regularly with their children and grandchildren. Some readily come to my mind as I read Sonia Sanchez’s poem I have looked into my father’s eyes and seen an African sunset. You may know some of these fathers: Sam Burke, Bonny Caesar, Glendale Caesar, Owen Sankara Leach, Ajamu Nangwaya, Norman Otis Richmond, Charles Roach and Owusu Young.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Drums and various drumbeats from around the world were heard at Queens Park on the first June weekend of 2010 as part of the celebration that helps to wake Toronto up in preparation for the summer. The drum is recognized as the oldest musical instrument and on Saturday June 5 and Sunday June 6, Queens Park in Toronto was transformed into a global village with the sound of drums from Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe. The people of Toronto owe this spectacular awakening to a group led by a man who has brought the drumbeat of the world to Toronto via Trinidad. The 11th Muhtadi International Drumming Festival is the brainchild of Trinidad born Muhtadi who is the founder and artistic director of the annual festival which “celebrates the drum, its universality as an art form and its presence in all cultures around the world.”

The image dominating the main stage of the Drumming Festival recognized Africa as the place from where the drum grows its roots (humans originated on the African continent) the drum grows then branches out to where people of various ethnicities and places are playing the drum. The drumbeat is the human way of imitating the heartbeat, remembering that our mother’s heartbeat is what we heard and felt for the first months of life while in the womb. Small children respond to the beat of a drum by moving to the rhythm because we never lose our response to the comforting sound of our mother’s heart beat. The beat of the drum has the ability to unite people of different cultures from around the world and Muhtadi has definitely tapped into this to make the drumming festival an awesome success for 11 years.

Academics and grassroots traditional healers across cultures have recognized and acknowledged the healing properties of music including drumbeats. Researching and acknowledging the healing properties that connect the heart and musical rhythms, in his 1997 published book The Heart's Code: Tapping the Wisdom and Power of Our Heart Energy, white American Psychologist Dr. Paul Pearsall, wrote:
“There is no more obvious evidence of connection between our heart and energy outside the body than our heart's response to musical rhythms. Our heart is the metronome of our body's biorhythm, and health happens when we are in rhythm within ourselves, synchronized with other living systems and moving to our preset beat rather than trying to respond to the driving beat of the stressful outside world. Healing, then, becomes the ability of our heart to improvise and develop its own new rhythms to the chaotic rhythms that continually emerge in our daily life."

African American author and member of the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy, American Folklore Society and the Herb Research Foundation Stephanie Rose Bird has written about the healing properties of the drumbeat in her 2010 published book: The Big Book of Soul: The Ultimate Guide to the African American Spirit Legend & Lore, Music & Mysticism, Recipes & Rituals.

Drumming has been an integral part of the lives of Africans from the continent and the Diaspora. Even the centuries of enslavement and colonization did not destroy our connection to the healing of the drumbeat and the rhythm of our ancestors. On Saturday June 5th at the Drumming Festival I watched as Ras Leon Saul, a man who was educated at Queens College, (a school that was once Guyana’s most prestigious colonial bastion of education) playing the djembe drum as if he was communicating with our ancestors. The powerful rhythms of the African drums played at ceremonies (kwe-kwe, kumfa, naming and transitioning) throughout Berbice may also have had much influence. I have to acknowledge some bias since Ras Leon and I both hail from Berbice, Guyana and acknowledge our connection to Kofi who led the Berbice Revolution in 1763 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KTHLBpN7SM).

Kofi was an Akan man born in Ghana a place from where many of the enslaved Africans in Guyana were taken. The djembe is the most popular of the African drums in the Diaspora probably because the majority of Diasporan Africans are descended from people who were taken out of West African countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Senegal and the Gambia. West African rhythms gave birth to Caribbean and North and South American rhythms and even dance steps. The so called Latin dances like the Cha-cha-cha, Bolero, Mambo, Samba etc all owe their existence to African rhythms. Although in many of the Latin American countries an African presence is not acknowledged, enslaved Africans worked and died throughout the region and their descendants continue to survive mostly on the fringes.

In the Caribbean countries where the descendants of enslaved Africans have fared a bit better than their counterparts in the Latin American countries the influence of their African ancestors has not been completely ignored. The African influence on calypso and reggae is acknowledged by most Caribbean people. In the USA the influence of Africa on popular contemporary American music is also acknowledged. Several books including children’s books tell of the history of African contribution to the music of America. To be a drum written by Evelyn Coleman illustrated by Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson and published in 1998 begins “Long before time, before hours and minutes and seconds, on the continent of Africa, the rhythm of the earth beat for the first people.” African American actor James Earl Jones reads the book here: http://www.storylineonline.net/ This children's book tells the story of how the Africans who were enslaved even after being prevented from playing the drum did not lose their ability to hear the drum and benifit from its healing properties.

Buy the book To be a drum, or borrow it from the library but share this beautiful and educational story of the African drum with the children in your life (your children, grandchildren, neighbours’ children, children in your community etc.,) Be a drum!

Thursday, June 3, 2010


In 1975 at the Lyceum Theatre in London, England, Bob Marley sang “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain” as part of the lyrics of the Bob Marley and the Wailers popular Trenchtown Rock. Like many African singers/songwriters Marley wrote and sang about his lived reality as an African living in a worldwide culture where Africans frequently find themselves the most marginalized. Music has been used by Africans to express their innermost feelings of joy and sorrow and music has also been used as therapy. June is Black Music Month and an ideal time for us to celebrate those talented people like Marley whose music we listen to when we need to be uplifted, to remind us how far we have come, what we have overcome and what more we need to overcome. June was first identified as Black Music Month in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter designated June as Black Music Month after being persuaded by Kenneth Gamble and Ed Wright who are the founders of the Black Music Association.

Making music was one of the few pleasures that enslaved Africans enjoyed, that helped them to retain some of the culture that was brutally torn from them by the white slave holders in their attempt to dehumanize the Africans. The spirituals that were used as a coded language by many enslaved Africans when planning their escape is a testament to the power of our music.

Music has sustained Africans dealing with myriad oppressions as expressed by the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 - 1906) in his poem Sympathy (published 1899)
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!

Our music has also been used as social commentary as evidenced by the songs sung by reggae artists, rappers, calypsonians and R&B singers. Some of the best examples of social commentary in reggae music are Bob Marley’s Crazy Baldheads and Rat Race. Tupac Shakur, considered a poetic genius, whose life and poetry has been documented in several books and has had university courses structured to study his poems wrote and performed some of the best known social commentary rap including Changes and Letter to the President. Dr Slinger Francisco (The Mighty Sparrow) considered the world’s best calypsonian and whose social commentary is legendary has verbalized in calypso lyrics the history of Africans in the Diaspora from slavery to the present day. Who can remain unaffected by Sparrow’s poignant lyrics of his 1963 release Slave (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRtBUjINgrE)? Sparrow also entertained and edutained with his social commentary on education “Dan is the man in the van,” Caribbean politics “Federation,” Trinidadian politics “William the Conqueror,” American politics “Martin Luther King for President” and “Barack the Magnificent.” Several African American R&B and Jazz singers have been social commentators including the Nina Simone with Mississippi Goddam, Four Women and Young, gifted and Black; Sam Cooke with A Change is gonna come; Edwin Starr with War, Stevie Wonder with Village Ghetto Land and Marvin Gaye with Make me wanna holler and What’s going on?

As we celebrate another Black Music Month it is important to remember that our music began on the African continent with the drums, the poets, the griots etc., before those sounds were transported on the slave ships with our enslaved ancestors. Since then we have been improvising and giving voice to our joys and sorrows in whatever language our enslavers and oppressors forced on us. Africans have revolutionized the music of the world. We in the Diaspora may not speak an African language but the music of our ancestors remain with us. The Sound That Jazz Makes published in 2000, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and beautifully illustrated by Eric Velasquez can be used to educate our children about the history of the music to which they listen today.

The Sound That Jazz Makes begins with: “This is Africa where rhythm abounds/and music springs from nature sounds,/played on a drum carved from a tree/that grew in a forest of ebony." The history of Africans and the music is traced from the continent through the centuries of slavery, emancipation and through to today’s most recent genre rap music. Each two page spread focuses on a musical genre that was created by African Americans: "This is the field where slaves turned the soil,/ and chanted of freedom while they toiled/ to pass the message, through secret codes,/ of stealing away on pitch-dark roads." Ragtime, blues, Dixieland, gospel, swing and be-bop all receive mention on the way to the triumphant conclusion: "Jazz is a downbeat born in our nation,/ chords of struggle and jubilation,/ bursting forth from hearts set free/ in notes that echo history." The book suitable for children as young as three years old that begins with an African drum beat ends with a rapper who still hears "-the age-old, far-off beat/of Africa drumming on every street." This is an excellent reminder of who we are regardless of where we were born or where we live. As Peter Tosh sang in his 1977 released African: “Don't care where you come from, As long as you're a black man you're an African. Don't mind your nationality, you have got the identity, of an African.” June is Black Music Month!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Black man, born free,
At least that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
The chains that bind him are hard to see,
Unless you take this walk with me;

The place where he lives, God, he gives them names
The Hood, The Projects, The Ghetto; they are one and the same;
And I call it Soulsville ah, yeah.

Any kind of job is hard to find,
That means an increase in the welfare line;
The crime rate is rising too, but
If you are hungry, what would you do?

The rent is two months past due, in a building that’s falling apart,
Little boy needs a new pair of shoes, and this is only a part of Soulsville.

From “Soulsville” by Isaac Hayes, released July 2, 1971 on the album Shaft

Isaac Hayes was born on August 20th 1942 in Covington, Tennessee. He transitioned to be with the ancestors on August 10th, 2008, ten days before his 66th birthday. Hayes was famous for a voice that made you think of stroking lush black velvet. The experience of listening to his second album Hot Buttered Soul released in July 12, 1969 with 12 minutes of “Walk on by” and 18 minutes of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” can only be surpassed by watching him perform. The man looks as good as he sounds, with signature dark glasses, sculpted body, clean shaven head and those lips! Hayes was also a song writer whose work brought other performers fame. He wrote the lyrics for several Sam and Dave hit recordings including, Soul Man; Hold On, I'm Coming; I Thank You and When Something Is Wrong With My Baby. His most famous work which garnered him an Oscar in 1972, was the theme from the movie Shaft. The Theme From Shaft also won two Grammys, a Golden Globe award and the NAACP Image Award. The Theme From Shaft was popular worldwide (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2cHkMwzOiM). Hayes won a third Grammy for his album "Black Moses." The music Hayes composed has been sampled by hip-hop, rap and R&B artists. Since 1990, he has been sampled over 140 times by artists such as Destiny’s Child, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, TLC and Tupac.

Hayes proved to be much more than an entertainer with a gorgeous face and body. He was also a civil rights activist who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. just before Dr. King was assassinated and was scheduled to meet with him the day he died. Like many African Americans, Hayes was traumatized by Dr. King’s assassination. In an interview with Rob Bowman author of Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story Of Stax Records he said: "It affected me for a whole year, I could not create properly. I was so bitter and so angry. I thought, What can I do? Well, I can't do a thing about it so let me become successful and powerful enough where I can have a voice to make a difference. So I went back to work and started writing again."

Hayes’s life changed significantly when he and Dionne Warwick accepted an invitation from the Cultural Minister of Ghana to visit the Cape Coast and Elmina slave castles. In 1992, walking through the dungeons, listening to the horrifying stories told by the guide, like many Africans in the Diaspora who visit these places, Hayes was reduced to tears. In an interview he told a journalist; "It was almost like I heard the voices of my ancestors saying, 'We've come back home through you. The circle is complete. Now, you know what you must do'." Returning to America, the entertainer/civil rights activist made use of his celebrity status as he embarked on a mission to raise awareness in the African-American community of the need to build schools, conquer illiteracy and support the economic development of African nations. He spoke to African-American community groups and Black expos around the country. He encouraged everyone he met to visit Africa, to interact with the people, or to at least support economic development of African countries.

One speaking engagement in Queens, New York, was attended by princess Naa Asie Ocansey of the Ada Traditional area in Ghana. Impressed with Hayes’s passion and commitment to working for the development of African countries, Naa Asie contacted her father, Nene Kubi III, Dzasetse (King Maker) of the Ada Traditional area and made arrangements for Hayes’s enstoolment (coronation.) The coronation rituals were conducted in late December 1992. The coronation was attended by the group Public Enemy who performed at concerts with Hayes at Cape Coast Castle and in Accra, Ghana's capital city.

Hayes was given the royal name: Nene Katey Ocansey I. "Nene means king in the Ga Dialect," he explained. "Katey means brave warrior who can calm the wild beast in the elements. Ocansey is a family name, the most powerful of the ten clans in my region, Ada, which means I do as I say!" He was appointed King For Development over the region and given land on which to build a palace. Hayes did not build a palace; instead he built an 8,000 square foot school “NekoTech” which opened in 2000 and is designed to link children in Africa with those in American inner cities via the Internet.

Not one to rest on his laurels, he also created the Isaac Hayes Foundation, whose global mission is to “help people become whole by advancing the causes of literacy, music education, nutritional programs and organizing programs that raise self-esteem among the underprivileged.” Hayes visited the World Literacy Crusade's Compton Literacy Project in 1994 where he heard the life-changing stories from youth and adults using the Applied Scholastics Study Technology there. World Literacy Crusade is a grassroots literacy movement formed in 1992 by the Reverend Alfreddie Johnson Jr., the pastor of True Faith Christian Church, (a Baptist congregation in Compton, California) community leaders, ministers, parents, youth and educators concerned about the growing rate of illiteracy and related social ills in their communities. In addition to helping youth and adults struggling with illiteracy, through an affiliated organization American Health and Education Clinics, World Literacy Crusade also helps people with criminal records and those addicted to drugs to reform and reclaim their lives. Hayes became the International Spokesperson for the World Literacy Crusade. He worked tirelessly to help expand the community programs in several countries, making media appearances, regularly hosting events and speaking at conferences to raise awareness and funding for the World Literacy Crusade.

We have lost a griot, “A mighty tree has fallen.” Isaac Hayes will be missed and many will feel as the man himself sang, that they “Never can say goodbye.”

This tribute to Issac Hayes the original Soul Man was written in August 2008