Monday, April 25, 2011



Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Saturday, Easter Sunday, Easter Monday are all part of Holy Week and the most sacred time of the Christian calendar. Where does the Easter Bunny, chocolate eggs and fluffy yellow chickens come into this holy week? I will get to that.

Before 325 AD, Easter was celebrated on the Sunday immediately following the first full moon after the vernal (spring) equinox. Beginning in 325 A.D. with the Council of Nicaea, the Western Church decided to establish a more standardized system for determining the date of Easter. As astronomers were able to approximate the dates of all the full moons in future years, the Western Christian Church used these calculations to establish a table of Ecclesiastical Full Moon dates. These dates would determine the Holy Days on the Ecclesiastical calendar. The First Council of Nicaea was a council of Christian bishops convened in Nicaea in Bithynia (present-day İznik in Turkey) by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in A.D. 325. The Council was the first effort to attain consensus in the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom.

Though modified slightly from its original form, by 1583 A.D. the table for determining the Ecclesiastical Full Moon dates was permanently established and has been used ever since to determine the date of Easter. Thus, according to the Ecclesiastical tables, the Paschal Full Moon is the first Ecclesiastical Full Moon date after March 20 (which happened to be the vernal equinox date in 325 A.D.). So, in Western Christianity, Easter is always celebrated on the Sunday immediately following the Paschal Full Moon. The Paschal Full Moon can vary as much as two days from the date of the actual full moon, with dates ranging from March 21 to April 18. As a result, Easter dates can range from March 22 through April 25 in Western Christianity. There is also an Eastern Christian Church whose members celebrate Easter using a different calendar resulting in different dates for their Holy Week.

All that aside, Easter is supposed to recognize/commemorate the crucifying of (Jesus of Nazareth) Christ and his resurrection 3 days later. According to the Christian Holy book, the Bible, Jesus was crucified by the Roman state, the government of the Roman Empire. Death by crucifixion was reserved for those convicted of treasonous acts against the state. The crucifixion reportedly took place in Jerusalem on April 7, 30 CE or April 3, 33 CE. It is recorded in all four gospels of the New Testament: Mark 15:22-32; Matthew 27:33-44; Luke 23:33-43; and John 19:17-30. The execution was ordered by the Roman government of Judea represented by Pontius Pilate (possibly the Governor) on the charge of sedition (treason) against the Roman Empire during the rule of the Roman emperor, Tiberius Caesar Augustus.

This information comes from the New Testament of the Bible from the books Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Even though Mary Magdalene was one of the earliest and most devoted followers of Jesus, was among the few who saw him die on the cross and was the first person to see him alive after his resurrection there are no books with her name. Not even one, the books are all male. The women really get short shrift here even though according to the New Testament books five women arrived at Jesus’ tomb before any of his male followers. These women did all the work of spreading the news and Jesus appeared to them before he did so to any of his male followers.
The reported sequence of events three days after the crucifixion: 1. Five women arrive at the tomb 2. They see the stone is moved 3. They go inside and see that Jesus' body is not there 4. The angels talk to them 5. They split into two groups to tell the disciples 6. Mary Magdalene runs to tell Peter and John 7. Peter and John run to the tomb 8. Mary Magdalene follows them to the tomb 9. They go into the tomb 10. They see and believe the tomb is empty (but not that Jesus rose) 11. Peter and John go to Bethany 12. Mary Magdalene weeps at the tomb 13. The angels talk to her again 14. Jesus appears to her 15. She sets out to Bethany to tell the disciples she saw Jesus 16. Meanwhile, Jesus appears to the other four women 17. They arrive in Bethany and tell the disciples they saw Jesus 18. The disciples do not believe the women 19 Mary Magdalene arrives in Bethany and tells them she saw Jesus 20. They do not believe her either. Somewhere along the line they were convinced because Easter is a time that is honoured by nearly all of contemporary Christianity and is used to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.

With all that; how did it come to now when Easter is a holiday that often involves a church service at sunrise, a feast which includes an "Easter Ham", decorated eggs and stories about rabbits? From celebrating the day when Jesus arose from the dead to decorated eggs, chocolate eggs, rabbits, cross buns and ham we have to go back a bit to the goddesses Ishtar, Eastre, Eoestre, Oestre and Ostara. Or are they the same goddess with many names?

Ishtar was the goddess of romance, procreation and war in ancient Babylon while a similar Saxon goddess was known Oestre or Eastre and in Germany there was Ostara. Since these were fertility goddesses naturally there would be some eggs involved there. Eoestre is also considered the origin of the word estrogen the female hormone. Her symbol is a rabbit, which has a connection to the modern-day Easter bunny. The pagans worshipped the goddess Eostre by serving tiny cakes, often decorated with a cross at their annual spring festival.

The history of Easter as we know it today seems to be a mix of the Christian faith and some related practices of the early pagan religions. Easter history and traditions that we practice today evolved from pagan symbols, from the ancient goddesses to Easter eggs, the Easter bunny and hot cross buns.

Easter, the most important of the Christian holidays, celebrates Christ's resurrection from the dead following his death on Good Friday and a rebirth that is commemorated around the vernal equinox, historically a time of pagan celebration that coincides with the arrival of spring and symbolizes the arrival of light and the awakening of life around us.
The Easter of bunny rabbits and eggs is named for the Babylonian goddess Ishtar and/or the Saxon goddess also known by the names of Oestre or Eastre and in Germany by the name of Ostara. She was also a goddess of the dawn and the spring and words for dawn, the shining light arising from the east are also derivatives of her name.

Ostara was, of course, a fertility goddess. Bringing in the end of winter, with the days brighter and growing longer after the vernal equinox, Ostara had a passion for new life. Her presence was felt in the flowering of plants and the birth of babies, both animal and human. The rabbit was supposedly her sacred animal. Given their ability to produce up to 42 offspring each spring, it is not surprising that rabbits are a symbol of fertility.

Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny featured in the spring festivals of Ostara, which were also held during the feasts of the goddess Ishtar. Eggs are an obvious symbol of fertility, and the newborn chicks an adorable representation of new growth. Brightly colored eggs, chicks and bunnies were all used at festival time to express appreciation for Ostara's gift of abundance. The history of Easter Eggs as a symbol of new life should come as no surprise.

In ancient times in Northern Europe, eggs were a potent symbol of fertility and often used in rituals to guarantee a woman's ability to bear children. Rural "grannywomen" (lay midwives/healers in the Appalachian mountains) still use eggs to predict, with uncanny accuracy, the gender of an unborn child by watching the rotation of an egg as it is suspended by a string over the abdomen of a pregnant woman. Dyed eggs are given as gifts in many cultures. Decorated eggs bring with them a wish for prosperity and abundance during the coming year.

In anticipation that the arrival of spring with its emerging plants and wildlife would provide them with fresh food in abundance, it was customary for many pagans to begin fasting at the time of the vernal equinox, clearing the "poisons" (and excess weight) produced by the heavier winter meals that had been stored in their bodies over the winter. This practice of fasting might very well have been a forerunner of "giving up" foods during the Lenten season.

Easter eggs, the Easter Bunny, the dawn that arrives with resurrection of life, and the celebration of spring all serve to remind us of the cycle of rebirth and the need for renewal in our lives. In the history of Easter, Christian and pagan traditions are gracefully interwoven. The role and symbolism of the female during Easter is not widely advertised but it is very much a part of the history. Have a happy Easter!


Granville T. Woods was born in Columbus, Ohio on April 23, 1856 and lived in New York from 1890 until he transitioned on January 30, 1910. In the 2003 published book Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, & Shelby J. Davidson cultural historian of technology Dr. Rayvon D. Fouché describes Woods as the most prolific African American inventor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An apt description since Woods is credited with more than 60 inventions in 30 years. He received his first patent in 1884 and over the next two decades was granted patents for approximately 60 inventions. In spite of the white supremacist culture of the USA which prevented him from accessing much formal education after age 10, Woods contributed to the technological advance of American and global societies.

Forced to leave school and enter the work force at age 10, Woods worked as an apprentice for a machine shop repairing railroad equipment and machinery. In 1872 he left the machine shop in Ohio to work at the St Louis Iron Mountain and Southern Railway in Missouri, where he worked as a fireman and later as railroad engineer. A fireman working on the railroad at that time was responsible for shovelling coal into the train engine’s boiler while the engineer was responsible for the operation of the train. In 1874, Woods moved to Springfield, Illinois, to work in a steel rolling mill, an industrial plant for the manufacture of steel.

In 1876 because of his years of on-the-job training and independent study of mechanics and electricity Woods qualified to take courses in mechanical and electrical engineering at an eastern college. He left school in 1878 and signed on as an engineer aboard a British steamer, the Ironsides, where he worked for two years. In 1880 he returned to the United States to work as a steam locomotive engineer for the Danville and Southern Railroad in Cincinnati, Ohio.

On June 3, 1884 Woods registered his first patent (U.S. 299,894) for a Steam Boiler Furnace. Six months later on December 2, 1884 he registered his second patent (U.S. 308,876) for a Telephone Transmitter followed just 4 months after that (April 7, 1885) with a patent (U.S. 315,368) for an Apparatus for Transmission of Messages by Electricity. In 1884 Woods and his brother Lyates, established the Woods Electric Company in Cincinnati to produce and market his inventions. Over the next 5 years (1890) Woods patented 14 more of his inventions.

On August 4, 1890 when he moved to New York City, Woods was already an accomplished inventor who had invented several devices that dramatically improved railway communication. He believed that New York’s horse drawn streetcars and the coal powered steam engines running on New York’s railroads and elevated transit lines could be replaced with clean, safe, electric traction. On Saturday February 13th 1892 Woods’ Multiple Distributing Station System was tested by the American Engineering Company and demonstrated to the public at Coney Island, Brooklyn. Information from the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association about the Coney Island demonstration states: The demonstration amazed the crowd and made a very favorable impression with the electrical experts and surface railway magnates of that period. This system allowed for the wireless transmission of electric power, utilizing principles of electro magnetic induction instead of overhead wires, a 3rd rail or any physical contact point.

Woods could not benefit from this amazing invention because James S. Zerbe of the American Engineering Company went to extraordinary lengths including cheating and lying in an attempt to steal Woods’ patented invention. Woods did not fade quietly into the night. Fighting back in the media and the courts, Woods was even jailed for a few days (March 1892) during the heated battle to protect his invention against the crooks at the American Engineering Company. Woods’ many years battle with the American Engineering Company and others who tried to steal his inventions is documented in the 2003 published book Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, & Shelby J. Davidson

Twice Woods successfully defended his right to his inventions against the white inventor Thomas Edison. The Edison Company then offered Woods a job, offered to buy his company and even offered him a partnership. Woods declined each offer preferring to remain independent. His independence cost him dearly since he did not make enough money to manufacture his inventions and was constantly fighting attempts to steal his inventions. He was forced to sell some of his inventions to large white owned companies like the American Bell Telephone Company, General Electric and the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. As an independent African American inventor, Woods spent the last years of his life in virtual poverty as he battled in court for control of his inventions.

In Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, & Shelby J. Davidson Fouché writes of Woods: He was an exception among black inventors of this period in that inventing was his career. Woods’s life, however, was not that of a triumphant and heroic inventor. He spent the majority of his adult life marginalized as an inventor, desperately struggling to secure funding and gain a respectable reputation for his work. For Woods patents did not produce economic rewards; they only represented unfulfilled dreams. Woods life - at times closer to a nightmare than the American dream – clearly illustrates the harsh realities of being a black inventor at the end of the nineteenth century.

After suffering a cerebral haemorrhage Woods transitioned on January 30, 1910 and buried at Saint Michaels Cemetery, East Elmhurst, Queens County, New York. In 1969 Elementary Public School No. 335 in Brooklyn, New York (Granville T. Woods Public School 335) was dedicated to honour Woods. On October 11, 1974 Governor John J. Gilligan of Ohio issued a proclamation recognizing Woods’ achievements in science and as an inventor.


I’ve often heard it said and sung
That life is sweetest when you’re young
And kids, sixteen to twenty-one
Think they're having all the fun
I disagree, I say it isn't so
And I'm one gal who ought to know
I started young and I'm still going strong
But I've learned as I've gone along

That life begins at forty
Yes, life begins at forty
And I've just begun to live all over again
Life begins at forty
And I'm just living all over again

Excerpt from Life Begins at 40, released in 1947, sung by Sophia Tucker.

The results from a recent (March 2011) British survey which concluded that women are “old” at 29 sent me on a path to find the lyrics of the song “Life Begins at 40” and the origin of the phrase. I found some interesting people and even more interesting quotes. I had to search far and wide to find the lyrics since I had never heard the song. Not surprising since the song was popular when my parents were children. Life Begins at 40 was a popular 1940s song, sung by Sophia Tucker who was born Sophia Kalish on January 13, 1884 in Russia but grew up in the USA. For several years Tucker played piano and sang burlesque and vaudeville tunes in blackface, performing African American songs. She hired some of the best African American singers of the time to give her lessons and hired African American composers to write songs for her act.

The title of the song supposedly came from the self-help book Life Begins at Forty published in 1932 by psychologist Walter Pitkin who reportedly wrote: “Life begins at forty. This is the revolutionary outcome of our New Era. Today it is half a truth. Tomorrow it will be an axiom.” Pitkin may have been the first person to write those famous words that are now being challenged by the results of the new British survey about when women become “old.” However, with further searching I found that someone else is credited with having the same idea since the 19th century. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (February 22, 1788 - September 21, 1860) is credited with this quote: "The first forty years of life give us the text: the next thirty supply the commentary." That idea is very close to the whole thinking around “Life Begins at 40.” It is a bit surprising that Americans embraced Schopenhauer’s idea since he also is credited with the quote: “The fruits of Christianity were religious wars, butcheries, crusades, inquisitions, extermination of the natives of America and the introduction of African slaves in their place.”

Anyway, back to the idea, book and song of Life Begins At Forty which America embraced in the 1930s including a March 1935, Fox Film Corporation released movie Life Begins At Forty. When did all that change to women becoming old at 29? It was not a sudden change the signs have been there for a while, at least since the turn of this century. In an article published in the British newspaper The Telegraph on December 20, 2000 there was a hint that all was not well with the idea of life beginning at 40. The article informed that a study by Professor Keith Wesnes, from Cognitive Drug Research Ltd discovered that people aged between 40 and 50 were 15 per cent slower at completing simple computerised tasks than those in their twenties. Now as far as I am concerned this could very well have been because the 40 to 50 year old people the good professor studied had less familiarity with the computer than people in their 20s. However, this quote from the article caused me some alarm: “A study of 2,282 people aged 18 to 87 found that hitting 40 was synonymous with forgetfulness, lack of concentration and poor focus. While general intelligence appeared to remain stable over time, psychologists concluded that everyday mental skills, such as remembering a telephone number or a person's name, showed a marked decline from the age of 40 onwards.”

The cause for my alarm is the fact that all of us who were born in the 1950s (1950 - 1959) are now in our 50s. Does this mean that I have to write my phone number on my arm everyday before I leave home? Do I now need to carry labelled photographs of my relatives and friends in my wallet so I remember their names? However by the time I read through the article I was less alarmed because there is hope. The article ended with this glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel of despair into which I had stumbled: A recent study found that the memory of people aged between 40 and 65 improved by 7.5 per cent after taking supplements containing ginkgo and ginseng.

I was thinking that I had to go hunting for ginkgo and ginseng supplements to avoid the harm of inking my arm with telephone numbers daily and fetching around labeled photographs of my relatives and friends. Just then I came across another article published in the British newspaper The Telegraph on November 17, 2000 which really lifted my spirits and put all my anxieties about aging to rest. Professor Richard Scase of Kent University and Professor Jonathan Scales of Essex University co-authored the report Fit and Fifty based on their study of 10,000 adults and concluded that Britons in their 50s are enjoying the happiest times of their lives. Now I had to decide which report to believe.

My decision is to ignore all the reports including the one that concludes that women are old at 29. When I was 29 I was definitely not old, I thought I was invincible. When I was a teenager I did not read or hear that I was supposed to be rebellious so I was not. The popular culture of North America urges teenagers to be rebellious (or at least disrespectful) through the sit-coms, movies and other medium. In my youth there were no television programs that mis-educated us about how we should behave so we were individuals. In the same manner the various reports that attempt to mis-educate us on how we should feel about aging or anything else about our feelings probably provide a good income for some people. We as individuals with minds of our own should make decisions about our lives without depending on pop-culture to do so.

Monday, April 11, 2011


What’s in a name? As a child growing up in the English speaking South American country Guyana we were required to have Christian names and surnames. As an adult living in the English and French speaking North American country Canada most of us have first and last names. The ethnicity of the vast majority of people in this country can be identified by their names, at least by their last names. Those of us who are the descendants of enslaved Africans cannot be identified in that manner. We bear the names of the Europeans who enslaved our ancestors unless as adults we have chosen African names. Some of our children and grandchildren have African first names that we chose as we became more aware of the importance of naming ourselves, expressing our kujichagulia (self-determination.) However, after centuries of bearing the European names that were forced on our ancestors, those names now identify who we are.

I came to this realization about a month ago when I “found” a relative in Toronto. I had attended an event to support one of my circle of sistren who was about to undergo major surgery. During the time of sharing stories one sistren who I had met at various events in the community but never knew her last name mentioned that her brother was working as an engineer in southern African countries including Botswana. I had always wanted to visit Botswana since Sir Seretse Khama visited Guyana many years ago during my youth. I was engrossed in listening to the sistren speak about her brother’s adventures when she mentioned that he had attended Queens College during his secondary school education. At that point I realised that like me, the sistren was Guyanese. Naturally I asked her where she was born and was greatly surprised when she replied that she was born at Rose Hall on the Courentyne. I shared that my father was born in Fyrish village on the Courentyne and she mentioned that was her father’s birthplace also. I knew that the likelihood of our being relatives increased by the minute if her father was born in the same small village as my father. The fact that we are related became evident when I asked her father’s last name and heard one of the names that I have been told since childhood proves blood relationship. The mere mention of the names Farley, Jonas, Liverpool and Paddy from the villages Courtland, Fyrish and Gibraltar on the Courentyne Coast of Guyana means I have found a blood relative. It may be a first cousin or a twenty third cousin twice removed but that is my relative. I exchanged contact information with my new found relative and we have been in contact since.

How often can this happen in one month? With me it seems more than once. On Sunday, April 10, I attended an information gathering excursion with a sistren who I have known for a few years. At the end of the event I overheard a conversation in which one person had a very distinctive Guyanese accent. I find that I cannot pass up an opportunity to connect with fellow Guyanese so I introduced myself (after a lull in the conversation) and asked the good gentleman if he was Guyanese. I have sometimes mistaken a Trinidadian accent for Guyanese (comes from spending decades living outside of Guyana.) Not only is the man Guyanese but we are related and I found another relative with the same last name as my relative of a few weeks ago and I am now thinking I should advertise in the local Caribbean newspaper and plan a family reunion.

What’s in a name? Sometimes it can be a connection with relatives you never knew you had. My next generation all have African names but I will ensure that they know the names of their relatives from Guyana and elsewhere who still bear the European names that were foisted on their ancestors. We lost contact with countless relations during the centuries of enslavement because our names were taken away from us. What’s in a name? Survival.



Sammy plant piece a corn dung a gully
And it bear till it kill poor Sammy
Sammy dead Sammy dead Sammy dead O!
Sammy dead Sammy dead Sammy dead O!
Annuh teef Sammy teef mek dem kill him
Annuh lie Sammy lie mek dem kill him
But ah grudgeful mek, ah grudgeful mek dem kill him
Ah grudgeful mek, a grudgeful mek dem kill him
Who seh Sammy dead, E nah dead Oh!

This Jamaican folk song was one of several sung by Letna Allen at the wake held for Elder Dudley Zacharias Laws on Friday, April 1, at the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA) Centre. “Miss Letna” as she was introduced by Kwabena Yafeu, a member of the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC) entered the hall dancing and singing in the Kumina tradition. Dressed in white with madras fabric tied around her waist and a glass of white rum balanced on her head with which she eventually blessed the gathering, Miss Letna’s enthusiasm soon encouraged a group of willing participants to accompany her in singing traditional “wake” songs. Accompanied by drummers playing African drums, after a change of skirt with the colours of the Jamaican flag, Miss Letna set up a table with bread, white rum, lime and salt for a feel of an authentic Kumina ceremony. Many of us joined her in a dance around the table to the infectious rhythms of the drumming and singing. There is documented research that the Kumina ceremony has strong links to the Congo. Interestingly enough the style of dancing around the table is popularly known as dancing in a “conga line”

The songs were sung in the Jamaican language (e.g., Sammy Dead, Bam bam, Mi Pupa dead and gone, Go dung a Manuel Road, Me no want no Milo) and are called “baila” songs, not considered as sacred as the “country” songs. An explanation of Kumina songs written by Dr. Olive Lewin in Rock it Come over: the Folk Music of Jamaica: With Special Reference to Kumina and the Work of Mrs Imogene "Queenie” Kennedy published in 2000, states: “Two types of songs are used at Kumina ceremonies: country songs and baila songs. Country songs are used for the more sacred sections of the rituals where communication with the spirits is sought and achieved and are primarily for attracting, entertaining and appeasing the spirits. They are linked to the ancestral homeland through their language texts. Scholars of Kongo have verified that the African language used in Kumina is Kongo/Kikongo based.”

The history of the indentured labourers to Jamaica from the Congo and their contribution to the Jamaican culture is documented in several books including “Alas, alas, Kongo”: A social history of indentured African Immigration into Jamaica, 1841-1865 written by Monica Schuler, published in 1980 and Jamaica and Voluntary Laborers from Africa, 1840-1865 written by Mary Elizabeth Thomas, published in 1974. An article published in the Jamaica Journal Volume 10 Number 1 in 1976 states: “Kumina is the most African of the [cultural expressions] to be found in Jamaica, with negligible European or Christian influence. Linguistics evidence cites the Kongo as a specific ethnic source for the ‘language’ and possibly the music of kumina. [Kumina] is to be found primarily in St Thomas and Portland and to a lesser extent in St Mary, St Catherine and Kingston. Kumina ceremonies are usually associated with wakes, entombments or memorial services but can be performed for a whole range of human experiences (births, thanksgiving, invocations for good [or] evil).”

The Kumina style of bidding farewell to members of the community who have transitioned is similar to ceremonies in other areas of the African Diaspora and on the continent. The songs Miss Letna sang were very similar to songs sung at wakes in Guyana. One of the popular “wake songs” in Guyana is “Me na dead yet, bam bam, me na dead yet” which is very similar to one of the songs Miss Letna sang at Brother Dudley’s wake. The joyous send off seen in the singing and dancing parades at funerals in some New Orleans African American communities is similar to the wake Miss Letna conducted at the JCA Centre. In Rock it Come over: the Folk Music of Jamaica: With Special Reference to Kumina and the Work of Mrs Imogene "Queenie” Kennedy Dr. Olive Lewin explains: The difference of status in people gathered for a Kumina meeting is quite clear. Participants gathered at Kumina events are, in order of importance: Queen/Leader, drummers and percussionists, singers and dancers, members of other Kumina bands, guests and the general public. Miss Letna was definitely the Queen/Leader because on Friday night when she commanded “rest” we rested. The command to “rest” is similar to “bateau” in a Guyanese wake night singing.

I interviewed Ms Letna on Tuesday, April 5 for Tuesday Word of Mouth at CKLN 88.1 FM in Toronto about the Kumina tradition which is unique to Jamaica. We also spoke about the similarities to other African Diaspora traditions like Kumfa in Guyana and our connections through common ancestors from the African continent. On Sunday, April 10, I interviewed Afua Asantewaa for Frequency Feminisms at CKLN 88.1 FM in Toronto about her experiences living four years in a shrine of traditional African religion in Ghana. We chatted about the similarities with African Diaspora traditions like Kumina and Kumfa. Afua Asantewa explained that in Ghana a funeral is a time of rejoicing because the transitioning of someone is seen as a celebration of that person’s life. The thought being that the dear departed was here for a while to do some work and their transitioning is not a time to mourn but to celebrate that they were here with us and have now returned to whence they came. Afua Asantewaa’s article on funerals in Ghana can be read at

An African Jamaican style wake for Elder Brother Dudley Laws, a Pan-African freedom fighter was a testament to the life he lived. On Saturday, April 2, the community honoured our hero and bid him kwaheri (goodbye) with spectacular drumming, singing, dancing and tributes befitting a leader, a warrior and a man of honour. Dudley Laws was a man whose name will live forever like his hero the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey. The annual Dudley Laws Day for 2011 is planned for May 1.

Monday, April 4, 2011


The Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 43 years ago on April 4, 1968. He was in Memphis, Tennessee supporting a group of sanitation workers who were on strike. In light of the erosion of workers rights by government officials like Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and others of his ilk it is not surprising that labour organizations in the USA are remembering King on April 4, 2011.

On April 4, 1967 one year before King was assassinated he delivered a speech at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City. In the speech entitled: Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, King voiced his reasons for speaking out against the Vietnam War. He spoke of the importance of recognizing that: "A time comes when silence is betrayal."

King’s words spoken more than four decades ago are still pertinent: These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light." We in the West must support these revolutions. It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries.

He could be speaking about the recent events in the Middle East and North Africa. His entire speech can be read at:
Today, April 4, 2011 how much or how little have the lives of racialized people especially African Americans changed? Even with an African American President, the USA remains a country where; according to a December 2007 study of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), "Race and Ethnicity in America," as of 2006, the incarcerated population of the U.S.A was 46 percent white, 41 percent African American and about one out of every six African-American males had experienced imprisonment. There is overwhelming evidence that the overrepresentation of African Americans in prisons is mostly because of a racist criminal justice system. According to the 2007 ACLU study, African Americans were 11 percent of Texas’ population, but 40 percent of the state’s prison population. African Americans in Texas are incarcerated at roughly five times the rate of whites. In spite of the fact that African Americans represent less than 10 percent of drug abusers, in Texas 50 percent of all prisoners incarcerated in state prisons and two-thirds of all those in jails for "drug delivery offenses" are African Americans.

On Tuesday, February 22, I interviewed Doris Elaine Smarr author of Tyranny in America: the new African American holocaust (published 2010) for the radio program Tuesday Word of Mouth at CKLN 88.1 FM in Toronto. Ms Smarr spoke very passionately of the miscarriage of justice that victimizes African Americans as they are “betrayed by law enforcement, the federal prosecutors and judges.” She spoke of large numbers of African Americans whose lives were destroyed in the billion dollar prison industry.

I also interviewed Dr. Umar R. Abdullah-Johnson a school Psychologist who has written an article entitled: Psycho-Slavery: Black Boys, White Female Teachers & The Rise of A.D.H.D. To quote Dr. Abdullah-Johnson: It has become a travesty of epic proportions; Black boys are being sent in record numbers to the psychiatrist for mind-altering medications that come with a plethora of side effects. At the heart of the issue are allegations by classrooms teachers, many of them poorly trained at managing trivial off-task behaviors in the classroom, who assert that these African-American boys exude a level of inattention, hyperactivity and/or disruptive behavior that significantly interferes with their ability to learn. In many instances, an occurrence which increases with the decrease in the boy's socioeconomic status, 50% of the Black male student population in many classrooms are being sent to the psychiatrist for medication. Even by the most liberal of estimates, psychopathology should be limited to 15-20% of a given population.

As I chatted with Dr. Abdullah-Johnson about his observation of the mis-diagnosing of African American boys, I realised there was some similarity with the pseudo scientific diagnosing of enslaved Africans who were said to suffer from the mental disorder drapetomania. White men diagnosed enslaved Africans in America with this malady if they (enslaved Africans) did not understand that their natural state in life was to be a slave to white people. Any enslaved African who tried to escape slavery was thought to be suffering from the mental illness of drapetomania. The diagnosis of drapetomania was the brainchild of "psychiatrist" Samuel Cartwright. He also diagnosed those enslaved Africans who refused to work enthusiastically and happily to enrich their white owners, as suffering from dysaethesia aethiopica. Of course the good Dr. Cartwright thought that all formerly enslaved Africans who had managed to gain their freedom suffered from dysaethesia aethiopica.

Not much has changed since 1967 when King gave his speech Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. Racism, white supremacy is rife, in some ways different from the 1960s, like a many headed monster, it grows a new head each time one head is chopped off. The Tea Party Movement has replaced or is an extension of the Ku Klux Klan. African Americans are overrepresented in jails even though it costs more to imprison someone that to educate them at the post-secondary level. The reality for many African Americans, similar to the days of Jim Crow, is living in a state of hypervigilance. Dr. John Rich has documented this reality in his 2009 published book Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Trauma and Violence in the Lives of Young Black Men. While there are some African Americans who are paid large sums of money to entertain, many, many more live in dire poverty at the mercy of a white supremacist culture. Even the entertainers who sometimes seem as though they are the chosen ones are forced to live in a state of hypervigilance because the money they make does not protect them from racism. Today, April 4, 2011, forty-three years after the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a white supremacist culture, Bob Marley’s question “How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look?” is still not answered because not all our prophets who have been killed were physically assassinated, some have had their physical health affected to the point where they cannot survive while others have suffered character assassination.



Chance has never yet satisfied the hope of a suffering people; action, self reliance, the vision of self, and the future has been the only means by which the oppressed has seen and realized the hope of their own freedom.
From The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, Or, Africa for the Africans (published 1986)

This Garvey quote was a favourite of Pan-African, anti-racist activist Dudley Laws who transitioned to be with the ancestors on Thursday, March 24. Laws was a great admirer of the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey and often quoted Garvey. Like Garvey, Laws was born in Jamaica, lived in England and North America and was a tireless advocate for equity in the education system, health-care system, justice system, labour movement, housing etc., In 1972, a few years after moving to Toronto from England (1965), Laws became the President of the Universal African Improvement Association (UAIA) which was located at 355 College Street. In 1938 Garvey established the School of African Philosophy at 355 College Street, a site the organization had owned since 1919 according to the documented history of the Kensington area. The 8th International Convention of UAIA was held at their 355 College Street property from August 1 to 17, 1838. Laws would have been a four year old child living in Jamaica at that time. However like his hero Garvey, Laws was a freedom fighter and the founder of organizations that advocated for the civil rights of Africans from which other racialized and marginalized people benefited.

While living in England (1955-1965) Laws co-founded the Brixton Neighbourhood Association (the Executive Director was Mr. Courtney Laws) and the Standing Conference of the West Indies. These groups were necessary to combat the rabid racism to which Africans were subjected in Britain. Most of the Africans in Britain at that time were British subjects, citizens of countries colonized by Britain. The violent, white supremacist Teddy Boys were only part of the problems that many Africans who immigrated to Britain the “mother country” faced. They also faced systemic racism in the workplace, transportation system, health-care, housing etc., Dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson has written and performed several pieces (,, about that reality.

In Toronto Laws co-founded the Black Youth Community Action Project (BYCAP), Black Inmates & Friends Assembly (BIFA) and the Black Action Defence Committee. The organization with which he was most familiarly associated is the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC), which he co-founded in 1988 (with Charles Roach, Sherona Hall and Lennox Farrell), after several African Canadian men had been killed by Toronto police. Laws served as its executive director until 2011.

Like his hero Garvey, Laws was persecuted by the authorities. Garvey had been under constant surveillance by the FBI because of his uncompromising stance that his people deserved to be treated as human beings, the equal of the white people who wielded power in every area. Garvey was the victim of FBI sabotaging of his work which eventually led to imprisonment and deportation from the USA. While the American government agency was successful in framing Garvey and obtaining a wrongful conviction, the Canadians did not enjoy the same success with Laws. Following the spate of police killing of African Canadian men Laws referred to them as "the most brutal and murderous in North America." In May, 1991 the Metro Toronto Police Association launched a multi-million dollar law suit against Laws for defamation. In April, 1994 the police dropped the suit even though a trial was set for May.

On October 15, 1991, Laws was arrested after a four-month undercover police operation that included video surveillance and phone wiretaps. The operation involved 30 staff of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Metropolitan Toronto Police with a budget of $400,000. In a February 1994 jury trial, Laws was found guilty of conspiring to violate U.S. and Canadian immigration laws and sentenced to a nine-month jail term. The evidence against Laws at the trial was presented by four undercover agents. During the trial documented evidence (compiled by the Metro Toronto Police Intelligence Services in April 1989) of police surveillance of 18 individuals including Laws and 13 groups who were active in the fight against police brutality, racism and apartheid in South Africa surfaced.

Even though the government and police secured a conviction against Laws in the trial, there continued to be widespread public support for Laws in his uncompromising stance as a Pan-African activist opposed to police brutality. The revelations of police spying on antiracist political activists seemed to weaken the government's case against Laws. On September 10, 1998 the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned the conviction of 1994 because Laws had not received a fair trial as the judge and prosecutors had three private meetings to discuss police wiretap evidence from which Laws and his lawyers were excluded. On October 14, 1998 prosecutors dropped the charges against Laws, who agreed to perform 200 hours of community service.

Laws and his supporters were convinced that he was the victim of an entrapment operation as part of a police attempt to intimidate and silence him because of his vocal opposition to police brutality. In the tradition of generations of African freedom fighters Laws was a warrior to the end. He attended countless meetings at schools with parents whose children had been subjected to racial profiling, he was a support to family members of marginalized people who were railroaded into the criminal justice system/prison industrial complex and he attended numerous wakes and funerals of people who were victims of violence whether from others in their communities or police violence. An outspoken critic of police brutality it is not surprising that he was victimized by police. With his trademark black beret and full beard (the beard gradually became white) Laws was a well known figure, always enthusiastically welcome at any demonstration or event for human rights. Only in photographs will we see Brother Dudley, black beret set “just so” and the white beard. Ricardo Keane (Brother Power,) Hewitt Loague and other members of BADC established Dudley Laws Day in May, 2001. Several Dudley Laws Day celebrations were held at Brother Power’s home before moving to the Northwood Community Centre and in 2010 to the Lawrence Heights Community Centre.

Like our late warrior sister Sherona Hall, Laws would chant down Babylon with this song that I will forever associate with him:
By the rivers of Babylon
Where we sat down
There we wept
When we remembered Zion

For the wicked
Carried us away captivity
Required from us a song
How can we sing the Lord’s song in a
strange land

So let the
Words of our mouths
and the meditations of our hearts
be acceptable in Thy sight
Oh Farai!