Friday, March 30, 2012


Not only does the success of Barack Obama not signify the death of white racism as a personal or institutional phenomenon, if anything, it may well signal the emergence of an altogether new kind of racism. Consider this, for lack of a better term, Racism 2.0, or enlightened exceptionalism, a form that allows for and even celebrates the achievements of individual persons of color, but only because those individuals are generally seen as different from a less appealing, even pathological black or brown rule.

From “Between Barack and a hard place: Racism and White denial in the age of Obama” by Tim Wise published 2009

Conventional wisdom is that since the election of Barack Hussein Obama to the presidency of the USA we (surprisingly that includes Canadians even though African Canadian elected officials are scarce) have entered a post racial phase where everyone is equal. Perhaps that is why the Canadian government did nothing to recognize the March 21, International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Well apart from Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism issuing a statement about the Canadian government’s “unwavering commitment to preventing unjust racial discrimination from becoming a deep and systemic problem in Canada.” Meanwhile the Canadian government had no qualms in recently passing the Crime Omnibus Bill C-10 the so called Safe Streets and Communities Act into law. Bill C-10 is a combination of nine pieces of legislation that had failed to pass in previous sessions of parliament but with a majority government the Conservatives seized the opportunity to pass them. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) cautioned that Bill C-10 will “fundamentally change every component of Canada’s criminal justice system.” The CCLA stated that “jail more often, for longer, with more lasting consequences – is a dangerous route that is unsupported by the social science evidence and has already failed in other countries.” The research suggests that lengthier jail sentences will increase the likelihood of re-offending so it is difficult to understand how this Bill will make streets and communities safer. In the CCLA's view, C-10 will greatly increase the prison population, with a devastating impact on marginalized communities. This may very well make it easier for police to rationalize the troubling practice of racial profiling. It is no secret that racial profiling especially of African Canadian male youth is a practice of the various Canadian police forces in spite of denial by police. The incidents are numerous with several cases ending with African Canadian men killed by police who are never held accountable. In the past two years the names and the bodies have been piling up: Junior Manon May 5, 2010, Reyal Jensen Jardine-Douglas August 29, 2010, Eric Osawe September 28, 2010, Michael Eligon February 3, 2012, Frank Anthony Berry February 20, 2012 all victims of deadly police violence. The mind-set that African Canadian males are fair game for White male aggression and violence is spread beyond policing. In some instances like the cases of 20 year old Guyanese Howard Joel Munroe swarmed and murdered (stabbed by white youth) in Kitchener on May 20, 2001 and 20 year old Congolese Djo Bwabwa-Kalamba who was killed after being “pinned to the ground” by a Canadian Tire store security guard on June 26, 2008, the perpetrators were White males who seemed to think they had a right to brutalize Africans.

African Canadian males are not the only ones at risk; in the USA the recent murder of 17 year old Trayvon Martin has gained international attention with the story published in newspapers as far away as the UK and Guyana. Martin was killed by George Zimmerman a White man who seemed to have delusions of grandeur. It seems the man thought he was back in the days of slavery when any enslaved African accosted by a White man was compelled to obey instructions to halt and await orders or failing to do so would result in the African being subjected to the savagery of the white man which could include brutal beatings or being murdered. On February 26, 2012 the 17 year old Martin had left his father’s protection to walk to a corner store where he purchased Skittles candy when the White man who had been trailing the teenager demanded that he explain why he was walking in the community. In what some have labeled the supposed crime of “walking while Black” this 17 year old was shot several times by a White man who seemed to think just being African American was reason to suspect Martin of being a criminal. Several witnesses have said that they heard Martin screaming for help as he was shot by Zimmerman. The man was a neighbourhood watch volunteer in the community acting as if he was a storm trooper in the Nazi “Schutz-Staffel” (SS.)

Unlike the slaying of Ramarley Graham which seems to have faded from public memory, Martin’s murder has gained the attention of the highest levels of the American legal system and even President Obama has commented. Several media sources report that President Obama commenting on Martin’s case in which federal, state and local authorities are involved said: “If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon, I think [Trayvon's parents] are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and we are going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened." This is a profoundly historic statement from the President of the United States of America in 2012. At no other time in the history of the United States could a President have empathised with the murder of an African American child. During the 1960s when images of brutalised African American men, women and children were beamed into the homes of Americans including the President, he could not have viewed any of those people as family. This President can see a murdered African American male child as his child. Hopefully this will have some bearing on how justice is served in this case. The case of Ramarley Graham who on February 2, 2012, in New York was chased by police into the bathroom of his home where they shot him dead, has not received the same kind of attention. There were a few demonstrations locally to bring attention to Graham’s death but no apparent involvement of federal law in that case.

These are not isolated incidents there is a history of White violence against African Americans. As in Canada it is a result of a White supremacist culture where African Americans and African Canadians are over policed and racially profiled routinely with excuses made by the authorities and even by ordinary citizens. There is this denial that racism exists. In “Between Barack and a Hard place” Tim Wise writes: “White Americans were fairly nonchalant about the problems facing persons of color, choosing in most cases to deny what all their senses (and surely their eyes, fixed on the television as most already were by the early 1960s) had to be telling them: that they were living in an apartheid nation; that theirs was no land of freedom and democracy, but rather a formal white supremacy, a racially fascistic state for millions of people. And so in 1963, roughly two-thirds of whites told Gallup pollsters that blacks were treated equally in white communities.” That delusion is also manifested in Canada today where in spite of evidence to the contrary White Canadians believe that because of “multiculturalism” we are all equal. The various studies and reports about inequality in employment, salary, policing etc., do not seem to make a difference. Some of the comments posted as reaction to the recent story in the Toronto Star about the two “white pride” demonstrations in London, Ontario and in Edmonton is enough proof that White Canadians need to educate themselves about the level of inequality for racialised people in this country. It would be comical if it were not so sad that there are people who think there needs to be a White History Month when every month in Canada is White History Month. Just a glance at the public school curriculum would be enough proof that our children are daily fed the philosophy that white culture and history are the norm and everything else is other and exotic.

Unfortunately these inequities dog the footsteps and life of Africans in all white dominated societies. Trayvon Martin’s murder and the attitude of the law enforcement staff handling the case is eerily similar to the case of Stephen Lawrence who was murdered by white youth in Britain in 1993. Like the parents of Trayvon Martin, Doreen and Neville Lawrence (Stephen Lawrence’s parents) were forced to wage a battle for justice after a group of white youth violently stabbed and killed their 18 year old son on April 22, 1993 in Eltham, south-east London, UK. The tenacious, fighting spirit of the parents of murdered African American teen Trayvon Martin is reminiscent of the parents of Stephen Lawrence. The Lawrence’s were thwarted at every turn by a white supremacist police force and justice system but they never gave up. It took almost two decades for this couple to see partial justice done. In January 2012, two of the five white men who brutally murdered Stephen Lawrence were sentenced. They were sentenced as young offenders (they were both almost 18 when they murdered Lawrence) even though they are now 36 years old. Because of the perseverance of Doreen and Neville Lawrence laws on equality and justice have been changed in Britain; the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000 ( and the Criminal Justice Act 2003 ( came out of their activism. The Lawrence’s hired private investigators, they led public campaigns. And they are not done yet; Doreen Lawrence has written to the Home Secretary about her concerns that the initial 1993 investigation involved corrupt police. Doreen Lawrence is one of my sheroes. Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin can take courage from the fact that they have widespread support from as high up as the President of the USA. I support this couple in their fight for justice and have signed a few petitions including and Hopefully it will not take almost two decades for the family of Trayvon Martin to get justice for their murdered child.

A congressional hearing was held in Washington D.C on Tuesday, March 27 to discuss issues of racial profiling and hate crimes. Our elected politicians in Canada can follow that example by facilitating some frank discussions about the inequities in this society because ignoring the problem is not a solution.


The saying: “Time flies when you’re having fun” had special meaning for me during the recent March 12-16 March Break. It was a time that I needed to bring a different perspective to what has been a stressful few weeks after my siblings and I learned that our father had suffered a stroke. As an active man who has just entered his 80s this stroke was devastating for my father and for us because he was in Guyana at the time. Nothing makes you conscious of time and the passing of time more than when an elderly family member who has enjoyed good health suddenly becomes incapacitated. You realise that we are all becoming older whether we are in our 50s or our 80s. Tasks that we could easily perform when we were in our 20s get a bit more challenging as we go through the 50s how much more so for someone in their 70s and 80s. Surprisingly when my siblings and I were in Guyana in December 2011 and early January 2012 we marveled at how agile and energetic our Papa was. The man was running up and down stairs, dashing across the East Coast Demerara Public Road faster than my sister and I. He seemed at times to have as much energy as his youngest child, my brother Ingvar. We commented that it would be great if we had that much energy in our 80s if we were fortunate to live that long. It was shocking news that a stroke had laid him low shortly after we returned to Canada.

Returning to Canada almost immediately after suffering the stroke, my father has been receiving care and therapy to help in his recovery. It was a bit distressing to see him struggling to communicate but we soon had him singing and that effervescent laugh of his that we always loved, although somewhat tamed was in evidence. It would have been even more devastating for us and I am sure for him if he was miles away where we could not visit him. The time that we visit is always precious as we think of how suddenly and unexpectedly our fragile lives can change. And the time does fly as the children of this special man who is my father try to ensure that he does not dwell on the fact that he cannot (for now) run up and down stairs or dash across the East Coast Demerara Public Road or any road.

In the midst of coping with my father’s incapacitation my cousin Joy McLeod who lives in the USA called with amazing news that she had connected with one of her childhood neighbours from Mora Street in McKenzie. This was great news because this was someone who was a part of our lives during our childhood and teenage years. We had not seen this
former neighbour since the 1970s. As a child my sister Carol and I had spent many school vacations in McKenzie where my mother’s sister and her family lived on Mora Street and my father’s brother and his family lived on the next street (Greenheart Street) so we visited back and forth between the two homes. My aunt’s two neighbours on either side (the Anthony’s and the Liverpool’s) were like family. However as we entered adulthood we left the country, some to live in other South American countries, some to live in various Caribbean Islands, Europe, North America even Australia. Thinking of the distant places to which we have scattered is mind boggling. That first night we reconnected and chatted for five hours. As I chatted with our friend from Mora Street who now lives in the USA after spending a few years living in Suriname, I realised that the time had flown without our being conscious of that happening because we were having so much fun. Where did the time go? Not just the five hours reminiscing about Mora Street people many of whom I could not remember other than the Anthony’s and Liverpool’s but the years since 1975. It seems that we were all having great fun because the years just slipped quietly away and here we are decades later and remembering people and places of childhood and youthful times.

I recently read that: “scientists have come up with a theory for why time flies when you are having fun – and drags when you are bored.” These scientists who are based in France (at the French Laboratory of Neurobiology and Cognition) have determined that: “if the brain is busy focusing on many aspects of a task, then it has to spread its resources thinly, and pays less heed to time passing” meanwhile concentrating on time passing will trigger brain activity which makes it seem that time is passing slowly which leads to boredom.

During the March Break I had so much to concentrate on that there was no time for boredom. Not that I ever have time to be bored. Too much to do in too little time especially as I spent time with the three people who are the most important in my life. My grandchildren Malia, Taiwo and Kehinde kept me busy during the week of March Break. We discovered downtown Toronto including a new and different kind of park close to Harbourfront. In spite of it being March Break this newly discovered park was never crowded, as a matter of fact there were never more than a handful of children playing there. We also visited Miss Lou’s Room at the Harbourfront Centre where we listened to stories and my grandchildren tried their hand at storytelling. I think I have a budding storyteller in my family in the form of my grand-daughter Kehinde. That would not be surprising because it is part of our culture as African people to love participating in storytelling and as a child I was treated to great storytelling by family members. All in all we spent a truly exciting March Break, at least from my point of view. I am not sure that my grandchildren felt it was all excitement since sometimes I was lagging behind trying to keep up with all that youthful energy. It has been a few years since I parented small children and I only had two to deal with. Keeping up with a seven year old and four year old twins for an extended period of time can be a challenge for a woman of a certain age. Ooh but it was fun! And time certainly flew from the time they woke me up in the morning to the time we negotiated bed time at night. And I can attest to the fact that if those three do not grow up to be union negotiators they will become lawyers. They are tough negotiators!

We read, I read to them, they read to me, I helped with homework (special March Break homework) they played video games and watched DVDs that I borrowed from the library. At one point I had to leave five DVDs at the library amid storms of tears because I was at my limit of 50 items borrowed from the library. When did that happen, I wondered; when did I borrow 50 items from the library? Time flew while I was having March Break fun and I forgot to return library material which became overdue and cost me money. Unfortunately, the libraries are now closed because library workers were forced to go on strike when their employer failed to reach a negotiated settlement with them. No worker wants to go on strike. Strike pay is the pits for those who have rent and mortgages to pay and other expenses.

Well March Break is over, Papa is receiving speech and physical therapy to help him recover from the stroke while his dedicated family members have visited and cheered him up daily and I am still having lovely long chats with my childhood friend. I had fun and the time flew during March Break. How was your March Break? I hope you had fun and that time flew for you also. The library workers strike is now over, they are back to work from today, Friday, March 30, 2012. Hurray!!!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Since 1966 the United Nations (UN) has designated March 21 the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. March 21st was chosen to commemorate the Sharpeville Massacre of March 21, 1960 when a gathering of Africans peacefully protesting the infamous “pass laws” of the white supremacist apartheid government of South Africa were brutally murdered as members of the white police force opened fire without warning. The majority of fleeing African men, women and children were shot in the back. Documentation from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, Vol 3, Chapter 6, from October 1998 states: The Commission finds that the police deliberately opened fire on an unarmed crowd that had gathered peacefully at Sharpeville on 21 March 1960 to protest against the pass laws. The Commission finds further that the SAP (South African Police) failed to give the crowd an order to disperse before they began firing and that they continued to fire upon the fleeing crowd, resulting in hundreds of people being shot in the back. As a result of the excessive force used, 69 people were killed and more than 300 injured. The Commission finds further that the police failed to facilitate access to medical and/or other assistance to those who were wounded immediately after the march.

The morning of March 21, 1960 approximately 300 extra police and five (Saracen) armoured vehicles arrived at the local police station in Sharpeville as the marchers approached the police station. This show of force did not deter the Africans who for decades had been victimized by the white settler community who considered the Africans less than human. It is therefore not surprising that these white police had no compunction in opening a barrage of murderous gunfire on helpless, unarmed fleeing African men, women and children, shooting them in the back as they fled. The apartheid system that the white interlopers of Azania (South Africa) put in place to disenfranchise Africans in their own land was very blatantly a white supremacist system. This system was a duplication of a Canadian system which victimized Canada’s Native people. Governor of Upper Canada Francis Bond Head is considered the architect of Canada’s apartheid system (which victimized Native Canadians) upon which the white settler regime of South Africa modelled its apartheid system.

In the minds of many people, racism is the very blatant apartheid system to which the white settler group of South Africa subjected the Africans or the Ku Klux Klan riding through the neighbourhood in white sheets and burning a cross on some racialised person’s lawn. The institutionalized/systemic racism that is better described as white supremacist culture/white skin privilege is prevalent in every area of the lived reality of racialized people including the education system, housing, the prison industrial complex and policing.

Although Canada has an official policy of multiculturalism, a white supremacist culture prevails. When white people in Canada chastise immigrants for their perceived lack of enthusiasm in embracing Canadian culture, they are not referring to Aboriginal culture. The so called Canadian culture is a white Eurocentric culture that was imposed on the indigenous people and other racialized people. A white supremacist culture (institutionalized/systemic racism) continues to negatively affect racialized people in Canada . On September 13, 2007, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Canada was one of four nations (including The United States of America, Australia and New Zealand) that voted against the Declaration; 143 other nations voted in favour of the Declaration. This decision by the Canadian government was made in spite of the October 2004 Amnesty International report “Stolen Sisters” which condemned "the terror and suffering that has been inflicted on Indigenous or Aboriginal women and their families across Canada" and urged the Canadian government to address the issue. The report cited the disproportionate number of young Aboriginal women who go missing or are killed every year with little public outcry or action. Professors Carrie Bourassa and Wendee Kubik indict the long legacy of assimilation and colonization (Stolen Sisters and the Legacy of Colonization published in 2006) as crucial contributing factors to Aboriginal women being particularly targeted by these acts of violence committed largely with impunity. Following myriad criticisms and condemnation of their refusal to do so Canada did eventually support the Declaration on November 12, 2010.

Even though there has been an African Presence in Canada since the 1600s with the arrival of Matthieu DaCosta (explorer, interpreter) in 1603 and six year old enslaved African child Olivier Le Jeune in 1628, African Canadian history is marginalized. Even during February there is reluctance by some educators and educational institutions to teach about the history of Africans in Canada. African Canadians have contributed to every area of Canadian life; the blood, sweat and tears of enslaved Africans helping to enrich white enslavers to today where African Canadians are mostly relegated to low paying jobs regardless of their education. Men and women who are descendants of those who settled in the long standing African Canadian communities throughout Ontario from the time of the American Revolution (1775 to 1783) as United Empire Loyalists; and throughout the 1800s do not fare better than those of us who immigrated from Africa, the Caribbean or elsewhere. Individual acts of racism such as the woman who claimed that two masked “black men” with Jamaican accents invaded her home and caused the death of her daughter on February 19, 2011 are possible because of the criminalizing of African Canadian men. This woman felt that she could claim that “black men did it” and she would be believed because of the white supremacist culture rampant in the criminal justice system where “black men” are visible scapegoats. On Thursday, March 8, 2012 the woman who claimed a home invasion by “black men” caused the death of her child was charged with manslaughter in her daughter’s death, criminal negligence causing death, failure to provide the necessities of life, obstruct justice, public mischief and two counts of fabricating evidence.

Institutionalized/systemic racism especially in the police forces has also been in the news recently with the study done by one of Toronto’s white newspapers When this subject is addressed by white people it seems to have more legitimacy than if it is done by a racialized person. In 2005 white University of Toronto professor Scot Wortley’s report on racial profiling by police received more attention than the voices of the African Canadian community who experience and live daily with racial profiling. In 2006 White Canadian professors Frances Henry and Carol Tator published Racial Profiling In Canada: Challenging The Myth Of A Few Bad Apples addressing racial profiling in various Canadian institutions. Tim Wise white American author of books on white skin privilege including Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama 2009 and White Like Me: Reflections on Race From a Privileged Son 2004 acknowledges his privilege that allows him to speak about racism as a credible source and expert even though he has never experienced racism.

At the beginning of his talk Wise states: “Almost every single thing that I’m going to say this evening is wisdom that has been shared with me either patiently or sometimes, not so patiently, by people of color who have, in almost every instance, forgotten more about the subjects of racism and white privilege since breakfast yesterday than I will likely ever know. And yet, they will not be asked to give 85 engagements around the country this year or next on the subject. Not because they have not the wisdom to do it, but because privilege, the subject that I’ll deal with tonight, bestows upon me that advantage.”

This is what we need to acknowledge, understand and make clear on March 21 in recognition of how far we need to go to make the slogan Racism. Stop it! mean something beyond empty words. The slogan is the Canadian government’s attempt to address “racism” in Canada on March 21. This effort usually consists of a national video competition where it is patently obvious that many of the participants do not understand anything about white skin privilege or a white supremacist culture. It is mostly about individuals expressing prejudice, bigotry or bullying. There is hardly any recognition of the institutionalized racism that leads to police racially profiling African Canadians and other racialized people. The fact that most Canadian students do not know about the history of Africans and other racialized people in Canada makes the whole Racism Stop It! National Video Competition a huge farce. The role that Canadian institutions, including businesses and universities, played in propping up the apartheid regime in South Africa is not usually acknowledged. The University of Toronto invested more than 5 million dollars in the apartheid system and a Canadian company, Space Research Corporation, sold South Africa the G5 howitzer which enabled the regime’s genocidal wars of destabilization in the region.

On March 21, 1965 five years after the Sharpeville Massacre African Americans marched from Selma to Montgomery to bring attention to the American brand of apartheid which prevented African Americans in the southern USA from exercising their right as citizens to have a say in electing their government. The successful march was completed after two attempts where African Americans were brutalized by police viciously wielding billy clubs and fire hoses

Saturday, March 10, 2012


March 8 is recognized as International Women’s Day (IWD) and in Toronto was commemorated with a rally and march on March 3. The United Nations (UN) endorsed IWD in 1945 and provides this history: “International Women’s Day first emerged from the activities of labour movements at the turn of the twentieth century in North America and across Europe.” In North America and various other places today in the 21st century it is mostly taken for granted that a woman’s place is wherever she wants it to be. More than 100 years ago when the celebration of IWD began that was not the case. Most people thought that a woman’s place was in the house, most likely the kitchen if she did not have domestic help. Apparently this mindset was first documented in the play Seven Against Thebes written by Greek playwright Aeschylus in 467 BC. In Greek Theatre Performance: An Introduction published in 2000 David Wiles writes of the confrontation between the ruler and the women of Thebes which led to the infamous edict: “In Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes the male warrior and politician Eteocles condemns the women’s howling as bad for morale, and declares that he will never share a house with anyone of the ‘female race’; the woman’s place is indoors, he insists, and she should express no opinions about the outdoor world of men.” This sentiment is repeated in the quoting of two proverbs in the 2007 published book Classical and contemporary sociological theory: text and readings by authors Scott Appelrouth and Laura Desfor Edles: “A woman should leave her home but three times, when she is christened, when she is married, and when she is buried” and equally outrageous “The woman, the cat and the chimney should never leave the house.” This popular sentiment did not hold true for most African American and African Canadian women whose place was more than likely in the home and kitchen of a white family even after slavery was abolished in Canada August 1, 1834 and in the USA January 31, 1865. This history is documented in several books including Cooking in other women's kitchens: domestic workers in the South, 1865-1960 published in 2010 by white American author Rebecca Sharpless and by African American authors Labor of Love Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present (Jacqueline Jones published 1985,) Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Thavolia Glymph published 2008) and To Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors (Tera Hunter published 2000)

This state of affairs was not confined to the Southern US States. In her 2001 published book Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870-1940 Vanessa H. May writes about the reality for African American women in New York: In the Depression’s cut—throat competitive labor market, black women were left with the lowest paid and least stable jobs in this already low—status occupation. For many black female domestics in New York City, that meant standing in line in one of the 200 “slave markets” that appeared on street corners throughout the five boroughs but particularly in the Bronx. African American women waited for housewives to stop and offer them a few hours work, sometimes for wages as low as ten or fifteen cents an hour. Employers’ racism and greed, along with the workers’ obvious desperation, made street market workers particularly vulnerable to abuse. Employers were notorious for lengthening workdays by secretly turning back their clocks or claiming a domestic’s work was undeserving of pay.

The image of African American women as being happy with their lot as domestic servants was so pervasive in the minds of white women that even those attending institutions of higher learning in the late 20th century held those views. In her 2009 published book Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom bell hooks writes of her encounter with one white female student who held this view: “I was lecturing on Toni Morrison’s the Bluest Eye and referenced the history of black women working as domestics in white households. A white female student raised her hand to disagree when I suggested that often black maids served white families with apparent good cheer and then returned to segregated black communities venting their rage and anger at ways they were exploited. The student kept repeatedly stating that their maid was a beloved member of the family, who loved them as though they were her own. I questioned her about whether she had ever talked with the maid about her feelings, about race, about love, and her answer was no. I then suggested that it was unlikely she knew what the maid was really feeling. The student cried. She accused me of being racist and seeing racism everywhere.”

Even though IWD is supposed to celebrate/recognize the history of women, the reality is that it is mostly a celebration/recognition of the history of white women. There are women from various African communities who deserve recognition, some are well known while some are not known outside of their communities. Sister Sherona Hall who transitioned in December 2006 is one of those unsung sheroes. She was a Civil Rights activist not only involved in Toronto but also in her homeland Jamaica, various other Caribbean islands and the African continent. Sister Sherona Hall was a founding member of the Black Action Defense Committee (BADC) which was founded in 1988 in Toronto to address the spate of police murder of African Canadian men. Doreen Lawrence is another African woman who is among the unsung sheroes to remember on IWD. On April 22, 1993 her 18 year old son, Stephen Lawrence was murdered by white youth in London, United Kingdom (UK.) In spite of a white supremacist culture that inundated the police investigation and set her son’s murderers free, Doreen Lawrence did not give up fighting for justice. It took 19 years of perseverance on her and her husband’s part before two of her son’s murderers were brought to justice in 2012 The women of Buxton, East Coast Demerara, Guyana who put their lives on the line (literally) when they clambered onto the train line (tracks) and stopped the colonial governor in his tracks are another example of unsung African sheroes who are not known outside of the communities in which they lived/worked. A few years after slavery was finally abolished in British Guiana on August 1, 1834, Africans freed from slavery pooled their money and bought abandoned plantations. The village of Buxton was one of the many villages established by Africans after slavery was abolished. They were actively discouraged from seeking this independence from white domination of their lives. The white people who had formerly dictated every area of the lives of Africans tried every underhanded trick to continue doing so including sabotaging the growth of the recently established villages. The Buxtonians survived the deliberate flooding of their farms and other attempts to dislodge them from the homes bought with blood, sweat and tears. The final straw was an unfair taxation of their land by the colonial government. Several attempts to dialogue with the governor were rebuffed. When news reached the villagers that the governor would be passing by their village as he inspected the recently laid train tracks it was an ideal opportunity to engage the governor in conversation. As the train approached Buxton, the women of Buxton strode onto the train tracks putting their lives on the line. The men followed when the train was forced to stop. The protestors immobilized the train by applying chains and locks to its wheels which forced the Governor to step out and meet with villagers. The villagers demanded that the governor listen to their genuine concerns about the exorbitant, unfair taxing of their land and repeal the tax law. Following that impromptu meeting at the train line, the governor did repeal the tax. The story of the brave women of Buxton is hardly known outside of Guyana.

This African Proverb: “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter” makes a profound statement about the lack of widespread knowledge of our African sheroes. Thankfully we do have some historians who have documented some of the stories of these women’s lives. The story of how: Buxton women stop train is documented in Ovid Abrams’ Metegee: The History and Culture of Guyana published in 1998. Makeda Silvera’s 1989 published book Silenced: Caribbean Domestic Workers Talk with Makeda Silvera gives voice to Caribbean women who immigrated to Canada and worked as domestic workers. The experiences of some of these women as they laboured in the homes of white Canadian families are heartrending and can rival the most dreadful experiences of African American domestic workers told in books like Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody published in 1968 and Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics and the Great Migration by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis published in 1996.

Some more of our sheroes include Viola Desmond and Carrie Best. Viola Desmond challenged the white supremacist segregation policy that relegated her to the balcony seat of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia on November 8, 1946. Her story is now fairly well known because of several books written about her experience including Sister to Courage published in 2010 by Desmond’s younger sister Wanda Robson. In 2010 Desmond received a posthumous official apology and free pardon (which acknowledges her innocence) for the criminal conviction of 1946. Her crime was essentially sitting in a seat reserved for white Canadians. In 2012 Desmond was honoured with a postage stamp. During her struggle (which she took all the way to the Supreme Court) to have the guilty verdict against her overturned she was supported by civil rights activist Carrie Best who publicized the case in The Clarion. The Clarion was established in 1946 by Best and was the first African Canadian owned and published newspaper in Nova Scotia. African Americans also used their media to publicize their plight. Civil Rights activists Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke wrote an expose of the Bronx Slave Markets which was published in the November 1935 issue of the magazine The Crisis founded by W.E.B DuBois in 1910 as the official newspaper of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP.) The Crisis remains the official publication of the NAACP in 2012.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


The much maligned Melda of the Mighty Sparrow’s Obeah Wedding calypso did not have to fear that she would suffer death by hanging at the hands of her irate lover when he accuses her of trying to lead him to the altar through obeah. However the characters of the play Obeah Opera did have to fear hanging when they were accused of practicing witchcraft as obeah is often mistakenly portrayed. Obeah Opera which plays until March 4 is a collaboration of Rhoma Spencer’s Theatre Archipelago and b current Performing Arts whose artistic director is ahdri zhina mandiela.

Growing up in Guyana I had heard of obeah. Every Guyanese has heard of obeah whether or not they understand what it means. There were those who feared obeah, those who practised obeah, those who thought it was a joke or some combination. Some obeah practitioners (at least the adults thought they were obeah practitioners) regularly left food in apparently expensive china dinnerware (probably Royal Doulton as Guyana was a British colony) at the koker in Stanleytown, Berbice. We (Berbicians) are famous in Guyana as obeah people being close to Suriname a place many Guyanese consider the obeah epicenter. There was an elderly woman who would, in spite of dire warnings from other adults in the community, take the food and dinnerware left at the koker. She thought it was nonsensical for people to waste good food and expensive dishes to feed spirits. While others watched in fascinated horror expecting that she would be struck down by some malevolent spirit, she lived to celebrate her 90th birthday.

According to information on the website Obeah Opera tells a story of women silenced by the most infamous 'witch-hunt' in history. The opera is set in the late 17th century where Tituba, Mary, Candy and Sarah enslaved African women from the Caribbean sold to owners in the North American colony established by Puritans at Salem are arrested and accused of practicing obeah. To find out what else happens in this groundbreaking collaboration between two artistic companies owned by African Caribbean Canadian women you have to attend one of the performances by March 4. It is an eye-opening experience with amazing performances by a group of 15 women who seamlessly transform from Puritans to enslaved African women while singing acapella. The songs performed by this group of talented singers celebrate the range of African inspired music including blues, gospel, jazz and spirituals.

It was a learning experience for me as I had never connected the Salem witchcraft trials with obeah. After all witches were part of white culture and obeah is an expression of African spirituality. I had read about witches including the various wicked step-mothers from fairy tales and wizards including Merlin from King Arthur’s round table, but in my youthful Guyanese mind, they really had nothing to do with us in Guyana, they all lived in Europe. I knew of Tituba, Mary Black and Candy who were the enslaved African women accused during the hysteria of the Salem witch hunt and trials, I learned about Sarah from Obeah Opera.

I was struck by the similarity between the Puritan pastor lusting after the body of the enslaved African woman while blaming the woman and the protagonist in the calypso Obeah Wedding who hypocritically finds fault with Melda when she suggests marriage. The protagonist in Sparrow’s Obeah Wedding is obviously a man with commitment issues who accuses the woman of dastardly acts when she demands a formal commitment. How did this relationship go from them "hugging up tight, tight, tight" to him insulting Melda about bad breath and body odour? In an effort to discourage Melda’s real or imagined machinations he warned/threatened that he had protection against “necromancy” in the person of his grandfather Papa Neeza. However according to Frances Henry, a white Canadian anthropologist who met and interviewed Ebenezer “Papa Neezer” Elliot, he was not an “obeah man.” In her book Beliefs, doctrines and practices of the Orisha religion in Trinidad, 1958 – 1999 published in 2002 Henry writes: Elliot was raised a London Baptist, the Church in the Fifth Company Village, and he remained a devout Baptist and a conscientious Christian all his life, in addition to practising his African Shango faith. Elliot was a descendant of the African American group (known locally as the Merikens) that settled in Trinidad between 1815 and 1816. My sister friend Brenda Pierre who transitioned last year April was also a descendant of the Merikens and shared stories about the spirituality of that community and of her ancestors Amphy and Bashana Jackson. The history of the Merikens is documented in The Merikens: Free Black American Settlers in Trinidad 1815-16 (published 2002) written by John McNish Weiss: The Baptist faith was brought to Trinidad by the "Merikens", former American slaves who were recruited by the British to fight with them, as the Corps of Colonial Marines, against the Americans during the War of 1812. After the end of this war, these ex-slaves were settled in the south of the country, to the east of the Mission of Savannah Grande (now known as Princes Town) in six villages, since then called The Company Villages.

Obeah like all other African belief systems was demonized and actively discouraged by the white slave holders in an effort to strip the Africans of their humanity. Whether the European enslavers were the French in Haiti, the Portuguese in Brazil, the Spanish in Colombia, Cuba or Puerto Rico they all brutalized any African who expressed their spirituality; this caused syncretism in some places. The syncretism which hid African spirituality under a thin veneer of Catholicism resulted in Candomble, Santeria, Shango and Voodoo. The enslaved Africans continued to worship their deities but used the names of Catholic saints to avoid the brutal punishment for practicing their indigenous beliefs. Obeah is not interchangeable with the syncretic religions because there is no worship of European saints and while Candomble, Santeria, Shango and Voodoo are derived from the Yoruba culture of Nigeria, obeah is from the Akan of Ghana and is not syncretic. Writing of obeah in his 2010 published Afro-Caribbean Religions Professor Nathaniel Samuel Murrell explains: The art was common among the Efik, Akan, Edo, and Twi ethnic groups of West Africa; and scholars say it is derived from the Twi word obeye, a minor deity associated with the Obboney, the malicious spirit of the Rada and Dahomey sacred powers. The use of the word obayi or obaye is seen as evidence of the Ashanti people in Jamaica and other Caribbean states; the most well known freedom fighters in the British colonies were the Ashantis. Ashanti and Twi speaking peoples whom slave traders labeled Koromantyns were taken from the Gold Coast to the British colonies rather than to French islands or the Spanish main. Kormantyns were freedom fighters, and British slave markets accepted them when other depots did not.

In Encyclopedia of African American history, Volume 1 Leslie M. Alexander and Walter C Rucker argue: In the British imagination, Obeah has historically been the umbrella term for any African-based spiritual practice unknown to the European tradition that purports to give the black population a sense of agency or authority. In British Guiana an Obeah Ordinance was enacted on January 8, 1855 making it a criminal offence to practice obeah. The practice of obeah was so feared that in November 1973 when then Guyanese Prime Minister Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham proposed repealing the ordinance it created a firestorm of media stories not only in the Caribbean but also internationally. The story even appeared in two editions of Jet Magazine January 17 and March 14, 1974. The performance of Obeah Opera in the 21st century is a testament to how far we have come in embracing our history and culture. It is a performance that must be seen and loudly applauded.