• Manhood in the moonlight

    "An authentic story, from an actual place, about real people going through real things,” is how Moonlight’s director Barry Jenkins described his latest film. The story follows a young black gay man coming to terms with his identity over about two decades. Much as Jenkins did with his skillfully textured Medicine for Melancholy, his sophomore effort Moonlight offers a rare cinematic look into the black experience through its multi-layered complexities. Given the dearth of fully-fledged stories on the silver screen with leading black protagonists, it’s easy to predict that Moonlight will earn it’s cult flick status in black communities — similarly to how Theodore Witcher’s Love Jones shed an unconventional light on black love. As might have been expected, however, the film’s queer-identifying examination of black masculinity has not been met without controversy. 

    Told in three parts, the film is a loose adaptation of playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Set in inner city Miami, we follow the principal character, a boy named Chiron, as he comes of age and grapples with his identity (played at different ages by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes). Jenkins chronicles the character’s life journey from a vulnerable boy taunted for his as-yet-unexplored difference, to a teenager grappling with his sexuality, to a grown man forging his path.

    We find that Chiron’s challenges are not so different from those of many other black inner-city youths — navigating the perils of crime, poverty and broken homes. In a sense, that’s the power of this story. Chiron’s queerness isn’t explored in a setting divorced from the realities of a racialized social system. “My gayness doesn’t give me any pass. I’ve still had the police pull me out of a car, put guns to my head, lock me in handcuffs and leave me face down in the pouring rain for no reason,” McCraney told The Guardian recently as he reflected on his autobiographical work.

    By coincidence, Jenkins came of age in the same rough and tumble Liberty City housing projects where McCraney grew up, and where much of Moonlight the film unfolds. Jenkins actually shot the film on some of the same city blocks where he grew up. It’s also interesting how, while they didn’t know each other as children, Jenkins and McCraney attended the same elementary and middle schools. They both also grew up in a household in which their mothers grappled with severe drug addiction.

    In Moonlight, we first meet Chiron, nicknamed Little, as a 10-year old boy caught between schoolyard taunters calling him “soft” and “weak,” and his drug-addicted mother (played by Naomie Harris). He finds a father figure and mentor in a mid-level local drug dealer, Juan (played by Mahershala Ali). The latter impresses on Chiron the importance of standing up to his tormentors. “At some point you got to decide for yourself who you want to be. You can’t let nobody make that decision for you,” said Juan as he turned to Chiron along a beachfront in Miami.

    That’s essentially the message of Moonlight. It’s a story about masculinity and how it can be expressed in unconventional ways amid sometimes hostile societal milieus. “I’m examining black masculinity in this movie, but on a deeper level I'm exploring inner city impoverished black masculinity. We needed someone who could be menacing one moment and extremely caring the next,” as Jenkins explained.

    See Moonlight at TIFF Bell Lightbox


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  • Ngozi Paul explores the power of imagination

    In her one-woman play The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely, currently running until April 8 as part of the inaugural season at Crow's Theatre, storyteller and actor Ngozi Paul examines a black woman’s search for agency and identity. A winner of the Spotlight Award for best performance at the 2015 Summerworks festival, the now fully-fledged production reunites us with Ms. Lovely, a first generation Canadian of Afro-Caribbean heritage, on her self-love journey to define her sexuality through the prism of popular culture.

    In a media-saturated world where were are bombarded with objectified depictions of black women’s bodies through music videos and various other constructs, the play uses humour, imagination and introspection to seek awakening. As we follow Ms. Lovely at different stage in her life, the narrative is also interwoven with the story of Sarah Baartman (The Venus Hottentot) — the historical symbol of the commodification of black women’s sexuality.

    Born to a Khoisan family in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman was exhibited as a freak show attraction in Europe during the 19th century. This human zoo attracted crowds invited to look at her wide hips, bulging buttocks and amplified vulva as she was paraded in London and Paris. After her death in 1815, Sarah Baartman’s body was dissected and displayed at the Museum of Man in Paris. It wasn’t until after the election of President Nelson Mandela in 1994 that her remains were ultimately repatriated to South Africa in 2012 and buried in the Eastern Cape on South Africa's Women's Day.

    Looking at the past to inform the present

    By intertwining the story of Sarah Baartman with the modern day iconography around twerking, Nicki Minaj’s videos and Kim Kardashian’s “breaking the Internet” Paper magazine cover photo, Ngozi Paul places in a historical context the continuing exploitation and fetishism of the black female body. “I can say that sharing the story and learning the story for myself has opened my eyes,” said Ngozi.

    In fact, she originally began exploring this nexus underpinning the creation of The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely while in South Africa. Reclaiming the cultural narrative through storytelling is powerful agency-affirming process. Ngozi believes that being a storyteller, and making art, is about entertaining but it’s also about challenging the way we look at things.

    “It’s essentially to reexamine the story that's been told in a specific way, turn it around, and try and tell it a different way,” as she argued. “As an artist, I think that it is our work and duty to reflect the times, to challenge the times, and to try and move things forward, to evolve things.”

    The objectification of black women was definitely a source of frustration for her. The goal of balancing these representations should not only beneficial for black women but also for the hearts and souls of the community in general. She strongly believes this collective affirmation can be done through art.

    “The imagination is such a powerful tool, so if we can share and if we can do things that touch the imaginations, and hearts and souls of the community, then it will be a community who will feel activated to go out and move and make changes that make sense for their lives. I strongly believe that that is done through art,” as she affirmed.

    Engaging in a community discussion

    A really interesting element of the show is that a group discussion follows the performance. “I love being able to sit down, connect with the audience and have a community dialogue about some of the issues that we discuss in the show,” said Ngozi. Since the play was inspired by a mixture of her own experience as a first-generation Canadian growing up in a Caribbean household, as well as from various experiences of other black women in her life, the audience experiences many “preach” moments. Who isn’t familiar with the strict churchgoing West Indian mother or grandmother? “So I think one of the things that people talk about a lot during the talk back is how relatable it is to them,” she adds.

    She also hears from men during the post-show discussions who say they want to bring other guys to see the play because they rarely get the opportunity to address these issues as males. Many people are also hearing about Sarah Baartman for the first time and are eager to understand the modern ramifications.

    “We are living in a world that has been colonized, and there is a lot of internalized mental colonization and, of course, our popular culture images have come out of that mentality as well. There’s a patriarchal mentality as well. How do we make sense of it all? I would say this play asks that question. I think that asking the question is the awareness; and awareness is the first step to change,” said Ngozi.


    The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely plays until April 8th, 2017 at the Guloien Theatre at the Streetcar Crowsnest (345 Carlaw Avenue).

    Remaining shows are on:

    • Friday, April 7 at 8:00 PM
    • Saturday April 8 2017 at 2:00 PM
    • Saturday April 8 2017 at 8:00 PM (sold out)

    Single tickets are $25-$35. Tickets are available for purchase online, by telephone at 647 341 7390 ext. 1010, or in person at the venue Box Office two hours before each performance.


  • Racial profiling: A modern day injustice

    Racism, systematic oppression, and abuse of power, these terms are often heavily debated as racially motivated interactions between police and citizens ensue on a daily basis. This discussion was brought up once again with the recent police killing of Terrence Crutcher. The Guardian reports that Crutcher had his car stalled on a Tulsa, Oklahoma street on September 16, 2016, when he was fatally shot by Officer Betty Shelby. Terrence Crutcher was racially profiled. As a Black man who simply had his car stalled on the street, the colour of his skin caught the attention of police.

    The Guardian also states that Shelby was on her way to an unrelated domestic violence report when she came across Crutcher and decided to investigate. According to reports by NBC News and the Toronto Star, Black citizens and other minorities are stopped by police significantly more than Whites. Due to this inequity the Ontario government has decided to implement regulations to end this practice, after decades of injustice. Though, these new rules are too broad and do not actually put an end to the unreasonable questioning of racial minorities by the police.

    The discriminatory practice of unduly questioning minorities should have been addressed and remedied decades ago. This practice has been a serious issue in the province of Ontario for at least the past forty years. According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission there have been numerous studies conducted that confirmed inequalities in the treatment of racial minorities dating back to the 1970’s. This means that for at least the past four decades Blacks and other minorities have been subject to mistreatment and abuse on the sole basis of the colour of their skin.

    In fact, racial profiling became such a common practice with the Toronto police that the Toronto Star conducted an almost seven-year in-depth analysis of contact card data from police. The findings from this analysis which were released to the public in 2002 were astounding. The Toronto Star found that black males aged fifteen to twenty-four were stopped and documented 2.5 times more than their white counterparts. The fact that there was reputable data that clearly demonstrated inequities between Black and White Torontonians is motive enough for the action of the province.

    Unfortunately, this report did not spur any substantial intervention from the Ontario government. It still took them another fourteen years to execute any significant changes. The horrendous practice of stopping and questioning racial minorities has not been an unquestioned occurrence within communities. Activists, lawyers, and citizens have consistently asked councillors, and policy makers to end this unjust form of policing. The Toronto Star specifically reported on a 2013 public meeting in city hall, where individuals from Toronto and surrounding communities called for an end to the practice of a specific type of profiling, “carding”. Though once again the pleas of Canadian citizens seemed to be of no concern to the provincial government, as it still took another three years before changes were put into effect.

    These changes which took forty years to be implemented are not enough to eradicate this grand issue. In a Toronto Star article Howard Morton, of the Law Union of Ontario points out that police may still stop, and approach individuals as long as they do not force them to provide identifying information. The reason why these regulations needed to be implemented is due to the fact that minorities are unjustly stopped and questioned by police. Just because these individuals no longer have to identify themselves it does not mean the disastrous effects of this practice are not felt.

    Ethnic minorities can and will still be subjected to singling out by the police. The new regulations posted by the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services state officers must inform the individual that they do not have to provide identifying information, and if they do request such information officers need a justifiable reason. What about the cases where police stop and question minorities for no reason, without asking for identification? According to these new regulations police would be able to do so.

    As a result, the present inequities between Whites and racial minorities will still be prevalent within communities. What is the point of addressing the issue of disproportionate questioning of minorities, then implementing guidelines too broad to yield any beneficial results? The complete elimination of police ability to stop and question individuals without probable cause or justified reasoning would be a better measure to stop this practice.

    Canada is a country which claims to consider the fundamental rights of its citizens to be of utmost importance. Yet, it took the government forty years to make regulations which addressed the pressing issue of racial inequity in policing. Inequity which allows for the marginalization, and criminalization of innocent citizens. Regulations which do not put an end or solve any of the core issues of discriminatory policing practices. Although the new rules are a step in the right direction, they are ultimately much overdue and inadequate to resolve these obstructions of human rights.

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  • Remembering Austin Clarke: Coming of age conflicted under the maple leaf


    Canadian literature recently lost one of its bright lights with the passing of Barbadian-born and Toronto-based novelist Austin Clarke, on June 26, at the age of 81. An award-winning author, essayist, journalist and poet, he was the recipient of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, as well as the Trillium Book Award for his 2002 novel The Polished Hoe. Born in Barbados, Clarke immigrated to Canada in 1955 to study at the University of Toronto.

    Throughout his life’s work spanning eleven novels, eight short story collections, six memoirs, as well as two poetry collections, Austin Clarke, or known as “Tom” by those close to him, blazed a trail by recounting the stories and experience of Afro-Caribbean immigrants in Canada.

    “Writing is my life,” he once said. “Writing has been a mainstay and the most important aspect of my life.”

    A trailblazer and mentor

    Despite describing writing as “by definition a narcissistic quest,” Clarke was never selfish with his gift. He was just as much committed to sharing its fruits with the world himself as he was to being a mentor to young writers -- offering guidance and encouragement in helping to groom the next generation of authors.

    “His great passions were food, for drink, but much more than that for young writers across race and class and gender, whom he would have to his home and mentor [unselfishly], reading manuscripts and offering his feedback,” said Professor Rinaldo Walcott from the University of Toronto, a long-time friend of Clarke’s.

    “He was always so interested in the craftsmanship of writing” and was quick to chastise his peers when he felt they were not writing enough, according to fellow novelist and friend Cecil Foster. Clarke had a deep respect for his fellow writers advancing the discourse and literature about multicultural Canada such as Cecil Foster, Dionne Brand, George Elliott Clarke, and Lawrence Hill. “We are really standing on his shoulders,” said Foster.

    The Black Canadian experience is part of the national fabric

    “The social and economic problems that define the Jane/Finch and Monarch Park in Scarborough, Regent Park, St. James Town, and Thorncliffe Park are not a sovereign Black problem; but are a Toronto problem,” Clarke said in his spring of 2010 Convocation address at York University. He warned against condemning the Black ghettoes and instead called on “shedding tears that your Black neighbours have once again been caught outside the net of omniculturalism. They have killed another brother, another sister. Why do White neighbours only mourn White victims?”

    His 2008 novel, More, winner of the City of Toronto Book Award, delves into the struggles of Caribbean immigrants in Toronto in the face of racial exclusion, poverty, violence, and exploitation. The protagonist, Idora Morrison, is a Black Caribbean immigrant in Toronto living in a rented basement apartment on Shuter Street, just before Sherbourne. She immigrated to Canada 25 years prior to seek a better life. But instead, she found herself with a deadbeat husband who left her alone to raise her son, BJ, who ended up being pulled into a life of crime. The book takes a journey into Idora’s mind as she comes to grips with the realities, fears and hopes of her existence in Canada.

    “The significance of More and myself is that we both live in the same street,” as Clarke revealed in a Toronto public reading of the book in 2012. “In the ghetto, Shuter Street. Of course, with the number of developers invading the territory, I doubt if you can call it anymore the ghetto street,” he added.

    In other writings Clarke also speaks about his own experiences as Black man living in Toronto; including walking into a barber shop only to be told: “We don’t cut niggers’ hair here.”

    Clarke only became a Canadian citizen in 1981. When asked why he waited so long, he replied: “I was not keen on becoming a citizen of a society that regarded me as less than a human being.”

    Through his pioneering contributions to Caribbean-Canadian literature, the 1998 inductee to the Order of Canada has paved the way so “that we can begin to recognize in this country that Black life is not singular, is not just lived for Black people, but that it is something that deeply enriches this place,” as Rinaldo Walcott said .

    Breaking the colonial mental chains

    Clarke cited author Frantz Fanon, who examined the psychology of racism and colonialism in his seminal 1952 book Black Skin, White Masks, as a major influence “because of his understanding of the Black community in Africa and the world, and his understanding of what it means to be Black in a White society.”

    Despite having been raised as an Anglican in his native Barbados, under a British colonial system, Clarke was much influenced, and participated himself, in the American civil rights and Black nationalist movements during the 1960s. He notably interviewed and befriended Malcolm X in 1963.

    From the late 1960s until the early 1970s, Clarke spent several years in the United-States teaching and helping set up Black studies programs at Yale, Brandeis, Williams College, Duke and the universities of Texas and Indiana.

    His tenth book, The Polished Hoe, explores the slavery and colonial legacy of Barbados. In the book, he refers to his home island as “Bimshire.” Before obtaining its independence form Britain in November of 1966, Barbados was a British colony. The novel itself is set in the 1950s. Through the life experiences of a woman, Mary-Mathilda, Clarke examined the collective experience of a society characterized by slavery.

    As it is often the case for countries ridding themselves of colonial powers and finding their identity and rightful place in the world, Austin Clark’s literary body of work, as well as his own life, navigates often complex cultural waters.

    As George Elliott Clarke recently penned, “[Austin Clarke] was never able to shake his private school elitism or his love of the Latin and good grammar he associated with school and church, or his love of good suits and good drink that he associated with the WASP elite.”

    Perhaps, that’s precisely why he was so great at capturing the wide spectrum of nuances and faultlines inherent in the experiences of immigrants forging their way into the ill-fitting system of a dying cultural empire bursting at the seams. A two-founding-nations-utopia begging to be redefined, rebuilt, through a new collective consciousness.

    A funeral service will be held at Toronto's St. James Cathedral on Friday, July 8, at 11:00am.


  • Salvador: Discovering the Afro-Brazilian experience

    Salvador de Bahia's historical district. Photo: Meres J. Weche

    Earlier this summer, I realized my longtime dream of visiting Brazil. Of course, I made sure to check off the old bucket list the obvious highlights such as Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, the Christ the Redeemer statue, and even the colourful Escadaria Selarón (Selaron Steps) featured back in the day in Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams’ video, Beautiful. But my trip to Brazil wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to Salvador de Bahia – the birthplace of Afro-Brazilian history and culture; as well as one of the oldest colonial cities in the Americas. From 1558, Salvador became the first market in the so-called New World taking enslaved Africans from the transatlantic slave trade to work on sugar plantations.

    The capital of the Brazilian northeastern state of Bahia, Salvador is the country’s third largest city following São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. After catching a two-hour domestic flight from Rio, a taxi ride took my wife and I on a 28-kilometer journey through the city to our hotel in the historic Pelourinho district. Listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 1985, this Portuguese colonial section of town has a unique vibe with its cobblestoned streets, bright coloured buildings and abundant street art.

    It’s hard not to immediately feel the sense of culture, history and pride of the local residents in their African roots. Around 80% of Salvador’s population is of African descent, Black or mixed race. Salvador has been a major hub of Brazil’s growing Black pride movement. Despite being home to the largest Black population outside of the African continent, and half of its population identifying as Black or mixed race, Brazil has long been struggling with the negative effects of colourism.

    Statue of Zumbi dos PalmaresIn recent years, the Brazilian government instituted National Black Consciousness Day. Held on November 20th, the day celebrates Zumbi dos Palmares – who was a 17th century African liberation fighter and Maroon leader of fugitive settlements (known in Brazil as quilombos or mocambos) – from the modern-day Brazilian state of Alagoas. A symbol of freedom to this day, a monument honouring Zumbi stands in Salvador. Many celebrations and cultural events take place in Salvador on National Black Consciousness Day and throughout the month of November.

    Strolling through the streets of the historic district, it’s easy to see why Salvador de Bahia is considered a unique place in the world where the heritage of enslaved Africans has been the best preserved.

    Meeting a Baiana

    There is an abundance of cultural centres, music schools, dance groups and capoeira practitioners. Baianas, dressed in the “white of Oxalá” from the Candomblé religious tradition, can be seen everywhere. They are often found selling a local snack called tabuleiros do acarajé. It’s a recipe comprising of palm oil, okra and shrimp tracing its origins from West Africa.

    In addition to the cuisine, music and dance, Salvador’s African roots are still strongly evident in the population’s cultural and religious practices. The enslaved Africans brought to Bahia by the Portuguese were mainly from the Yoruba people (present-day Nigeria) and also belonged to the Igbo, Fon, Ewe, Kongo and Bantu ethnic groups. Today’s Afro-Brazilians in Salvador hold ancestries from Angola, Benin, Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Senegal and Mozambique.

    As a form of resistance against forced conversion to Catholicism, the enslaved Africans preserved their religious belief by developing a syncretic religion known as Candomblé. Originating in Salvador de Bahia, Candomblé absorbed elements of Catholicism into traditional Yoruba beliefs. Yoruba deities were secretly worshiped in the form of Catholic saints. To this day, Candomblé rituals are performed in Yoruba, not Portuguese. Moreover, the houses of Candomblé far outnumber the Catholic and other Christian churches in Salvador.

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    The other side of the tourist brochure

    The fact cannot be lost that Salvador is the second most popular tourism destination in Brazil after Rio de Janeiro. This essentially means that Afro-Brazilian culture is big business in town. I must say that it sometimes felt like I was visiting a “plantation resort.”

    The beautiful colonial style hotel set in a 17th century building where we stayed had Afro-Brazilian staff but the establishment was bought and renovated by a couple residing full-time in Europe – the woman is Brazilian and her husband Italian. A beautiful coffee shop we visited, doubling as an upscale souvenir shop selling African art, also happens to be owned by a Spanish entrepreneur who additionally opened both a travel agency and restaurant around the corner.

    The political and economic realities are stark.

    Location in Salvador where Michael Jackson filmed his

    Reports show that Whites in Salvador earn 3.2 times more than Blacks. An overwhelming majority of the Salvador city council members, as well of the rest of the political class, are White. Other studies at the national level demonstrate that Afro-Brazilians make up only 17.7% of Brazil’s wealthiest group, known as “Class A,” and disproportionally comprise of 76.3% of the poorest section of society, “Class E.”

    Given this context, it’s not surprising that poorer and racially marginalized residents seek to benefit from tourism traffic the best way they can by selling various arts and crafts items. Capoeiristas and Olodum drummers also regularly perform to earn a living from visiting tourists. In an obvious attempt to protect Pelourinho’s status as the municipality’s bread and butter, there’s a strong presence of militarized “tourism police” patrolling the narrow streets day and night.

    Despite these social ills, there still remains, at the base, a strongly felt commitment by Salvador’s Afro-Brazilians to preserve, celebrate and share a positive representation of the Candomblé religion and their African culture -- which has survived through the centuries. In the words of João Jorge Rodrigues, the president of Brazil’s most famous Olodum drumming band, based in Salvador:

    “The religion is the basis of our music, from the rhythms right through to the way we sing. The fans elsewhere in the world don’t understand our lyrics but they can feel the energy of the sound. The whole world understands our drums!”

    Getting around

    Visiting Salvador’s historical district is easily doable on foot. The cobblestoned roads going up and down relatively steep hills are filled with great coffee shops, restaurants, art galleries, churches and museums.

    As per my usual travel experiences, I made a point of going outside of the beaten path to explore the real Salvador beyond the touristic Pelourinho district. Public buses located near one of the main squares offer a cheap and effective option to venture into the main town.

    One of the buses going downtown also goes all the way to the airport. It’s a much cheaper option than a taxi and also stunningly beautiful scenic route travelling along the seashore. Salvador is also known for its splendid beaches. While taking the airport bus is definitely worth the sightseeing tour, it’s a long two-hour journey. So make sure to factor in enough time not to miss your flight back.

    Before leaving Salvador though, make sure to make a stop at the Afro-Brazilian Museum (Museu Afro-Brasileiro) located in the Pelourinho district. It houses Bahia’s main collections of wood carvings, pottery and other artwork from Brazil’s African artistic traditions.


  • Spoken word artist Amani: Why she writes

    Amani. Photo by: Linda Marie Stella

    “I write because it’s in my blood and in my veins; and if you cut me, words would bleed onto the floor in a poem somewhat abstract but legible in the blackest and brightest inks,” said Toronto-based spoken word artist Anne-Marie Woods (Amani) in her 2014 CD, Poetry Huggin. A skilled wordsmith and storyteller, Woods is the 2013 recipient of the BBPA Harry Jerome Award for Excellence in Entertainment.

    But if CSI were to be called to examine the proverbial griot-soul-infused black ink on the ground they would also find, intertwined amid the poetic DNA, a healthy dose of double helixed playwright genes and a tinge of comedic cells -- because she also writes to laugh. Black Like She, an all-Black, all-woman comedy show she produced was a hit this past February at Harbourfront Centre’s KUUMBA festival.

    “My poetry’s not hectic it’s eclectic,” says Amani.

    But don’t start barking up the wrong poetree as she warns. She also writes to scream and to write the wrongs of society.

    Like a poetry hugger she tells us a tale about, she saves paper by recycling thoughts and poems that were both written and experienced years ago. Amani’s poetry digs deep into her personal, childhood, and overall coming of age story. Just how powerful rhymes are meant to do, her prose doesn’t only rhyme phonetically but also sheds a reflective light on the listener’s own experiences.

    Anyone who’s ever felt as “the other” growing up can relate to her experience as a little Black girl being laughed at in elementary school because the shade of her skin and sun-kissed accent. “It hurt deep inside because I didn’t know about my culture. My miseducation felt like a penitentiary. I didn’t know about Black pride.”

    “I wear the scars of my life with pride,” says Woods.

    Over the years, the England-born, Trinidad-baptized, and Nova Scotia-bred Torontonian artist has used her multi-dimensional artistic skills to work with youth as an arts educator, consultant, playwright and outreach professional. In 2011 she developed a youth outreach theatre program called Word Up at Toronto’s Young Peoples Theatre as part of the YPT Residence Artist Educator Program.

    She produced two shows at YPT and staged a third Word Up production as part of the 2013 KUUMBA festival at Harbourfront Centre. In the summer of that same year, she was hired by Daniels Corporation and Artscape as the production coordinator, writer of the script adaptation and creative director of The Journey – The Living History of Regent Park . It was a huge success in June of 2015.

    As Woods eloquently expresses: “Our youth needs a sense of identity. … It’s more than building institutions. See, our youth are an institution. Our history is an institution. We are an institution. So let’s get our youth back and clean up the rhetoric and pollution and find a real solution.”

    Self-love, Black-love, doesn’t only limit itself to knowledge of self. It’s also about how we as Black people build relationships with each other. It’s about the simplest acts of greeting each other in the street without suspicion and “cut-eye.” It’s about, as how Woods puts it, not being “blacktose intolerant.”

    “Brother I have not given up on you. I am not now, nor have I even been, nor will I ever be the sister who has become so angry that I have become blacktose intolerant,” as Amani rhymes in one of her poems.

    Her latest project produced by Black Theatre Workshop and directed by artistic director Quincy Armorer, a new play entitled She Said/He Said, will premiere as a mainstage production from April 13 to May 1, 2016. Presented as “ spoken word and theatre colliding in a fresh and nuanced look at love, communication and relationships,” Woods explores how Black couples fight to make their relationships last in a world where the rules are always changing.

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  • Viola Desmond is the new face on Canada's $10 bill: Why it matters

    Nine years before Rosa Parks became known as “the first lady of civil rights” in the United States by refusing to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama -- triggering the landmark Montgomery Bus Boycott, an African-Canadian woman named Viola Desmond made a consequential act of defiance which would shed an important light on Canada’s own segregationist history.

    On November 8, 1946, she challenged a New Glasgow, Nova Scotia segregated movie house, the Roseland Theatre, by refusing to leave the white-only main floor seating area. She was dragged away forcibly by the theatre manager and a police officer, spent a night in jail, was tried the next morning, convicted and charged $26. Her courageous act led the government of Nova Scotia to repeal, in 1954, the laws that allowed segregation.

    Earlier this week, on December 8, 2016, Viola Desmond was chosen as the first Canadian woman and first African-Canadian to appear on Canadian currency, the $10 bill. Replacing John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, the new note will be issued in 2018. Desmond was chosen from a shortlist of five women -- which was itself trimmed down from over 26,000 submissions from Canadians who responded to a submissions open call.

    The effort followed Prime Minster Justin Trudeau’s decision, announced on International Women’s Day last March, to feature a woman on the $10 banknote.

    The announcement was made by Finance Minister Bill Morneau, in the presence of Wanda Robson -- the sister of Viola Desmond -- at a ceremony at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec.

    Unsilencing the past

    ‘It’s a big day to have a woman on a banknote, but it’s an especially big day to have your big sister on a banknote,’ said Ms. Robson. ‘Our family is extremely proud and honoured.’

    While the Canadian and international media’s news headlines have been highlighting the important fact that Viola Desmond is the first woman to grace Canadian currency (aside from the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II) the fact must not be lost that her blackness, and her stand in the face of bigotry, is at the root of the agency-affirming movement she unleashed.

    Canada has a long history of slavery, as well as employment and housing discrimination. 1946 Nova Scotia very much operated on a day-to-day basis through a segregated framework.

    As Sgt. Craig Smith (RCMP, Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia) says in the documentary Long Road to Justice - The Viola Desmond Story(shared below):

    “The only way in which you help to dispel some of the prejudices and some of the discriminatory actions and things that go on is to alleviate some of the fear that is out there. How do you alleviate the fear? You alleviate the fear by educating people so that I know as much about you and your history as you know about mine. If we can instill that in the youth, if we can educate the youth that we’ve all played a part in Canadian history, and we’ve all played a part in contributing to this wonderful country that we have; and that we all need to be respected because of that, then Viola Desmond’s legacy will live on forever.”

    The making of a trailblazer

    Born in 1914, Viola Desmond grew up in a family active in Nova Scotia’s black community. Trained as a teacher, she later joined her husband’s barbershop on Halifax’s Gottingen Street -- opening her beauty parlour wing and embarking on a business venture as a beautician.

    However, on account of her race, she was not able train as a beautician in Halifax. She thus set out to Montreal, New York and Atlantic City to learn from some of the top black beauticians of her time. In New York, she trained at a school founded by the first African-American millionaire, Madame C.J. Walker.

    When she returned to Nova Scotia, in addition to her own salon, she set up her Desmond School of Beauty Culture and became a mentor to young black women across the Maritimes and Quebec. She was determined to give black women the option she didn’t have of receiving proper training at home. Each year, her school graduated as many as fifteen women who had all been rebuffed by whites-only training schools. These graduates in turn provided jobs to other black women in their communities.

    Beauty schools were one of only a few ways black women of the time in the U.S. and Canada could build a business and prosper. Since white beauty salons had no interest in catering to African hair and skin types or learning the special techniques, the opportunities were widely open for black beauticians to serve their own communities.

    Desmond also developed her own line of beauty products, Vi's Beauty Products, which she marketed, sold and distributed herself. As a result, she was often on the road crisscrossing the Maritimes setting up franchises, training women and selling products.

    Bravely standing up for dignity

    This is how fate would bring her to unexpectedly spend the night in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia on November 8, 1946 -- while on her way to a business meeting in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Her car, a Dodge sedan, had broken down while on the road and the mechanic informed her that it would take a day for the part needed to fix her car to be delivered. Not one to stay in her hotel room all evening, she decide to go see a movie, The Dark Mirror, at the local Roseland Theatre.

    She asked for a main floor ticket but was sold a balcony ticket, reserved for people of colour. She proceeded to sit on the main floor but was soon approached by an attendant who informed Desmond that she couldn’t sit there because she had a balcony ticket. Arguing that it must have been a mistake, she returned to the ticket booth and asked for the main floor ticket that she originally requested. The booth operator looked at her blankly and said: “We’re not permitted to sell main floor tickets to you people.”

    Undeterred, Viola Desmond returned inside and sat back down on the main floor. This time, the theatre manager accosted her and told her it was indicated at the back of the ticket that they reserve the right not to sell tickets to disorderly people (not mentioning her race directly). After refusing to move, saying that she was not disturbing anybody, a policeman was called and both men forcibly removed her form the theatre. Amid the rough manhandling, she sustained a hip injury and lost a shoe and her handbag.

    Desmond was placed in a police car and sent to prison for the night. She wasn’t told by the magistrate that she could apply for bail, that she had the right to get a lawyer for legal advice or that her trial could be adjourned until she found a lawyer. She was dragged out of the theatre at around 7:00pm and by 9:00am the next day she had her trial.

    She was found guilty of tax fraud against the Nova Scotia government for failing to pay the one-cent difference between the taxes levied between the cheaper balcony seats and the main floor tickets. She was fined $20 plus $6 in costs, which went to the Roseland Theatre manager. Nowhere was it mentioned in the court case documents that this matter was race-related. Desmond paid the fine and returned to Halifax.

    A fight for justice

    Once she arrived in Halifax, she began talking to people about her experience and explored what could be done. He husband, a religious man who was himself from New Glasgow, thought she should let it go and “take it to the Lord with prayer.”

    But Desmond also sought the counsel of her church leaders, Minister William Pearly Oliver and his wife Pearline from the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, who held a contrary opinion. Emboldened by their support, Desmond decided to fight the spurious charge in court. With the assistance of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP), she hired a lawyer, Frederick William Bissett.

    Word of her legal action spread further with the publication of an article in the inaugural edition of The Clarion, the first black-owned and published newspaper in Nova Scotia. The article’s writer, Carrie Best, had herself experience discrimination at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow.

    Despite her lawyer’s efforts, the lawsuit was unsuccessful. Soon after the trial, Desmond closed her business and moved to Montreal to attend a business college. She later settled in New York, where she died at the age of 50 on February 7, 1965. She is buried at Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax.

    Securing Viola Desmond’s Legacy

    The mantle to fight for redressing the injustice suffered by Viola Desmond was later picked up by her younger sister, Wanda Robson. Through her determined work in keeping her sister’s story alive, Wanda Robson was the impetus behind the apology and pardon granted to Viola Desmond posthumously on April 14, 2010 -- the first such to be granted in Canada. Sixty-three years after that fateful day in New Glasgow, the special pardon was granted by Mayann Francis, Nova Scotia's first black Lieutenant Governor. Also present at the ceremony was the then-Premier of the province, who issued the following statement:

    “On behalf of the Nova Scotia government, I sincerely apologize to Mrs Viola Desmond’s family and to all African Nova Scotians for the racial discrimination she was subjected to by the justice system in November of 1946. The arrest, detainment and conviction of Viola Desmond is an example in our history where the law was used to perpetrate racism and racial segregation. This is contrary to the values of Canadian society. We recognize today that the act for which Viola Desmond was arrested was an act of courage, not an offense.

    The government of Nova Scotia recognizes that the treatment of Viola Desmond was an injustice. This injustice has impacted not just Mrs Desmond during her life and her family, but other African Nova Scotians and all Nova Scotians who find and continue to find this event in Nova Scotia’s history offensive and intolerable. On behalf of the province of Nova Scotia, I am sorry.”

    - Hon. Darrell Dexter, former Premier of Nova Scotia

    On November 8, 2010, Viola Desmond’s portrait was unveiled in Nova Scotia’s Government House.

    In February 2012, Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp in honour of Viola Desmond.

    More recently, in February 2016, Historica Canada featured Desmond in a Heritage Minute (shared below) featuring Kandyse McClure as Viola Desmond.

  • Windup Restaurant: Modern Caribbean cuisine redefined

    Windup RestaurantWindup Restaurant: A trendy spoy offering fine Caribbean cuisine

    For a little bit over a year now, there’s been trendy spot on the edges of Little Italy, near Kensigton Market, offering a new eclectic, modern and refined taste of Caribbean cuisine. Located at 382 College Street, Windup restaurant is a brilliantly reimagined incarnation of the old Windup Bird Cafe coffee and lunch spot.

    AfroToronto caught up with the restaurant’s executive chef, Bryan Birch. Previously the chef at Toronto’s Barque Smokehouse, Bryan has a real passion for cooking. “The cooking started at home. We used to follow my Trinidadian grandmother around the kitchen. When I was seven or eight, I just remember trailing her around the kitchen. She used to do a lot of Trinidadian food," as he shared.

    Bryan BirchExecutive Chef Bryan Birch

    Bryan grew up in a Caribbean household, having been born in Trinidad and arriving in Canada as a baby. He’s been back down to the Caribbean many times when he was older. But as a Canadian of Trinidadian heritage, he’s always felt Caribbean cuisine was underrepresented here in terms any greater than a fast food kind of way. That’s how the idea behind the concept for Windup was born. “The idea behind the restaurant is doing a really interesting kind of modern and refined, Trinidadian and Caribbean food,” he said.

    The Windup menu demonstrates how Caribbean cuisine can interact with international dishes as opposed to trying to replicate other Caribbean restaurants in Toronto. Bryan has been cooking for fourteen years and this restaurant is, in a way, a representation of his own cultural experiences as a Canadian of Caribbean heritage.

    “It’s the experience of growing up in Toronto,” Bryan says. “Growing up here, you get to be influenced by a lot of different cuisines.” As he experienced these different kinds of food, Bryan got intrigued. He attended Stratford Chefs School for high school and then started working in fine dining. He bolstered his experience by working in Montreal, New York and Bermuda. “So I was exposed to a wide range of cuisines and types of restaurants,” he said. “When I came back to Toronto, my eye was always toward trying to open something up on my own.”

    After working as a chef at Barque Smokehouse for four years, Bryan jumped at the opportunity to take over Windup last year. He introduced a new paradigm by injecting a Caribbean flavour and vibe to the neighborhood. “Most of the people that come in are really happy. They see both something different and new. They see something that represents something they're not really accustomed to getting.”

    • Red snapper, sautéed greens
    • Oxtail stuffer burger
    • Jerk chicken
    • Curried goat roti
    • Coconut breaded shrimp

    The establishment has been frequented by a lot of local people from the neighbourhood but there’s also been a good number of people from further out like Scarborough and Barrie, as well as several tourists from the United States. Bryan estimates that about 25% of his clientele is of Caribbean background and the rest quite varied.

    When asked what are some his favourite dishes are on the Windup menu, Bryan points to the open faced curried goat roti. “I’ve always loved curried goat growing up,” he said. The dish is inspired by the tacos that are all the rage at the moment in Toronto. Essentially, it’s a large roti cut into a taco shape. It’s filled with curried goat, pickled mango and plantain chips. Another dish he’s a really big fan of is the grilled octopus. It’s a fusion dish with more of an Asian influence, served with quinoa salad and roasted peanuts.

    Windup is open for brunch, lunch and dinner. It’s a great time right now to experience it as part of Summerlicious, running from July 8-24, 2016. Call 647-349-6373 or email them at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to book a table.

    About Windup

    382 College Street, Toronto, Ontario M5T 1S7

    T: (647) 349-6373 E: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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