Category Archives: Politics

Knowledge is Power: Broken Worlds by shono

Knowledge is Power is a mobilized and conscious attempt to combat and re-articulate the stories of communities that have been targeted, vilified and simplified by mainstream institutions of power in the city of Toronto.  We recognize that our work is part of a larger attempt to address the violence, trauma and need for healing.  We are young people, elders, artists, activists, students, educators…human beings…demanding accountability.”

http://knowledgeispowerto.tumblr.com/

The following piece is a reflection on the June 2nd, 2012 shooting at the Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto that resulted in the deaths of two young men named Ahmed Hassan (age 24) and Nixon Nirmealendran (age 22). The piece speaks to the ways in which young men with dark skin are vilified and dehumanized by the general public and the complex ways in which violence structures the lives of all of those who live in Toronto.

Broken Worlds

This weekend the heavens opened up and the city exploded in a burst of light. I’m sure it happened, the gusts of wind told me so. And of course the headlines of the daily newspaper agreed, as they swept their ominous messages across the city of Toronto. Somewhere an army of voices declared a war on blackness and violence and darkness, and the city exploded right before our eyes, and no one could do anything of it. The newspapers spoke hushed words, spreading into the minds of the people, warning the law-abiding citizens that evil lurked among us, gangs of blackness and violence in the heart of the city. The newspapers said sternly and without challenge that this evil, like all darkness, must be purged from our lives, once and for all.

However, the choruses of voices that came hurtling forth wrapped within the wind spoke stories that the newspapers would never dare to print. Stories that screamed of sadness, and urgency, stories of violent neglect and stories of a world spiraling out of control. The winds shrieked, saying that it takes a broken world, for a broken man to pull a trigger, for he is never alone, it is a collective and communal process. But the newspapers would never say this, because then we’d all realize just how accountable each one of us is. The winds implored us to remember all that we had forgotten to do. For we had forgotten to mourn the death of a man, and we had forgotten that men break when they have been broken. We had forgotten that cities and people explode when they have no other choice, and finally we had forgotten that darkness is not evil it is sacred.

And as the city exploded, the only question that most asked was, how do we keep the darkness from our lives? When instead we should have asked how have we become so far gone, that we can’t mourn the life of a young black boy killed from broad daylight, in the busiest mall in the busiest city in this country.  And as the winds thrashed the streets, and the rain soaked the people, they begged me to listen, for when the city explodes, it is always a collective process. For men break, when they have been broken.

This weekend the police were on high alert, for the newspapers assured us that explosions in the city must come from darkness and blackness. All to get blown up in bursts of masculinity – ticking time bombs, ticking time bombs. The wind warned of a danger much deeper, but the police were still on high alert searching and silencing, searching and silencing.

And I am left with a thought, a reality of this world:

“I am scared of the darkness, but the darkness is sacred.”

shono is a spoken word artist and storyteller. lost in history, he sees the need to recover forgotten words, so he writes. (jrtanaka@gmail.com)

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Knowledge is Power: Asking the Right Questions

Knowledge is Power is a mobilized and conscious attempt to combat and re-articulate the stories of communities that have been targeted, vilified and simplified by mainstream institutions of power in the city of Toronto.  We recognize that our work is part of a larger attempt to address the violence, trauma and need for healing.  We are young people, elders, artists, activists, students, educators…human beings…demanding accountability.” 

http://knowledgeispowerto.tumblr.com/

My mum made me write this.  I came home last week exhausted and tired telling her about the traumatic cartoons and the insensitive mayoral comments that were being tweeted and retweeted on my Twitter news feed and how people were calling, calling, calling for a response.  My mum just looked at me and said, “Well yeah.  You better respond!” In that look and in that statement she called me out.  Called me out of the lethargy and complacency and ego-tripping I often nestle myself into where I think I am already doing so much, and I don’t have energy to do this right now or feel inadequate or wary of the celebrity-ism that these incidents can create in the individuals that do choose to speak.  My mum made me remember that this isn’t a question.  I have the privilege of literacy and education and critical awareness and leverage and platform and space for reflection that many of my ancestors did not have before me.  This is not a question.  It is a responsibility.  For all of us.  They have silenced us through Facebook and Twitter and BBM to believe that activism can be summed up in a 4-sentence status or a 140 character tweet.  It can start there…those places can move things…but it cannot end there.

On Saturday, June 2nd, 2012 Lost Lyrics celebrated our 5-Year Anniversary across the street from the Eatoncentre at Ryerson University.  As our incredible keynote speaker, Dr. Darrick Smith wrapped up the final answer in a Q&A that had the entire audience pulsating with energy, inspiration and belief in revolutionary change…

…I received a text that there had been a shooting at Eatoncentre.

It’s funny what those messages do; they so rapidly impact your mind, body and spirit.  Breathing either stops or becomes short.  All the hundreds of thoughts whizzing through the mind slow down and focus to those words facing you on a strangely lit LCD screen.

This feeling was replicated one too many times last week as I got the phone call, read the text, saw the tweets and re-tweets of each shooting and act of bloody violence that has occurred in this city.  And just as my breath starts coming back and my body realizes that it can still move, and I start shifting into information-gathering/support/coordination/retreat/distraction mode, I am hit once again.  This second hit comes from a press conference with the police chief or the cartoon section of the newspaper or the statements made by the mayor, or the tweets made by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, or articles on Hennessy and Hip Hop’s intimate connection with Toronto gun violence or angry editorials published by irresponsible publications.

In order to shoot someone, I would imagine that there has to be a capacity of silencing humanity – your own and the potential victim.  This capacity to silence the layers and complexities and nuances of humanity is strangely replicated in the “official” responses of mainstream media, politicians and police officials and the general public as they forget the human beings behind the stories.

Contrary to the stories we are being bombarded with, please know: It took A LOT to get us to this place and it will take A LOT to get us past it.

I can confidently say that to move forward, what we do not do is comfort ourselves with falsehoods.  In his first public statement following Monday’s shooting in Scarborough, Mayor Rob Ford declared that Toronto is the safest city in the world.  To this I ask, “to whom is this city safe?”  Perhaps if you are a straight, white, heterosexual male with economic privilege and political power, this city is the epitome of safe.  However there are thousands of folks – women-identified, racialized, LGBTQ Spectrum folks, persons with disabilities, youth, newcomers, Aboriginal people and more – who walk these streets feeling unsafe every single day.

I also have a strangely familiar feeling that radio debates and “city-under-fire” news specials with city police and apparent leaders of the “Black community” will lead to little more than a scavengers grab for any crumbs that may emerge as pressure rises.  Don’t get me wrong: telling our stories from our voices is so incredibly and vitally important.  Responding to the garbage that is disseminated everyday by mainstream media is very very necessary and some amazing work has already been done in this regard by writers such as Simon Black, community mobilization in response to the Toronto Star cartoon and interviews with frontline workers who give layered and complex responses by the CBC.  But this is just reflex. It is a reaction (and defense) to the bullshit.  It is not transformative.  And it cannot be.  Because it is limited by a structure of storytelling defined by sound-bites and segments and word counts that too often ask the wrong questions in the search for the quick (and sensational) answers.

Things are not going to get better if we keep asking the wrong questions and looking for quick and fast responses.

I just finished reading Andrea Smith’s book “Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide” and my mind feels like it is going to explode with understanding of the layered web of context that has brought us to this current place.   The young people directly involved in this violence are not “things.” You cannot silence their humanity by calling them “thugs” and “gang members.” They are individuals who consciously or unconsciously are manifesting the mess that has been created by a culture of violence, power, capitalism, conquest, genocide, exploitation and rape.  Our entire global economic order and particularly the economic order of North America is built upon a legacy of violent death and exploitation.

Yes I did go there, because that’s where we are.  And people don’t want to read this answer.  They want to hear that this can be solved by more police, or more programs, or deportation, or banning guns.  Sorry.  It took a lot to get us here and it will take a lot to get us out.  It took a global economic system that normalizes exploitation, a military industrial complex that naturalizes a permanent state of war, a prison industrial complex that locates certain bodies as permanently criminalized and an education system that (as Darrick Smith reminded us) has lost the root of it’s very essence.  The root of the word education is “to educe” – to bring out – but in our current system, education has become mired in a web of inculcating and “inducing” young people into passive, non-critical and non-resistant individuals.

There is a contradiction in relying upon the state to solve problems it is responsible for creating.” – Andrea Smith

The answers cannot be found through the same channels and mechanisms that brought us here.  Whether it is state-funded police or state-funded programs, the state cannot and will not bring us social transformation. Let’s be clear: Social transformation is what we’re talking about.  And how can the state fund a transformation that will fundamentally question its very existence and mode of being?

Although I appreciate the mobilization this banner can bring, the core of the issue is not banning guns.  If it’s not guns, it’s a machete as was also evidenced this past week.  The Stolen from Africa movement articulated it succinctly: “Banning guns won’t stop violence.  Changing mindsets will.” We have to ask, how did we get to this place where a person’s humanity can be reduced to nothing?  And we can ask this question to all who dehumanize: the shooter that pulled the trigger, the Toronto police that fill out profile cards, the judge that moves robotically through case after case, the elder watching the television demanding that they lock up all these thugs who look like their grandsons, the mayor who brings up ludicrous calls for deportation, the cartoonist that creates work geared to traumatize under the guise of freedom of expression, the journalist who bombards the funeral with insensitive and triggering questions, the contributor who writes an editorial that labels human beings as things.   Society has normalized dehumanization and so society needs to be transformed.

My personal politics is based on faith in the capacity of education and art to truly move and transform.  I believe that art can inspire and education can transform and together revolution can be built.  I am not sure what Mayor Rob Ford was referring to when he described his disgust for “hug-a-thug programming.”  But I do know that the non-profit industrial complex can make it easy for activists to become bureaucrats.  It is easy to get caught in the cycle of twisting and contorting what was once a dream into the narrow and confined objectives of a funder and convince yourself that change can occur through “teaching skills” and teaching our young people how to participate in society – conveniently pushing aside the inconvenient knowledge that this society is built on violence, exploitation and individualistic and oppressive conceptions of power.  Nothing will fundamentally change with this strategy.

As my bestie and the co-founder of Lost Lyrics, Natasha Daniel is always telling me: “We have to think outside of the box…”

Lost Lyrics Students at the Angel March

…I am interested in teaching young people how to recognize, critically analyze, resist and create.  I am asking myself, with the privilege I hold as a facilitator, an educator, a writer and an artist – what type of human beings am I trying to help create through my work?  Who am I sending back into society, into our communities when they are done with my class? With my program? Watching my play? Reading my essay?  How am I working every single day on this goal of transforming society?  What capacity to change society do you possess in your everyday roles?  How do we strategically mobilize under this shared intention?

Let’s start asking the right questions.

 

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Banksy on Advertising

I saw this post on Tasha TheAmazon’s Tumblr page and I felt compelled to re-post it here:

“People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you.

You, however, are forbidden to touch them. Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with total impunity.

Fuck that. Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.

You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.” ~ Banksy

 

 

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When the Sacred is Disrupted: Why More Police is Not the Solution (Part 1)

When the structural character of racism is ignored in discussions about crime, and the rising population of incarcerated people, the racial imbalance in jails and prisons is treated as a contingency, at best as a product of the ‘culture of poverty,’ and at worst as proof of an assumed black monopoly on criminality. The high proportion of Black people in the criminal justice system is thus normalized and neither the state nor the general public is required to talk about and act on the meaning of that racial imbalance.” (Angela Davis)

Sacred space.  I am not a religious person but I do have faith in the sacred.  I believe we can create, contribute to and be a part of spaces that are sacred in the energy they hold and the effect this has on those that encounter it.

When those spaces are disrupted, it feels as though someone has intruded upon some of the most intimate parts of what we believe to be safe.  In 2005 when Amon Beckles was killed on the front steps of a church, it was not just his murder that left so many stunned.  It was this intrusion on such a sacred space.  Last month when Christopher “Chrissy” Thompson was murdered in a barbershop in Malvern, once again it felt like someone had not only abruptly and tragically ended his life, but they had also without warning disrupted a space that for so many is their comfort zone, their place of safety, their space of grounding.  The barbershop is a sacred location for many of the communities I am a part of.  It hurts my heart to think of this disruption.

So when my homegirl Keisha-Monique told me that when she attended the vigil for Christopher “Chrissy” Thomspon a few weeks back in Malvern and heard the community call for an “increase in police,” my heart dropped…but I was not surprised.  Of course people would call for the police…these acts of violence – which are not isolated to a singular incident but are part of a larger systemic and embedded culture of violence that is seeing the death of so many young Black men and the mental health deterioration of so many communities, communities which include mothers, siblings, partners and friends who are suffering from variations of post-traumatic stress disorder – is TERRIFYING.  The need to feel safe, the need to feel protected leads community to call on the one institution that claims  their mandate is “to serve and protect.” I get it.  I do.  When there is no other evident alternative, this is what our communities will turn to.  And I am not mad at them.  But my heart continues to hurt because I know that this is not going to prevent or halt violence.  How can an institution built by, for and through violence, prevent it?  We are living in a culture of violence and the justice system which includes policing is an integral part of it.

Even those communities that are most deeply injured by this racist logic have learned how to rely upon it, particularly when open allusions to race are not

necessary.  Thus, in the absence of broad, radical grassroots movements in poor Black communities so devastated by new forms of youth-perpetrated violence, the ideological options are extremely sparse.  Often there are no other ways to express collective rage and despair but to demand that police sweep the community clean of crack and Uzis, and of the people who use and sell drugs and wield weapons.” (Angela Davis)

I want to share some research that I have done over the past few years that has contributed to my belief that policing, prisons and harsh crime laws are not the solution to issues of  violence within our communities.  As I write this, I recognize that I am speaking from a space of relative privilege; I have not lost my father, brother, uncle, cousin, lover to violence.  But I have loved men who pulled the trigger, love(d) men who have been/are incarcerated, I have loved young men who were shot…young men who were killed…young men and women who were diagnosed with schizophrenia and chronic depression and high blood pressure…young men and women who lose themselves in bottles…and this research has helped me to move through the process of what it means to love through trauma, to love through and with pain.

Who Gets Defined as Criminal?

Aboriginal women in Australia make up 2% of the general population but 30% of the women’s prison population.  In the past decade, this population has skyrocketed as a result of tough-on-crime policies and the war on drugs.  At the same time, neoliberal policies have impoverished Aboriginal communities, driving women…into the streets to seek a living in the violent criminalized economies of the sex and drug trades.” (Julia Sudbury)

The criminal is the teenage Caribbean male who dresses with a Hip Hop swag and is ‘assumed to be’ selling drugs.  The criminal is the woman/trans person of colour standing on a street corner who ‘inevitably’ has sex for money on their mind.  The criminal is the middle-aged South Asian man who is ‘most likely’ involved in violence in his home and potential terrorism toward the state.   The criminal is the First Nations man or woman who is ‘probably’ getting drunk in the alleyway downtown.  The criminals are the Tamil women and men arriving by boat, crossing oceans and borders to arrive in “our” country.  The criminal is the individual who is dealing with mental health issues and is a ‘threat’ to public safety.  Who get’s defined as criminal is inherently rooted in intersections of race, class, gender and notions of the nation state; who does NOT fit the mould of the ‘ideal’ citizen.

“The labelling of a ‘criminal class’ serves several functions.  Most notably, it acts as a rationale for control and punishment of dissident and unassimilated groups.  It legitimizes imprisonment of the unemployable, a surplus labour force burdening our increasingly technological society.  It also provides employment – and a degree of political control, by surveillance, patronage and other means – for ‘middle Americans’ employed in the prison industry.” (Instead of Prisons)

The definition of the criminal and crime is a definition of politics:

  • Rarely punished by imprisonment are the crimes committed by persons from the more powerful sectors of society.  These include “white collar crimes” such as embezzlement, price fixing, tax evasion and consumer fraud as well as other crimes.” (Instead of Prisons)

The shaping of what is legal and illegal is a game of politics.  Have you ever wondered why some things are against the law and others are not?

  • Certain crimes committed by persons from the more powerful sectors of society are not now illegal. Persons committing these crimes include: manufacturers of unsafe cars which annual cause thousands to perish in flaming highway wrecks; Absentee landlords who charge extraordinary rents for rat-infested slum apartments; Manufacturers of napalm and other genocide weapons…” (Instead of Prisons)

The most far-reaching crimes that involve the lives of vast majorities of the population are the one’s least likely to be held accountable.  The politicians and multi-national corporations involved are rarely put into handcuffs, wrestled into police cars and tried in a court of law:

  • …crimes against humanity.  Most of these behaviours are not now illegal; the criminal law focuses on individual acts.  Crimes against humanity involve threats to human survival resulting from collective action.  These include war, starvation, overpopulation, resource depletion and exploitation, poverty, the possibility of nuclear holocaust, environmental pollution, to name a few.  If we hope to function under a system of law, whole systems such as multinational corporations and governments, must be held responsible.” (Instead of Prisons)

Crime Wave Statistics and Public Fear

Fear has always been an integral component of racism.  The ideological reproduction of a fear of Black people, whether economically or sexually grounded, is rapidly gravitating toward and being grounded in a fear of crime.” (Angela Davis)

Fear, fear, fear.  Hmm.  Manipulation through fear is as old as recess for me.  I remember when I was younger that it was always the tallest girl who had at least the facade of confidence who became the leader of the crew.  Even if the confidence was a facade, she held that position because the rest of us were too rooted in our insecurities, had invested too much into our fear, to challenge her words and her actions.  Interesting how this follows into adulthood…the playground bully transforms into the news broadcaster or the mayor or the so called expert on crime…

Examinations of politicians eager to present their opponents as ‘soft on crime,’ media outlets seeking headline-grabbing stories in the war of the ratings, and private corporations that build and operate prisons and detention centers for profit have shown that the global prison boom is the outcome of public policy and private greed.” (Julia Sudbury)

I am always so thankful that I chose to watch The Wire (the best television show that I have ever seen) with my mother.  It helped her to understand the work that I do and (for a while) had her looking at the news and shows such as Law and Order with a more critical eye.  Wanted signs for young Black men on the evening news now became untold stories of human beings who could have been Bodie or could have been Wallace and were dehumanized to the public with menacing sketches and unflattering pictures as “criminals” whose existence was based only on this singular crime to which they had not yet been convicted; these young men were not given space to have layers and narratives and humanity; in the media, they were simply criminals to be feared.  I am watching The Wire (again) now with my uncle and my grandmother and we engage in family conversations about the systemic nature of crime and how media distortions disrupt our capacity to recognize the “crimes” that truly oppress us…

What political purposes are served by increasing fear of ‘crime in the streets?’ Public attention is focused on the myth of the criminal class, reinforcing a we/they view.  Attention is diverted from serious crimes committed by persons other than ‘street criminals.’ Fear of a ‘crime wave’ builds support for increased police repression of certain segments of society.“(Instead of Prisons)

…despite media-inflated panics about rising crime, the 30-year prison boom has not been matched by an exponential increase in crime rates.  In fact, during the 1990s, when reported crime rates in the United States underwent a sustained downturn, the prison population doubled…women continue to be incarcerated in the large part for nonviolent survival crimes.  Even where these survival strategies – whether sex work, drug couriering, or welfare fraud – are recognized, they are stigmatized and homogenized by the label ‘offending behaviour.’ Women’s personal histories are then mined as rich sources for understanding this aberrant behaviour, and childhood abuse, domestic violence, or familial disfunction presented as the root cause.  Presenting women’s experiences of abuse as the cause of incarceration individualizes and personalizes their treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system.  It obscures the broader social disorder signified by mass incarceration, and it sidesteps the question of why the state responds to abused women with punishment.” (Julia Sudbury)

Follow the Money

Fear of communism justified huge military expenditures during the Cold War, generating what Dwight Eisenhower labeled a ‘military-industrial complex,’ and this was replaced after the disintegration of the Soviet bloc by a media-inspired fear of crime.  The prison boom therefore became a leading economic motor during the downsizing, layoffs, and corporate relocations of the 1980s and 1990s.” (Julia Sudbury)

“You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the fuck it’s gonna take you.” (Lester Freamon, The Wire)

Word.  I think we have some idea of what we will find…

As capital moves with ease across national borders, legitimized by recent trade agreements such as NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] and GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades], corporations are allowed to close shop in the United States and transfer manufacturing operations to nations providing cheap labour pools.  In fleeing organized labour in the US to avoid paying higher wages and benefits, they leave entire communities in shambles, consigning huge numbers of people to joblessness, leaving them prey to the drug trade, destroying the economic base of these communities, thus affecting the education system, social welfare – and turning the people who live in those communities into perfect candidates for prisons.  At the same time, they create an economic demand for prisons, which stimulates the economy, providing jobs in the correctional industry for people who often come from the very populations that are criminalized by this process.  It is a horrifying and self-reproducing cycle.” – Angela Davis

How do we develop truly sacred spaces in this context?

To be continued…

Recommended Reading:

Global Lockdown: Race, Gender and the Prison Industrial Complex, Edited by Julia Sudbury
The Angela Y. Davis Reader, Edited by Joy James
Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Abolitionists by the Prison Research Education Action Project

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To the Class and the Professor that Saved (and Continues to Save) my Life…Thank You

Nine years ago I began my undergraduate degree at York University. I was 17 years old and went straight from high school into my university career feeling incredibly confident that my major in Political Science would lead smoothly and directly into law school and a subsequent career in the field of international law (clearly things did not happen this way).   Alongside the mandatory courses I took in that first year such as Intro to Political Science and Global Politics I also selected a Humanities course that I needed in order to graduate.  Even as a child,  I have never been a fan of mornings…so it was with some hesitation that I selected a class that occurred at 8:30am every Friday morning…but the description of the course had me fascinated so much more than any of my Political Science classes.  I kept reading and re-reading it over and over again…it was called Cultures of Resistance in the Americas:

This course addresses the ways in which diasporic black peoples have responded to and resisted their enslaved and subordinated status in the Americas. Resistance is first addressed in relationship to slavery, but later in the course resistance is seen in a much broader context: in response to post-colonial and post-civil rights, and as an engagement of national, economic, cultural and social forces. Thus, resistance might be understood as a continuing legacy of black peoples’ existence in the Americas. Resistance might, first, be read in relationship to European domination in the Americas and, second, to national and other post-emancipation forms of domination which force us to think of resistance in increasingly more complex ways. The “anatomy of prejudices i.e. “sexism, homophobia, class oppression, racism”come under scrutiny as the course attempts to articulate the libratory project.  

8:30am every Friday morning.  I did not miss a single class.

My entire world was turned upside down and inside out and it all began when I encountered the individual who taught the class.  Professor Andrea Davis was young, she was stylish and she was the first teacher I ever had of African descent.

2003 Prom Picture

I went to high school in the Weston Mount Dennis area (Eglinton West-Jane Street-Weston Road-Humber Blvd), a neighbourhood with a very high West African, Caribbean and Latino population but

despite the diverse demographics of the geographical region and the school population every single one the teachers I had at this Catholic institution were of European descent.  They were not terrible teachers.  I actually had really positive relationships with quite a few of them: my history teacher Mr. Speed who was obsessed with narratives of war and would tell stories of elaborate military missions using tables and chairs to create his sets; Mr. Tuohy who introduced me to the concept of activism in World Issues with his stories of adbusters and protestors ignited my desires to travel the world; and Ms. Perkins-Ball, the teacher who worked tirelessly to teach herself the content of the African Heritage course that was constantly under threat of cancellation at our school.  She introduced me to a history that did not begin at slavery but included knowledge of African kingdoms that were complex and sophisticated and necessary to learn.  But by no means was it all peachy: there were teachers with

2003 High School Graduation

archaic notions of discipline who attempted to lock students in closets (she called it a dressing room, everyone else called it a closet); teachers who refused to put the Black History Month celebrations into the school yearbook, teachers who told me “I really think you can do better” when I told them who my date was for prom –  a brilliant young man who never felt engaged with the system and ended up dropping out; teachers who asked me if I thought I was going to become a lesbian because there were so few good black men out there for successful, intelligent Black women.  When I graduated from this school which had a relatively large Black student population, there was only one other Black male accepting his diploma with me.

I had always wondered what it would be like to have a teacher that looked like me standing at the front of the class.  I wondered if it would make any difference at all or if it would be the same story with a different face.

Dr. Andrea Davis

Cultures of Resistance in the Americas was not the same story.

This class completely shifted my entire world view.  It was as though it took everything that I had subconsciously come to understand about my history, my construction of self, my lived experience in relationships and provided me with CONTEXT; a language of analysis, a reason for why.  It presented me with a magnifying glass to have a closer, sharper, more insightful look into me and my mum and my friends and my grandparents and the ancestors whose names I may never know.  It was the first class that I ever took that helped me understand MYSELF; myself as a historical being; myself as a feminist; myself as an agent of transformation and change.  I hadn’t realized how powerless I felt until this class; it was as though history was being re-taught to me from a layered and complex perspective of resistance.

At the end of each class, I remember that a group of us would head to the student centre, grab something (probably unhealthy) to eat, and sit by the Yogen Fruz talking about everything that had been discussed in the class.  The learning experience continued into these informal conversations where we began making parallels and connections to our own lives.  These conversations would go on for

HOURS until we had to leave for our next class or go home and catch a few more hours of sleep before heading to work at Athletes World (lol).

So that was 9 years ago.  After that I made sure to take a class every single year with a Black female professor who helped me to contextualize and understand my position in the world and also helped me to maintain my sanity within the academic institution and the larger world.  So this resulted in:

By my third year I began re-visioning my life goals and started to imagine myself as a Professor, wearing cute outfits like Andrea and transforming the lives of my students one lecture at a time.  I had never before imagined or desired a life as an educator.  I don’t actually think the work that I have been doing for the past 5 years with Lost Lyrics and The Remix Project would have been possible without those experiences which helped me to imagine myself in spaces that prior to this time, I had not seen myself in or even more importantly had not seen the possibilities that could occur within them.  When I began university, I understood change as working for the United Nation (cue laughter at my naivete here!)  The experience that began with Cultures of Resistance helped me to recognize the importance of change as something personal; something intimate; something rooted in community.  So much of the content of what I teach and want to teach comes out of those classes and I refer back to the lecture notes, old papers, course kits and literature that was assigned on a regular basis.

Today, once again, I visited the class Cultures of Resistance in the Americas, but this time with one of my students from Lost Lyrics.  My intention for attending this class with my student was to illustrate to him the possibilities that can occur within a university setting, to show him the distinction between high school and university; I let him know that this class was indeed special and not every class in post-secondary was like this; but if you have a clear understanding of the kind of academic experience you are looking for, then you can seek out these spaces.  The subject of today’s class was “Challenging the Myth of the Strong Black Woman” and it was an amazing feeling to see him take notes, watch his eyes follow Andrea, observe him nodding or see the wheels turning in his mind.

But then something unexpected happened.

This lecture which I remember, which I have referred back to countless times including when I recently watched Nicki Minaj’s music video for Stupid Hoe and when I sat through the film The Help, this lecture that is engraved in my lens for analyzing the world began saying something different to me than what it said 9 years ago.  I began locating myself in the content of this lecture in a way that I did not and could not do when I was 17 years old.

As I listened to Andrea talk about the stereotype of the Mammy and the harmful effects of this ideal of strength and how this narrative of Black female strength is often talked about in a way that silences the context from which this strength emerges, and how this stereotype of strength locates sexuality as an unavoidable shame that must be denied in order for the strong Black woman to remain on a pedestal and how the Mammy stereotype can be found in the contemporary remixed form of the “corporate woman”, the “conscious empress”, the “church woman”…and…the “community worker”…something happened inside of me…a question began stirring: is she talking about me?

When Black women act trapped and sacrifice lives and energies to companies and employers to the extent of self-denial, they are exhibiting signs of Mammy-ism” (Afi Samella Abdullah, “Mammy-ism”)

Seldom have we stopped to think, however, that this thing called strength, this thing we applaud so much in Black women, could also be a disease…” (Trudier Harris, “This Disease Called Strength”)

Like I said, I learned this 9 years ago.  I’ve referred back to it almost every year since then.  So it is not new.  But the body taking in this knowledge is in a different place and so it is receiving this knowledge in a new way.  This body has gone through nervous breakdowns, has learned what vicarious trauma means, has figured out the hard way the dangers of working without strong boundaries, has been the only woman in an all male workplace, has called out the dangers of her own strength in her art, has asked her mother and grandmother the stories of their lives to understand the reasons and the whys behind their strength, has spent the past two months sleeping more than usual out of exhaustion, has been put on pedestals, has been dehumanized in her strength, has felt the inadequacies of not being superwoman, has denied her own sexuality in her quest to be the superwoman of so many other people’s mythical creations, has worked on adrenaline rather than healthy energy, has cried so many more tears….

Now, with this re-introduction to urgent knowledge, I am compelled to imagine myself anew once again…

This post is a thank you.  It is a thank you to Andrea Davis and her class Cultures of Resistance for saving my life in 2003 and again today in 2012.

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