BLACK: According to Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionary:
1) “(of the sky or night) completely dark owing to the sun,
moon, or stars not being visible.”
2) “”Black colour or pigment.
3) “A black thing, in particular the black ball in snooker.”
4) “Characterized by tragic or disastrous events;
causing despair or pessimism.”
5) “indicative of condemnation or discredit”
6) “Of or relating to to any of various population groups
having dark pigmentation of the skin”
7) “of or relating to African American people or their culture”
These definitions were specifically chosen from the many definitions that were provided, as they show the progression of what I learned Black to be. A learning that I am actively still learning about. A journey into Blackness thus far.
This piece is written from my experiences and perspective alone and is in no way indicative of the experiences of every Black person as one collective group. Our stories are unique in their similarities, different in their commonalities, and heartbreaking in the reality of this modern world. There is a movement, and I do not want to be a silent bystander. Feelings be damned! My feelings and the feelings of countless Black, African, African American, African Canadian and Black identifying individuals have been hurt, have been brutalized for far too long. No longer will our tongues be held back in conversation. No longer will heads be bowed, or eyes lowered out of fear of causing a rift in the system. No longer will there be silence when it is time for individuals and systems to be called out, to speak up. No longer will we idly stand by while knees are being held to our necks, as we scream out “I Can’t Breathe”. No longer. No longer. No longer. Let me start from the beginning. I became black when I was 10 years old. How is that possible you may ask? Well, at ten years old, my family immigrated to Canada, to the Greater Toronto Area, to a unique neighborhood. Up until that point in my life, I was simply a girl. Nigerian, but girl, nonetheless. A girl whose roots ran as deep and as rich as the land in which she inhabited. A girl whose identity was secure in a community that looked liked her, to a people that shared her culture, languages, and traditions. I was nothing more than a girl navigating her robust world. I was enthralled by the myriad of languages, the foods, the clothing, emphasis on education, the resources (both natural and human) that was constantly being discovered in innovative ways, the hairstyles, and diverse ways of life that I was surrounded by in everyday living. Knowledge is power, and learning went beyond the walls of the schools I attended. Knowledge came from the stories my elders told, experiences my peers shared, community with my neighbors, from literature, media, and conversations that reflected me since they represented and showcased people that looked like me. BLACK WAS NOT A PART OF MY VOCABULARY FOR WE WERE ALL A COMMUNITY, THOUGH FROM DIFFERENT TRIBES. I remember being in an unspoken competition with my mom because her Afro (its volume, fullness, versatility, beauty) was something that I aspired to have atop my own head one day. I remember being proud to be me, not because of the color of my skin, but because of my abilities, my way of thinking, who I was – with nothing else attached but my authentic self. Then, Canada happened. I did not change, but my environment changed around me. Within a week of moving to Canada, we were already enrolled in school. I remember being nervous and excited for school for I have always loved learning. I was excited because North America was said to have the best education, the best way of life, and was very diverse, open, and accepting. I too would live the dream – or so I thought. Upon arriving at school, we were informed that I would need to attend ESL (English as a Second Language) classes because we came from “Africa”. I was a bit confused, for you see, one of the languages I have been speaking from birth, is English. I was already reading novels, writing essays, competing in academic events in English. In fact, I spoke multiply languages. That didn’t matter. I came from “a third world country”. That was my first introduction to ‘other-hood’. On that same first day of school, I was told I talked funny (and no it is not for the reason you think), for you see, Nigeria was colonized and disrupted by British rule for many decades, so I learned British English. That was funny sounding and laughable to my peers and teachers. How dare I have the nerve to call ‘glue – gum’, ‘elastics – rubber’, and ‘garbage – rubbish’. I was laughed at by the kids in my classrooms and corrected in front of the class by my White teachers. The unspoken message was ‘fix your way of speaking or be ridiculed for it daily’. So, I adapted. That was not so bad right? Adopt the language of the new culture in which you live. No big deal. My journey of otherhood only just began. I was speaking with some of the non-Black girls in my class making friends, they said; “You know you are Black right? Why are you here with us?”. I did not even know how to begin to process any of what was said. Black? What is Black? I am African, Nigerian to be exact. I guess my lack of response, anger, or whatever it may have been, rubbed them the wrong way, for that was when the bullying truly started. See as kids, we refer to it as bullying. As adults, we call it micro-aggression. No matter what label we want to place on it, it all amounts to the same thing; people and people groups being belittled and made to feel inferior using very intentionally direct and indirect tactics – Racism. Your name is funny, “rhymes with piano”. At first, I thought nothing of it. Then, the questions started “How do you spell your name?” “How do you say your name?” “Can I call you this instead?” “Can I call you that instead?” “Wow, it must have taken you a very long time to learn your name.” “Why didn’t your parents give you a simpler name?” “Why do you not have an English name?” I left school that year hating my name, or did I just really hate the questions that accompanied it? I begged my mom to change my preferred name on my school documents to an abbreviation of my middle name. I needed to fit in. I needed to not be made a spectacle of. I needed to belong. Those words became my mantra. I need to fit in, I need to not be made a spectacle of. I need to belong. I chanted it in my head (fit, blend, belong) when the bullying was turned up a few notches in grade 6 because I was doing so well in the mainstream classes. My teacher would berate me in front of the class for reading beyond the required pages in our class reading, for raising my hand up too quickly, and punish me by making me miss out on the “fun lessons” for the day because I was being a show-off with my knowledge. He would call me dramatic when I reacted to the kids intentionally stepping on my hands or feet on the carpet, taking my snacks, calling me names at recess, or excluding me in group work. He would in fact tell me to go sit at my desk to calm down because I was disrupting the class. The message that sent to me was “You know you are Black right? Plus, you are African.” I remember mustering up the courage to go to speak with him one day after we had completed track and field try-outs. I had spoken with my mom, and she had told me that if I calmly explained to the teacher what was happening, that he would find a way to help me. I believed it. I mean, he was an adult, an educator. Fairness was his responsibility, right? Well, after sharing with him what some of the kids had been saying to me, particularly how it had turned into a viscous attack on the shade of the color of my skin, with rumors being spread about me being dirty, poor, and diseased – because I was African, I hoped that he would address us as a class, even if he did not want to address individual students. He simply looked over his shoulder at me (oh yes, I had to walk and talk with me because he had somewhere to be) and said, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. Then he walked away. What was that quote meant to accomplish? I simply know that I got the message loud and clear – I do not belong, and if I wanted to survive, I needed to learn to adapt fast! I had to adapt when my grade 7 teacher pulled me out of class mid-day and told me that wearing my hair as an Afro, as it naturally grows out of my head, was very disruptive to his classroom, and I was never allowed to wear my hair like that again (enter relaxers, weaves, and years of hating my hair). I adapted when in grade 8 I was told that Black kids truly only make head way in high school and university through sports (enter trying to win sports scholarships instead of academic focus). I adapted to the security guards at our high school stopping and searching the black and brown kids more than any other racial group in that school (they are the authority, so if they do it, it must be okay). I adapted to police presence in and around my school and neighborhood because we had moved to a predominantly Black neighborhood. I adapted to being stopped several times on the street at night as I walked home from basketball practice simply because I looked the way I do. I adapted to being the token Black girl at most parties, events, gatherings, and classrooms when I entered university in a predominantly White community. I adapted to White people often trying to identify with me as a Black person, and not as a person; for to the degree their blackness could match my own, was a sense of validation that they belonged in Black spaces. I adapted to the whiteness around me, for to the degree my whiteness matched their own, was their sense of security that I belonged in their spaces. Some even had the audacity to say to my face that THEY WERE BLACKER THAN I AM simply because I did not fit their stereotypical narrative of a Black person. As though my Blackness was something they could give and take away. As though my lived experiences paled in comparison to the number of rap songs, hip-hop/Black dance styles, and Nike shoes they owned. Many equated my reserve, my resilience, to the degree of my Blackness. When I held my tongue, tamed my abilities, dimmed down my knowledge, or controlled myself because to do otherwise would be to threaten their understanding of what Black is; they felt justified in thinking that they were “Blacker” than me. Adapting in adult life meant bowing my head and being grateful it did not end up worse when for turning left safely and legally at a green light, I was pulled over for “turning left suspiciously”. Adapting meant being polite and respectful the entire time when I was pulled over for driving the speed limit (or as they called it “driving suspiciously”) as I looked for the house number that I was to visit, in a community I was not familiar with. Adapting meant putting aside my fear and giving respect that was not earned when two officers flanked my car on either side with one yelling at my younger brother for a government issued I.D (he was underage), and the other questioning the validity of our presence in a certain community – I struggled to answer both at the same time. Fit, Blend, Belong. I adapted, I forced myself to fit, I blended, for the false sense of security of belonging. Now I have come to know that I am Black. I am a citizen of a country that does not acknowledge the worth of my kind. And no matter what I do, no matter what I accomplish, the color of my skin, the audacity of my name, and the prevalence of my culture, will always speak louder than my merit. Unless…THERE IS CHANGE. Racism, a racist societal structure, and systemic racism is an uncomfortable topic to discuss. True change has never been meant to be comfortable. Imagine being a 10-year-old kid that was not taught about racism but had to live through it each day of her life because she is Black. Imagine being a 12-year-old boy (Tamir Rice) being shot to death because he was simply playing with a toy gun in a park, while Black. Imagine being a 6-year-old boy watching the news, crying because he cannot understand why people hate those who look like him so much. Imagine being an adult and being thrown forced to revisit trauma repeatedly because your lived experiences must pass through White gaze. Imagine a world where your confidence in your ability is often mistaken for arrogance. Where you are talked at or over more times than not. A world where your natural reaction to life (your laugh, easy banter, questions of why, willingness to look at more than one side, and drive to give anything a try) will be interpreted as defiance, over the top eccentricities, or downright inappropriate because it does not fit a White narrative. Imagine always having to always tick a little box that reminds you that in the grand scheme of life as you live it, you are less than, a visible minority. BLACK LIVES MATTER, for the system was meant to keep Black people in bondage, it was never built to serve them. There must be a change. In spite of it all, I am hopeful, and I am inspired. My silver lining in this dark cloud is that conversations are happening. People that look like me, talk like me, live like me, are finally being publicly SEIZING the table to speak on issues concerning them. We are being consulted on issues that has to do with our community, our culture. I am glad that neighbors are rousing from their slumber and speaking up, standing up, looking up, willing to learn. I am inspired by the willingness of so many to learn, to unlearn, to relearn. I try to silence the nagging voice that says this will lead to nothing more than a time that big movements happened with no significant changes. I worry that my nephews, still young will still need to fear being treated differently at school, will be misguided in their learning, or forced to fit into a certain mold because of the color of their skin. IN SPITE OF IT ALL, I am inspired by the courage, audacity, bravery of many young people across ethnic lines to stand up against racism, against injustice, against the false narrative we have been living in.
This is the call to action, a BATTLE CRY that rings out, that will mark this generation. Will you heed the call?
For More Information (Knowledge is power):
A Book list for adults:
Before we start to talk about RACE and RACISM:
Black Lives Matter:
Social Justice Lens:
Virtual Library of Children’s Books: