BLACK

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. 

These past few weeks have been a struggle for me because I did not know how to approach this topic authentically. My mind was at war with my spirit. There is a movement, and I do not want to be a silent bystander. I also did not want to hurt feelings, or make others uncomfortable. However, the truth is, feelings be damned! My feelings and the feelings of countless Black, African, African-American, African-Canadians have been hurt, have been brutalized for far too long. No longer will our tongues be held back in conversation, though respect will always be given even when it is not earned. 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 people (friends, family, circles) 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 and I immigrated to Canada, to the Greater Toronto Area, to a unique neighborhood. Up until that point in my life, I was simply a girl. A Nigerian girl. A girl of African descent whose roots ran as deep and as rich as the land in which she inhabited. A girl who's 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 intrigued by the myriad of languages, the foods, the clothing, emphasis on education, the resources (both natural and human) that was constantly being discovered and brought to light, 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 of my elders, my peers, my neighbors. From literature, media, and conversations that reflected me since they represented and showcased people that looked like me. I remember attending weddings and celebrating, not because black love prevailed, but because love - simply love, prevailed. 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 we moved to Canada. I did not change, but my environment changed me. Within a week of moving to Canada, we were already enrolled in school though school would be wrapping up in a month. I remember being nervous and excited for school. I have never been the 'best' at school, but I have always loved learning. I was nervous because it was a new environment, a new opportunity to meet people, to experience this new world in which we found ourselves. 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 was living the dream. Upon arriving at school with my mother, we were informed that I would need to attend ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. I was a bit confused, for you see, one of the languages I have been speaking from birth, is English. By the age of 10 years old, I was already reading novels and writing essays in English. I had been 2 years away from attending university in Nigeria (no easy feat). I actually used to give my English teachers a run for their money in class in Nigeria. But, because I was an African immigrant off to ESL I was taken, for I could not possibly speak English well, could I? 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 oppressed by British rule for many decades, and I learned British English at my schools in Nigeria. That was funny sounding and laughable to Canadians, that I would 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 to the class by my (white) teachers. I remember thinking to myself that this could not truly be how people were treated (I had not even taught as far as black people at that time). I tried to explain to teachers and students alike that I had learned English in a British system, but I was not heard. 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.


It wasn't until about the second week of school that a proverbial bucket of cold water was poured on my face. An incident had happened at recess, and I was speaking with some of the non-black girls in my class about what had happened and how I may help, they said; "You know you are black right? Why are you here with us? Plus, you are African.". I did not even know how to begin to process any of what was said. Black? What is black?  Why was I there? We all go to the same school that's why. Why else would I be there? I am African, Nigerian to be exact. What did that have to do with helping? What did that have to do with being a good human being? 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 directly indirect tactics (comments, references, remarks). 

Your name is funny, "Iyanu rhymes with piano". At first, I thought nothing of it. My name is Iyanuoluwa after all, so they only have half the story. My name is beautiful, it means 'Wonder of God'. I had loved my name since I could spell and understand it, which was pretty early on. My name is used in songs, and in Nigeria, I could not go a whole day without someone singing my name to me. So to have it compared to piano, did not bother me much, especially when my peers were doing it. Then, the questions started. As we became more familiar with our community, after I was taken out of ESL class just before the last week of school, as I was now in the main stream and had rotary teachers, I would be asked over and over again - "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 grade 5 hating my name, or did I just really hate the questions that accompanied it. I actually begged my mom the following year 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 main stream classes. My teacher (who I shall not name due to his passing - R.I.P), would berate me in front of the class for reading more than the required pages in our class readings, for raising my hands 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 (He would give me math worksheets to work on - I hated math for a long time). He would call me dramatic when I told him that the kids would intentionally step on my hands or feet on the carpet, take my snacks and call me names at recess, exclude 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? Why are you here with us? 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. The fact that he was white, and I am black should have nothing to do with fairness, responsibility, and being a trustworthy authority figure 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. To this day, I still do not know what that quote was meant to accomplish. I simply know that I got the message loud and clear, "You know you are black right? Why are you here with us? Plus, you are African." I did 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 scholarships instead of academic focus). I adapted when in high school I was reminded of the legal drop-out age of black kids in my school being 16, if they didn't go to jail before then. I honestly considered dropping out of school many times (shout out to Mrs. Lesser - my guidance counselor, Mr Harding - My math teacher, and the entire athletic department (Mr. Z, Mr F, Ms L) who always looked out for me). 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. Why I was out so late, and where I lived were questioned extensively. 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 (some friends of mine) more often than not 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 MORE BLACK 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 with the degree of my blackness. When I held my tongue, tamed my abilities, dumbed 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 "more black" than me. Adapting in adult life meant bowing my head and being grateful it did not end up worse (Sandra Bland), when for turning left safely and legally at a green light (with no cars coming in the opposite direction, or pedestrians in a 500m radius), I was pulled over for "turning left suspiciously". Adapting meant being polite and respectful the entire time (Philando Castile) 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, alongside my younger brother (oh yes, two officers needed to flank my car on either side with one yelling at my then 14 year old brother for a government issued I.D, and the other questioning the validity of my presence in the community, as I struggled to answer both at the same time). Fit, Blend, Belong; "tame" my hair, and dress acceptably, for to do otherwise in my professional and visible life, or to allow myself the privilege of taking some of the liberties that my colleagues and peers do with their appearance would set me apart, and not for the better.  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.  I am part of the blackest of all possible blacks, for I am African, and in this part of the world, it could almost be said to be a curse. 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 abilities. UNLESS THERE IS SYSTEMIC CHANGE. 

If you think racism is not a problem, THAT IS THE PROBLEM. If you think there is no racism in Canada, THAT IS THE PROBLEM. If you think this movement is just a lot of noise over "a few bad apples", THAT IS THE PROBLEM. If you think racism, a racist societal structure, and systemic racism is an uncomfortable  or difficult topic to discuss, well, welcome to the reality of countless individuals who have had this conversation shoved down their throats by the HARD KNOCKS of life. If you think discussing racism with your child/ren, your friends, or work peers is a difficult conversation at any age, you are part of the problem. Imagine being a 10 year old kid that was not taught about racism, but had to live through it each and every 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 and crying because he cannot understand why people hate those who look like him so much. Imagine being an adult and being thrown back to painful childhood memories because a white 6-year old girl exuding confidence, solely comes to tell you that she does not like your hair on your head or the color of your skin because your hair is puffy and not nice, and your skin is dark. Imagine a world where your confidence in your ability is often mistaken for arrogance. Where you are talked at or over more than 50% of the times you are in a conversation with someone that is not of the same race as you. 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 given narrative. Imagine always having to always tick a little box that reminds you that in the grande scheme of life as you live it, you are less than, a visible minority. 

Your life, your world, your reality has not been disturbed enough where you complete a mental head-to-toe check before walking into any space for the fear that your skin might be perceived as a threat, which could stop you short of an opportunity, a promotion, or could very well end your life. Your life, your world your reality has been accepted, comfortable, and privileged. Being BLACK is not a curse. BLACK LIVES MATTER is not a problem. The systemic racism in place meant to keep BLACK people in bondage, in a system that was never built to serve them, IS THE PROBLEM. This is what Black Lives Matter is all about. That is what this movement is all about. That is what parts of my story is all about; The toppling of a racially divisive system, in order that a fairer world can be created for all, especially those who are black, those whose backs North America was built on. 

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 ALLOWED at the table to speak on issues concerning them. They are being consulted about issues that has to do with their community, their culture. I'm glad that neighbors are rousing from their slumber and speaking up, standing up, looking up, willing to learn. I'm inspired by the willingness of so many to learn, to unlearn, to relearn. I try to suppress the thoughts that come in that this has been done countless times before to no tangible avail, to seemingly little changes to the system. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosemary Brown, Carrie Best, e.t.c. I try to silence the nagging voice that says, this will lead to nothing more than a time big protests happened, with no significant changes. I worry that my nephews, 6 & 2, 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. I wonder of this will still be rampant in their generation, in their youths, will they too have to stand up, speak up, and fight. IN SPITE OF IT ALL, I am inspired by the courage, audacity, bravery of many young people across ethnic lines to stand up against injustice. I am inspired. I am proud. I am encouraged, and I pray everyday for a revolution that honors JUSTICE & PEACE. 

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:
https://nymag.com/strategist/article/anti-racist-reading-list.html

Alternative Perspectives in Literature:
https://www.adifferentbooklist.com/
https://www.knowledgebookstore.com/

Before we start to talk about RACE and RACISM:
https://nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race

Black Lives Matter:
https://blacklivesmatter.com/about/

Tips on being a Good Ally:

Social Justice Lens:
https://www.nfb.ca/playlists/anti-racism-films/playback/#2

https://www.thewright.org/exhibitions/be-educated

Click to access othering.pdf

Virtual Library of Children’s Books:
https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/13jedc_VdL54rrtZI5XmlLuHiRbBisHXaByZtIECy2Hk/mobilepresent?fbclid=IwAR1SIVVQuZa9ehrDy45DJX6TLpgx_GKhVc9LU5sOI7hukhTRfaLFMapXpf4&slide=id.g87cf82a244_0_0

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