Black Futures Month: Five Torontonians want to make 2019 the year for change

Desmond Cole, Jill Andrew, Julie Crooks, Jah Grey and Twysted Miyake-Mugler are working toward a city free from anti-Black racism


In the ongoing pursuit of emancipation, Black communities find themselves future-driven and optimistic while painfully awake to the wounds of entrenched anti-Black racism inflicted by this challenging city. The resulting tension can lead to moments of disconnection, consternation and uncertainty. Where are we going? What should we do? Which tactics should we employ? What issues should we focus on?

We invest deeply in imagining Black Futures, but do so with decreasing comfort and trust in outdated models and assumptions. As French Caribbean poet Édouard Glissant wrote, “We know ourselves as part and as crowd, in an unknown that does not terrify.” NOW asked five Black change-makers to look squarely into this unknown and tell us what they see. NP


Desmond Cole

“Build coalitions and take disruptive action to shut down systems of anti-Black racism.”

Black activism finds itself at a crossroads. Mounting evidence of entrenched anti-Black racism means that activism is needed now more than ever, yet divergent views on what issues to focus on and what tactics to employ simmer beneath long-standing debates about the future of Black life in Toronto and beyond. Amid calls within Black communities for more collaborative and inclusive conversations about the way forward, journalist-activist Desmond Cole wants to be perfectly clear about who’s shaping the agenda.

Cole’s much-anticipated book, to be published by Doubleday Canada this fall, will tell 12 unique stories related to one year of Black life in Canada.

We are in a place of deep denial in the city of Toronto and across the country. All of these official reports [on policing] are laying bare the stark and harsh conditions of Black life – all of the things that we attribute to the United States but insist would never happen here. And it’s actually quite a sad moment for me, because it’s not for any lack of the community saying these things over and over. You have reports that use fancier and more extensive language, repeating the same things the community said years ago. The official evidence is piling up, and it is pushing White Toronto into deep denial in the face of their own systems of anti-Black racism. It’s a very existential moment for Toronto because this is not who we’re supposed to be. And yet every day, with every new report and with every new news story, we’re finding  this is exactly who we are and who we’ve always been.

“Black moderates feel that if they challenge authority, something is at stake for them. Their reputation may be at stake. Their credibility, or their job, or an appointment or some kind of position of proximity to power that they may want to hold on to will be comprised. They [don’t want to] say strident things like ‘you must release Abdoul Abdi, you must give him his citizenship’ – they don’t want to tell government what to do, they want to negotiate terms with government. That’s the problem for me, personally, in this moment of Black life that we’re in: there is no negotiating on some of these fundamental issues.

“I want to focus on what’s happening to Black children in our schools under the current discipline regimes. When you’ve taken away the one thing that children should have – education and a safe place to be for several hours of the day – what do you think is going to happen to them? But yet in the wake of all this [gun] violence, we don’t tie it to what’s happening in [schools]. I believe in an end to suspension and expulsion regimes in our schools. Could I get Black moderates on board with that specific demand? I doubt it. And the reason is white supremacy tells us that the minute we stop punishing Black children, society is going to fall apart. That’s the narrative. Unfortunately, too many of our own folks who have risen into places of influence have accepted that narrative.

“Ultimately, the different groups who are against the Ford government – who are interested in a clean and healthy environment, who are interested in appropriate and inclusive sex education, anti-poverty – need to find each other in the midst of doing single-issue organizing and build coalitions that can shut things down. Disruptive action is the only thing that really gets government’s attention. And that is critical for me right now. I think most of us accept that there is no negotiating with someone like Doug Ford.” NP

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Samuel Engelking

Jill Andrew

“Recognize that Black children matter.”

Advocating for others is built into Dr. Jill Andrew’s DNA. She is the first out queer Black woman to sit in the legislative assembly of Ontario, the first Black person to sit as MPP for the riding of Toronto-St. Paul’s and the culture critic for the official opposition NDP. Before taking on politics the former columnist co-founded Body Confidence Canada, an advocacy group championing equitable and inclusive images, messages, practices and policies in support of body diversity and representation, and worked in the education sector for nearly two decades.

Yet it is children and youth that have always mattered to her most. For Black Futures Month, she told us her vision for an education system free of anti-Black racism.

In my dream for a Toronto free of anti-Black racism, every adult who Black, Caribbean and African children and youth engage with during their educational journeys – from the custodian to the principal – would play a positive and transformative role in their becoming.

“Black children, regardless of their postal codes or their socioeconomic status, would see themselves proudly represented in their teachers, guidance counsellors, education workers and school administrators. They’d see stories that reflect their lived and imagined realities in their school and community libraries year-round – not only in a designated area or during a certain month. Curriculum, assessment, evaluation and reporting would become culturally relevant and responsive and the Black child would no longer be the target of academic streaming. Their potential must be seen and heard, and fiercely backed by this province.

“I want to see standardized testing, such as the Ontario Education Quality and Accountability Office, become relics of the past, and the estimated $40 million saved reinvested back into schools by hiring education assistants, child and youth workers, teachers, student equity program advisors, guidance counsellors, mental health and social workers. 

“I want Black children and youth to no longer feel ashamed of crumbling school buildings, or be afraid to drink the water, or experience unbearable physical and distractive cognitive challenges due to sweltering heat in their classrooms. The nearly $4 billion backlog in school repairs must be fixed. Schools must become fully accessible, infused with colour, arts and green space.

“In my dream, roaming the mall for a new pair of jeans or for a knapsack is no longer hazardous for our kids’ health. Shopping while Black is a carefree experience. So is interviewing for a job while Black.

“Black children are no longer terrified about being racially profiled or carded, or worried about their Black parents, guardians or siblings arbitrarily ‘matching the description.’ In fact, the unconstitutional police practice of carding would be banned, the collected records shredded and the school-to-prison pipeline cease to exist.

“Black children in a Toronto free of anti-Black racism are also Black children in a Toronto equally free of sexism, transphobia, homophobia, housing discrimination and environmental racism. They are in a Toronto free of ableism and classism.

“And, in this Toronto, Black children can be children. They are never mistaken for or treated as adults. They’re allowed to laugh and cry and study and play. They’re allowed to be loud and quiet. They’re allowed to breathe.” CVG

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Samuel Engelking

Julie Crooks

“Build permanent Black art collections.”

A slew of recent articles about the invisibility of Black Canadian art within elite cultural institutions has garnered derision from those who say such writing is inaccurate and perpetuates the very marginality that it purports to be addressing. Encouraging a turn from this kind of writing, Art Gallery of Ontario assistant curator of photography Julie Crooks says we should be having conversations about serious art criticism, ensuring the presence of Black art within permanent collections and putting the spotlight on the current work of artists such as Sandra Brewster, Tim Whiten, Winsom and others. 

Crooks’s most recent exhibition, American artist Mickalene Thomas’s solo show Femmes Noires, runs to March 24. 

There’s definitely a problem concerning the dearth of sustained writing about Black art outside of “special” or token editorials for Black History Month. We need a much more expansive and inclusive approach to criticism. This involves not only getting the attention of mainstream publications – both digital  and print-based – but also allowing for new voices to make contributions in meaningful ways. That’s not to say there’s been absolute silence. It’s been very selective in terms of which artists have their work interpreted and written about in depth, and by whom. 

“There have been moments – especially in the late 1980s, 90s and early 2000s – when there was indeed a great deal of writing by Black artists, curators, historians and scholars. There’s a new generation of young artists who need to have their work written about in a contemporary visual arts framework from which writers can continually mine for context. They just need the vehicles to do so.

“Articles that engage in glaring erasures, factual errors and generalizations, and employ an ahistorical framework that glosses over decades of work by a long list of Black women curators, writers and artists are not helpful in advancing the conversation. Through sheer self-determination many Black women artists from the late 80s established and maintained their practices while advocating for change within the lily-white Canadian art establishment. Artists like Winsom, June Clark, Karma Clarke-Davis and many others sought galleries and spaces outside of the mainstream in which to show their work, such as A Space, Gallery 44 and the Women’s Art Resource Centre, to name a few.

“In 1997, Winsom was one of the first Black Canadian female artists to take part in a group exhibition at the AGO, which was organized by Michelle Jacques, then the AGO’s assistant curator, contemporary art and Jessica Bradley, curator, contemporary art. Clark has been a fixture in the Black arts community in Toronto since the 1980s. Her show recently closed at the AGO and her work has been added to the permanent collection. And in 2000, Jacques curated works by Clarke-Davis – an innovative artist who worked with time-based media as part of the Present Tense contemporary series. It’s important to get this right. The record needs to be corrected. History must not be erased.

“People should rightly be concerned about the number of Black art exhibitions. Progress has been made but the work has to continue by a range of institutions, not only the AGO. It’s also about acquiring works and the importance of changing collecting strategies for institutions with permanent collections. I am interested in ensuring that the photography collection at the AGO reflects and responds to the character of the city. There’s definitely institutional support for this. Representation is also linked to hiring practices. There has to be more than one person advancing the cause within these institutions. This also extends to shifting the composition of boards as well as curatorial departments. 

“This is how we can insist on change within regimes of power that thwart opportunities for Black and racialized artists to show their work in a sustained manner.” NP

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Samuel Engelking

Jah Grey

“Tackle toxic masculinity by holding ourselves accountable and creating safe spaces to be vulnerable.”

There’s a narrative progression in photographer Jah Grey’s striking portraiture that explores and challenges conventions related to Black masculinity while reflecting his own transition. 

In his 2014 series re.de.fin.ing masculinity, women perform what masculinity looks like, and in 2016’s A Room Full Of Black Boys (a collaboration with artist Oluseye) the camera searches men’s faces for a vulnerability society rarely allows them to express. Last year’s Man Up offered free and fluid takes on masculinity, breaking away from the confines of stereotype and even gender. 

In the wake of recent news, Grey’s work feels more necessary than ever. Kevin Hart has pushed a victim narrative after homophobic tweets prompted him to decline hosting the Oscars, and the doc series Surviving R. Kelly has record companies finally reconsidering the men they reward. 

Grey’s work is on display this month at Kuumba Festival: Reflections Of Love shows at the Harbourfront Marilyn Brewer Gallery (February 1 to 28) and at Wedge Curatorial’s A Love Ethic exhibit at the Gladstone (February 1 to 25, artist talk February 6). He is also speaking at Harbourfront Centre’s Journey To Black Liberation Symposium (February 1, 1 pm).

My whole process, including my photography, has been about pushing past my fears. It’s about being super-transparent and letting people know that I’m not perfect. By letting people know that I come from a really toxic place, I have the ability to be toxic and I have been toxic. But I’m also letting people know that I made the decision to remove myself from that and be better.

“A lot of us are realizing the importance of creating safer spaces for people like us, whether that be minorities, people of colour or Indigenous peoples.

“There’s conflict between the Black community and the queer community. There’s conflict within the queer community in general. As a trans Black man, I’m in a tight space, and I’ve realized I don’t have to stay in that space. I have the power to build my own community. I get to pick and choose who I’m around.

“Solitude has been really important for me and I feel like it can be really important for the community. Be confident and be happy with you before you go outside of yourself and help other people. If I think about community, I think about healing. Healing is solitude. Healing is accountability. Healing is vulnerability. Healing is learning when to be still and when to listen.

“We’re going through a shift in society. People are saying, ‘Yo, men, we need some softness. We need to see better things.’ A lot of folks – and I’m specifically speaking to the Black community – don’t know what that looks like. A lot of us have grown up without fathers, or with father figures who didn’t treat us well, or father figures who simply weren’t that attentive or didn’t give us that much love.

“What I was taught and what I believed is that men’s emotions didn’t really matter. We’re told to ‘man up,’ ‘be a man,’ ‘be strong,’ ‘don’t let anybody see you crying or be vulnerable because that’s a sign of weakness.’

“A lot of us are healing. A lot of us are learning how to be more vulnerable and not feeling shamed for doing so. Through portraits of other Black men in Man Up, I was also able to speak to my own vulnerabilities and experiences. It gave me and the men in my photos the opportunity to hold ourselves accountable. We do have the control to be something different. We don’t have to commit to being this specific stereotype of what a Black guy is to please other people.” RS

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Samuel Engelking

Twysted Miyake-Mugler

“Shift the narrative of Black History Month from the past to creating an ideal future.”

Raised within a religious Jamaican household in Jane and Finch, Twysted Miyake-Mugler was groomed for ministry.

But as a teen, dance, particularly voguing, was his passion. Forsaking church ministry for the ball scene, he’s become one of Toronto’s vogue pioneers and has discovered that, within the ball community, he can integrate his various talents – from dance and choreography to promotion and community outreach.

Co-founder of the House of Monroe (and now a member of the House of Mugler) and co-curator of the Black Liberation Ball (Longboat Hall, February 2), as well as the Toronto Kiki Ballroom Alliance, a training ground for young voguers, Miyake-Mugler has helped create spaces where everything from understanding voguing history and its creators (Black/Latina trans women and Black gay men) to grief support are integral. Alongside other local voguing trailblazers, he’s helped expand the art form, fostering thriving ball scenes in Montreal and Vancouver.

Balls, he says, can be the template for a bolder, more inclusive and liberating Toronto for all.

The ballroom community is an example of how everyone can come together, be different and be celebrated. Everyone likes to say, ‘Oh, we’re all the same.’ But the beautiful thing about our ballroom is we are not a homogenous community. We’re a community of so many unique people with many unique stories.

“I’m turning 30 this year and I was worried about where our younger leaders were, because I’m hitting that age where I’m coming out of youth and I need another youth to essentially take over. But now I’m seeing how ballroom is attracting teenagers and young people from high school and universities who want to participate in something that allows them to be themselves and feel cool and connected to the LGBT community in and beyond Toronto. It’s beautiful. 

“You’re connected to the world when you’re part of ballroom, because ballroom is so international. Ballroom is so in! It shows us how we can all come together – Black, white, Asian, gay, straight. We have straight people who come and participate at our balls and everybody gets their life.

“What Toronto can take from ballroom is that we need to celebrate everyone’s differences and make everyone feel that they are celebrated. That’s what makes us special. Diversity is organic to this country.

“We call it the Black Liberation Ball because we’re trying to shift the narrative of Black History Month from the past to creating an ideal future. An ideal future doesn’t exclude. 

“For instance, people sometimes say, ‘Oh, you call it the Black Liberation Ball so does that mean that people who are not Black cannot participate?’ Absolutely not! That is not what it means. It’s a statement of solidarity. When you take part, you are saying, ‘Hey, I recognize that this is the Black Liberation Ball, we’re celebrating Black excellence, and we can do that respectfully, all together.’ Like with Pride: it’s not only queer people or trans people at Pride. There are true allies who are heterosexual and participate because they stand in solidarity with us. That’s how I feel about ballroom. We can celebrate Blackness without being a Black person.” CVG

@nowtoronto

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