From cinema and visual art to city politics and education, Black Torontonians are taking the reins as agents of our own change
As Black History Month invites us to commemorate the past, a growing movement to recognize February as Black Futures Month calls on the Black diaspora to imagine ourselves into the future. A legacy of activism, resistance and resilience has gained a renewed energy in the city. Black Torontonians are taking the reins as agents of our own change, fighting for spaces so that Blackness, created on our own terms as opposed to the limited narratives thrust on us, can thrive.
When activist umbrella group the Movement for Black Lives started Black Futures Month, the aim was to spark dialogue: what does the future look like? With that in mind, NOW asked five Black professionals, artists and activists to imagine Blackness in a future devoid of systems of anti-Black racism, oppression and discrimination. What they envisioned challenges ideas of safety and the necessity of policing, the fairness of the current electoral process and whether the Black community should work within or outside of mainstream institutions.
A burden of representation can befall Black artists when both mainstream institutions and the Black community expect them to bear the weight of the culture. According to artist Michèle Pearson Clarke, when you’re only one among a minority of Black artists exhibiting, there’s pressure to depict a certain narrative about Blackness rooted in a confrontation with slavery or colonialism. Those stories are critical, but Black identity is expansive.
Clarke’s three-channel video installation Suck Teeth Compositions (After Rashaad Newsome) is exhibiting at Royal Ontario Museum’s Here We Are Here: Black Canadian Contemporary Art through April 22. Her work and the exhibit contribute to the future of diverse expression in Black art by challenging narrow conceptions of the Black Canadian experience.
“There’s a hybridity being generated in Toronto, and it’s part of the future of Black art in the city. What it is to be young and Black in Toronto is a new kind of Blackness. Starting in the 60s, we’ve had generations of people arrive here in high numbers from the Caribbean. For the kids whose parents have come from those places, their Blackness is shaped by many cultures. Young Black people are growing up here with a way of being in the world that includes cultural influences and histories of Blackness from many places, and it’s fuelling Black art practice.
“The works I’ve seen by the Black artists around me are not just tokenism. For a long time, Black artists have confronted racism and the history of slavery in their work. But now other stories about Blackness are displacing that. We’re always working and trying to demand full humanity because the narratives about us are restricted to narrow ideas about who we are, what our experiences are or what we’re preoccupied with.
“The other side of it is the political expectation for an art institution that wants to be seen as supporting Black artists. But the work has to be visibly about Blackness for them to be able to get those brownie points for showing diversity on their walls.
“We need more space in the institutions that exist, and we also need more Black-owned, Black-focused, Black-run spaces. We need Black curators to have opportunities to be hired – like Julie Crooks, who got hired last year at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
“Often when we think about future, Black-owned spaces, we think of them as outside of mainstream institutions. But I don’t think that any one space by itself is the answer. The art world is sort of like an ecosystem and the stronger each part is the stronger the whole system becomes.”
In solidarity with other community activist organizations, BLM-TO successfully fought in 2017 for the termination of the School Resource Officer program, which put armed police in schools and negatively targeted racialized children. In the same year, a hard-won public inquiry into the 2015 police shooting death of Andrew Loku revealed that a Toronto constable killed the 45-year-old refugee from South Sudan within 21 seconds of arriving at the apartment he shared with other clients of the Canadian Mental Health Association. Looking toward the future of policing and the Black community, Black Lives Matter-Toronto co-founder Sandy Hudson questions whether the service is needed for Black survival at all.
“The assumption behind the question we hear from people about how to fix the police is that the police are necessary. The question we need to ask ourselves is: What are they necessary for? The answer we often hear is that they keep us safe, but if there’s a whole population that feels less safe with the police, then we need to re-envision what safety means and how safety is measured in this city.
“Rather than thinking safety needs policing and criminalization, we should start thinking about what it really means for somebody to be safe and secure. It means they have access to adequate housing, they have access to fulfilling education through which they can see themselves as part of this society. It means a landscape where poverty is something we truly address insomuch that it doesn’t exist any more. So much of policing is criminalizing people who don’t have that type of security and safety in their own lives. We know from multiple studies, it wouldn’t just help Black people, but we are the ones who are the most affected.
“If we just focus on policing, we lose sight of what the actual, big problems are. I think we will see a lot less investment in the police if we look at how we can support and provide services to communities affected by them, for example folks with mental health issues. We have to shift our approach, because policing generally has a history of targeting racialized communities and no amount of reform in any jurisdiction has changed that.
“The city spends a lot on policing when we could be spending money on services that make sure people don’t get criminalized in the first place. The police have demonstrated over and over that they are not a service the Black community can rely on or trust. We don’t even know if interacting with them will ensure our survival. So, I don’t think it would be a good idea to involve a service that gets it so wrong with mental health and Black folks, disability and Black folks, poverty, cops in schools, carding, all of it.
“The solutions will come from the community. The city did consultations for its action plan [to confront anti-Black racism]. I’m skeptical because consultations rarely result in action. If the city wants to invest in us, they have to really invest in us by hearing from us.”
Only five of the 45 members of our city council are visible minorities. That matters in a city where just over 51 per cent of the population identifies as part of a visible minority group. The voices of systemically marginalized communities aren’t being represented when decisions are made in council that could impact them the most. With municipal elections on the horizon, Broadbent Institute policy and research manager Brittany Andrew-Amofah has a vision for change that includes electoral reform aimed at levelling the playing field.
“When it comes to enacting radical change within municipal politics we need to be in positions of power. Council desperately needs to reflect the identities and experiences of those who live in this city, but what’s more important is that we have Black folks on council who have a firm understanding of the issues Black Torontonians face. When it comes to positive outcomes on the municipal level, getting progressive candidates elected is critical for the Black community to thrive.
“When I say progressive, I’m talking about candidates who have a comprehensive understanding of how systemic racism, colonization and land-use planning have been used to divide people along power lines within the city. The geographical concentration of Black communities in Toronto exists within the north end (Etobicoke, Rexdale, York West and York South Weston), and in the east end (north, east and south-east Scarborough). These communities are literally on the outskirts of Toronto. So how can we bring in leadership that understands that the inner suburbs are just as important as the downtown core?
“The way our political system is structured right now benefits the incumbent. There’s no incentive to reach out to those in the community who are systemically marginalized. Politicians need to ensure their presence in communities, and we need to ensure we’re holding them to account. They can’t just show up every four years and bank on the same people to elect them in again. We need to keep the pressure on, and that’s why it’s important to support the work of activists on the ground who are pushing for that change so that those on the inside can push for that change as well.
“I’d like to see a change in our electoral system. Ranked ballots are very interesting. People are forced to think more critically about who they want in office when they’re required to rank the individual as opposed to just choosing one. I think there’s an incentive for people to actually come out if they feel their vote carries more weight.
“We need to open the pipeline in terms of political engagement. City Hall now has the Muslim Youth Fellowship program – that’s a key way to ensure communities are engaged. Replicating that model of internship program within city council offices, prioritizing it and ensuring the Black community has access to it is extremely important as well.”
The province will spend $784 million this year to build or renovate 79 schools. It’s a big number but Urban Alliance on Race Relations president Nigel Barriffe, who is also a Toronto District School Board (TDSB) elementary school teacher, is looking beyond it. In fact, he calls it woefully inadequate when compared to the actual needs of youth in schools. Investing in education, particularly for the city’s most vulnerable students, requires a holistic approach that understands that the barriers Black youth face might manifest as problems in the classroom but largely start with systemic issues outside of it.
“We must work toward better educational outcomes, especially for children from many of the city’s Black communities. Part of the struggle continues to be getting the appropriate resources at the community level to our children and their families.
“We have many families struggling with issues of mental health and broader health issues, housing and finding a decent job. Now, can you imagine if every school actually had its own nurse, psychologist, social worker and guidance counsellor?
“I’m the father of a two-year-old. I know how helpful it was to find out the Hospital for Sick Children had outpatient clinics, where I could get a professional to look at my child. Imagine if we had outpatient clinics in every TDSB school that would look at the physical, emotional, social and psychological health of a child? It’s a holistic approach that’s not currently envisioned in our system, where you have just one specialized person for every four or five schools. What I’m proposing is having a whole department right there at each school.
“That approach would be in conjunction with reducing class sizes, having a more relevant curriculum that engages children, bringing back things like the arts and physical education, and having a full-time librarian at every school. Those are the key pieces of any radical change of a school in the future.”
It took filmmaker Sharon Lewis 15 years to realize her Afrofuturist adaptation of Nalo Hopkinson’s 1998 novel, Brown Girl In The Ring. Undeterred by rejection from financiers, Lewis tapped into the community – an Indiegogo campaign received donations from people in 15 countries – and early media buzz came from an underserved subculture known as young Black nerds (or “blerds” in the Twitterverse). Brown Girl Begins is set in a post-apocalyptic Toronto where a reluctant priestess must choose between love and saving her people from a ruthless drug lord. The film makes its Toronto premiere on February 24 at the Art Gallery of Ontario followed by a gala reception and Q&A.
“If we were to project young Black filmmakers into the future, they would not have to worry about selling a story by making it appeal to the so-called mainstream. Could you imagine if I didn’t have to write a grant or go to funders and say: ‘Hey, it’s so important that you hear this marginalized story?’ It would be judged on its artistry and not have to prove its viability.
“The most important thing that would happen is that the barriers that restrict Black filmmakers before they even begin the creative process would not be there. We have to revolutionize inside the institutions because we pay taxes for them. They are ours. You actually have to have gender and diversity parity in the funding and distribution of projects and in hiring practices. The biggest obstacle for me was not believing I had a right to a seat at the table. Every filmmaker gets told no, that’s not a unique experience to people of colour. The difference is when you get told no as a filmmaker with privilege, you still believe you have a right to tell that story. Whereas for young filmmakers of colour, you begin to believe your story isn’t interesting.
“When I was going to financiers, I couldn’t understand [their hesitation] over a young Black female lead. The film had many of the things found in a big commercial movie: sci-fi, action, a love story. Literally the only difference was that it was a young Black girl [in the lead role] and an all-Black cast. So I pared it down to tell it as beautifully as I could with the restrictions of the budget.
“What’s disheartening is being told no based on what I think was race and gender bias. What’s empowering is I found a way to make the film anyway.”
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