The generous spirit of poet, feminist and arts advocate Ayanna Black never faltered. I remember her, frail from her struggle with cancer, making her way to a voting booth during the last federal election.
She knew the results of the election would forge the future not for herself but for others. With her signature determination, she entered the booth and made her mark, intent as always on the greater good.
Born in Hanover, Jamaica, in 1939, Ayanna was educated in England and immigrated to Canada in 1964, where she began her writing career. Our paths first crossed at the forefront of Toronto’s burgeoning arts scene in the early 80s. As galleries, publishing houses, music venues and collectives sprang up, we discovered our shared passion for multiculturalism and feminism.
During this tumultuous time of change, Ayanna’s cultural compass led her to co-found Canadian Artists Network: Black Arts in Action, (CAN:
BAIA) an organization credited with launching the careers of many contemporary black artists, including award-winning author Austin Clarke.
She co-founded Tiger Lily, the first Canadian magazine devoted to black women writers, and, as programming chair of Toronto Arts Against Apartheid, she helped bring Bishop Tutu to Toronto, a visit that marked a pivotal point in Canada’s stand against apartheid.
She served tirelessly on countless boards, the last being the Women’s Art Resource Centre (WARC), where she focused on mentoring an emerging generation of artists.
Ayanna made her mark as a poet, exploring her ancestral roots and the painful subject of a father she never knew. She published No Contingencies, dedicated to her mother, Olga Powell, who predeceased her in 1995, and Linked Alive, a collection of renga poetry,
As a child, Ayanna used her wit and talent for storytelling to cope with her father’s absence. I remember her saying she’d told her friends he was a spy, but when the questions got to be too much, she’d had to kill him off.
She included this memory in the Imaginary Stories section of her last book of poetry, Invoking The Spirits, which she dedicated to her partner, Eckehard Dolinski, who cared for her through her illness and was by her side when she passed.
Just a few weeks before Ayanna’s death, we held a WARC meeting at my home, for some a chance for last goodbyes. Sitting around the dinner table, we were young and old, gay and straight, Jamaican, aboriginal, Filipino, Korean, Chinese, Scottish, Jewish and Gentile.
Ayanna’s dream was right before her eyes.
Linda Abrahams is co-director of the Women’s Art Resource Centre.