Illustration by Caroline Wang
‘Growing Up Black in Canada’ is a writers’ series brought to you by Black Futures Now Toronto in partnership with Shameless Magazine. The series is meant to bring forward local and personal Black histories that do not fit into mainstream narratives about what it means to be a young person in Canada. Throughout the series we will highlight the non-fiction work of five young writers from various backgrounds. Through their stories, we will explore what growing up Black in Canada has meant to them, and the impact that these experiences have had on their sense of self. These pieces explore themes of personal growth, systemic injustices, community, self-awareness, longing, and joy that are unique to each writer, and speak to the particularity of experiences that comes from growing up different locales in Toronto and beyond. Our hope is that by sharing them, they will resonate with others in ways that push them to look at who they are more closely and Canadian history, as well as cultural identities more critically. This is part 5. These are the previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.
My eyes opened. Dreams filled with rural landscapes faded into morning mist. I could vaguely recall the scenes that had moments before been vivid spectacles. The interwoven threads of three separate races, each a pillar in North America’s construction. These three were the same that formed my body, mind and spirit. As a tri-racial youth of African American, European and Aboriginal descent, I found myself constantly constructing an identity from the history of my ancestors. I was the mix of all three, but also a new hue in the palette of humanity. And I searched for my place within.
I bore the curled mane of my obvious African ancestry beneath golden sunshine. The haze of the morning illuminated the youth now hurrying to school. This section of our city was a dilapidated corner transformed into a vibrant village by urban and immigrant culture. My pace quickened as a car passed by, vibrating with the base notes of ghetto literature. Inside, sat men of opportunity, who took no shame in filling their pockets with the addictions of their neighbours. “Hey Shawty” and somewhere “What you mixed with?” were the usual highlights of our conversations. But they had seen my brown eyes flicker in familiarity and defined me as just another good girl. My only admiring quality being that I was mixed, and somehow my additions beautified my blackness; or so they had been taught. This mentality, force-fed into the minds of their ancestors, had now twisted my racial identity into an extended branch of what it was to be a Black woman. In the birth of North America’s greatness, it was our African ancestors who had done the laboring. And amid this laboring, the womb of our Grandmothers had become a commodity for lust and perversion. Out of bloody placenta fell not only the monuments of America, the wealth of her colonizers - but the mulatto child. The elephant in the room. Living truths of sexual exploitation littered across plantations. An extension of the ebony parent so far removed from the ivory ejaculation of their conception, that they merely became another individual of use. Their identity - looking out from African descent, was forced to discard the rest as excess. Had things really come so far? Was I still not forcefully categorized by Lynch definitions? Or was I seen as the subtotal of my parts with each being of equal value?
Approaching the school was like crossing the border into enemy territory. The stone grey building put an alignment in my spine that came not from confidence but apprehension. The street smarts previously required were now exchanged for a new mindset. A blanched demeanor matching the white walls of the empty hallways perfectly. My tardiness was met with a disappointed nod and an ushered hand directed at my desk. The blue eyes of the female instructor followed me as I sat, and her thin lips queefed “I would like a word after class”. She paced the room as attempted education floated out of her and landed like misdirected bubbles upon the sharp corners of the room. Glazed eyes and silent mouths filled the audience of her oration. After class I remained seated as she sat beside me in an adjacent chair. “I really think you can do better. I believe in you. I am willing to help you. All you need to do is ask.” She gave herself a nod. A pleasurable moment - to know she was upholding the silent rules of white superiority, slyly masked as an outstretched hand to the less fortunate. For that one drop of color contaminating the mixed child surely deems her almost. More admirable in quality and deserving of understanding but not quite pure enough to cross the color line into the Eden of Whiteness. The Great Mirage. How many students of hers had deserved such one-on-one encouragement? Why did she believe in me if she knew little more about me than the mediocre work I submitted. No, what she believed in was the hidden whiteness flowing through me that only required her assistance to unlock. And this pity soothed her saviour soul. Had we really come so far? Did she not see me as needing her leverage to reach the privileged path of my potential? Or did she acknowledge that I could blossom into my own vibrant being, walking my own vibrant path?
From the broken corner of the perimeter gate, I looked down at the wild Valley bush. Like Persephone stepping into the Underworld - I crouched through and was reborn into freedom and peace. I often found myself craving the company of Mother Earth and as an emerald sea of branches gently surrounded me, I climbed down to the river below. My single mother was of Metis and Anishinaabe ancestry, and her Ojibway culture had shoved its way to the forefront of my life and spirit. I was brought up in that same community, and felt the most accepted there. My childhood had been filled with ceremony and it was in moments like these that I found myself in deepest thought. The phenomenon of the Afro-Indigenous may seem to be a current trend, but our history is one that commenced once Africans were forced upon the Indigenous lands of America. Both cultures; based upon the natural world, balance and humility, were magnetized to each other when contact was possible. The colonizer, of course, looking to only profit off of negro slaves and commit genocide upon Indigenous culture; deleted this breed from acknowledgment. The resurgence of this mix stems from these same racial groups centuries later, finding themselves in similar urban settings. Connection, on levels of history and culture still remains. And babies are often bred from connection. I sat upon a swollen boulder that edged against the river. The water flowed past me rhythmically and I sighed slowly. How much my ancestors had lost. Not only in rights and acknowledgment as the true face of a perceived European continent. But what I grieved most was the loss of living in balance and rhythm with the natural world. In living larger. The mere human-driven perspective of our lives has worn down too many who would much rather live for all: the plants, the animals, the minerals, the elements. We so blindly consume on principal of what we want, all the while destroying what it is we truly need. Had we come so far? Did not the attempted eradication of Indigenous earth-based knowledge mirror our current eradication of Mother Earth via blind ignorance?
I retired under indigo skies, recalling the day that had passed. Was I really just a quilted tapestry of heritage, defined by single squares of culture? Or was I a rainbow, cherished as a whole and not simply defined by each individual colour? Hues that consisted of ancestors who welcomed crooked colonizers and faced literal genocide. Ancestors who were dragged across the trans-Atlantic by their enslavers. And ancestors who were both colonizer and enslaver, riding the suffering they caused to glory. Mine was the modern face of North America, and her history ran through my Neapolitan veins.
Christarr Smillie: Raised in Canada’s most multicultural city, Christarr balanced navigating urban life with connecting to the natural world during her youth. This love, stemming from her ancestral culture - inspired her to carve a unique path as an Afro-Indigenous woman. Born to an African American father and Metis/ Anishinaabe mother, Christarr hopes to inspire her three young sons with the wisdom of their ancestors and the possibility of their creativity.