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In The Living Years

The Living Years

I know that I'm a prisoner To all my Father held so dear I know that I'm a hostage To all his hopes and fears I just wish I could have told him in the living years

Mike and the Mechanics, 1989

My father passed away in August 2014, just two days after my 42nd birthday. He was a complicated man. He loved the Canadian ideal and he loved being Canadian. He would often share stories of his early days in Canada and how exciting it was in 1975, as a young man from Nigeria to have moved to this “melting pot” of people called “Toronto.” I remember a personal proud moment for me, when we attended an Ottawa Senators game in 2012 and during the national anthem, I peered over to my father and noticed he had one hand on his heart and was singing along. I didn’t even know that he knew the words.

My father had some deep seeded fears. He always cautioned me to have my guard up when it came to white people. This was a tough pill for me to swallow. I had close white friends and the thought of always having to be on my guard sounded exhausting. My father and I had some tense conversations over the years about the amount of racism that exists in Canada; which I mostly brushed off as his far-fetched fears when I was a young man. Today I wonder; were the fears as far fetched as I thought?

I have come to conclude that my father was not alone and many Black people experience similar thoughts of fear. The anxiety that follows is pervasive and insidious to the point that we do not recognize it.

Shall we put this claim to the test? The only way this will work is if you are brutally honest with yourself.

How many times has a random cop car driven behind you for about 5 seconds, and you held your breathe the entire time because you expected to be pulled over? Then felt relief when they turned at the next intersection.

Have you ever passed by another black person in a crowd, and avoided crossing their path or purposely not greet them? I know, I know, black people always greet each other right?

Okay, how about this one? Have you ever been in a position of authority and had the ability to hire another black person and did not? You were probably afraid of being accused of trying to start a movement right? Even though there is only one other black person in your staff of 10 people.

Do you ever find yourself code switching? You know that accent that aptly comes out only when you are around other black people, but disappears when white people come around. Don’t worry, I am not judging. I believe these are survival mechanisms that black people employ out of fear. But, is this fear warranted?

From a very young age, black people are bombarded with negative images of themselves and their place in the world. One would assume to blame the media right? Well not solely. Media plays a strong role in perpetuating stereotypes. However, at a fundamental level, our social system has created an anxiety ridden black community.

The most pervasive images of who we are and where we fit in the world is deeply implanted into our psyche during our formative years by the gate keepers of our social institutions. You guessed it. Our teachers, Doctors, Police Officers etc.

I remember being in grade two. During show and tell, a girl in my class was excited to share the news that her mother just had a baby boy. When our teacher asked the girl what her brother’s name was; she answered excitedly “Junior.” Upon hearing the name, our teacher responded with disgust “Junior? What kind of name is Junior? Junior is not a name.” I looked on helplessly as this poor girl sat in shock, not knowing how to respond. I am not saying my teacher was racist, but she sure was culturally insensitive. The reality is that next to parents, teachers have an indelible impact on children’s identity, development and capacity to foster healthy self worth. Think about it, that was 42 years ago and I am sharing the story with you today.

When my first-born was a little boy, he had a lingering rash that had his mother and I concerned. We took him to a local doctor. The doctor examined my son and said profoundly, “Ah, yes this is common in negro children.” I just about fell out of my chair. I couldn’t help it; I called him out. I asked him did you say negro? What is this the sixties?” For some reason, he didn’t seem to appreciate my question.

One of my earliest memories of a “prick” to my sense of safety and security comes from an occasion when growing up in Regent Park in Downtown Toronto. At that time, I was in grade 5, so I was about 10 or 11 years of age. One day I had just returned from a weeklong school trip. My parents were working and I didn’t expect them to pick me up; nor did the school officials arrange to drop me home. I know it is sad and I may have been sheltered from some experiences if things were different, but growing up in the eighties was different and many things that happened back then would not happen today. Nevertheless, such was my life growing up in Toronto.

I proceeded to walk home with my suitcase in hand. On my way home, a Metropolitan Toronto Police officer approached me in a very public place and asked me what was in my bag. I told him that I had just been on a school trip and it was my clothing. The officer demanded that I put my suitcase down and open it up, right there on the street in front of a whole bunch of people.

The funny thing is I wasn’t upset and I didn’t even know that I was supposed to be upset. However, the onlookers who were all black people were angry and disgusted by what was happening. At that moment in my life, at age 10 or 11, I found it odd that people were so upset about my being asked to open my suitcase.

Many years later, I reflect on the powerlessness of the whole situation. As I stood there with my drawls out for everyone to see, that officer at a very fundamental level rendered me “naked in public.” The thing that gets me today is the hubris behind the officer’s actions. The unspoken statement was bold. “I am doing this, and none of you can do a single thing about it.” Now, think about it for yourself; how many times have you been rendered “naked in public?”

I guess if you live through and experience enough of these situations; it takes a toll on you. My desire is for black people to awaken to the awareness of the extent to which we live in a perpetual state of survival and why this happens. The truth is what I once thought was my father’s paranoia actually makes sense to me today. Considering what I have seen and experienced myself, how could I not honour the reality that his expressions of fear were steeped in his lived experiences? My only regret is that I wish I could have told him in the living years.

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