My friends and I attended a Jill Scott concert in Toronto a few years back. We were very excited. Her music was like an oasis of craft in a desert landscape of mediocrity. As Jill belted out those notes, we sang along and swayed. She led into her wicked tune “It’s Love” by inviting the audience to think about “lovin’, like, we do that good, down-home soul food, you know, candied yams, collard greens, biscuits and gravy, smothered … “
The audience went silent. I remember thinking, “Gravy goes on bread? Really? Candied yams, you say? You mean licorice and a chocolate bar belong on a vegetable? Wow. Oh, I get it — she’s just setting up her experience in the song. But, well, not really, because she’s asking us to reminisce with her, which means we’re supposed to know about these strange food combinations, too.”
One of my friends jokingly turned to the rest of us with, “I don’t think they know there are others on the planet with them. Maybe she thinks the ‘c’ in ‘Canada’ really stands for ‘Carolinas.’ ” We laughed. I chimed in with, “After the concert, let’s go to Romania and talk love over curry and roti.” We howled with laughter and went on enjoying the concert.
In truth, however, our comments were made not from humor but from disappointment, which we all felt but chose to ignore. After all, we were here to celebrate Jill’s uniqueness and relevance. Her assumption that her cultural experiences should mirror ours, here, in a completely different country, suggested that she didn’t value our uniqueness and relevance.
Ignorance (or dismissal) of black Canadians as a community was not uncommon to us, but what made this time a little more difficult to swallow was the source. Ordinarily, the source was Caucasians, not people of color, and certainly not black folks.
Could black Americans be as clueless about otherness as Caucasians can often be? Nope, no way; I couldn’t believe that. After all, black Americans vigorously resisted marginalization of their community by speaking up, building universities and creating media outlets and businesses reflective of their sensibilities. They have a profound understanding of how corrosive marginalization can be. I didn’t know what was happening with Jill that night, but I decided that it must have been a mishap. Or was it?
An Invisible Culture Within Canada
Growing up, I wished to be in a country remotely aware of its minority population, and from my perspective, that country was the States. So when I graduated from high school, I decided to make a stand against what I believed to be white Canadian apathy toward black Canadians: I decided to attend an American university.
I am a black woman, born and raised in Canada, a nation whose black population barely makes up 2 percent of its approximately 30 million people. I often felt that Canada was not aware we even existed. The mainstream media outlets pushed us to the margins. In the ’90s, when I was in high school, MuchMusic, Canada’s 24-hour video music station, featured R&B music once a week for an hour. The hip-hop show came on for half an hour on weekdays at 3:30 in the afternoon … school let out at 3:10.
Still, I would be flat out lying were I not to confess that growing up in Canada, in terms of the standard of living, bordered on idyllic. For the most part, Canadians live a middle-class existence; even struggling individuals can access basic needs because of the nation’s government-driven mandate of social responsibility. Essentially, Canada is invested in seeing its citizens obtain bootstraps so that they will be afforded the opportunity to pull them up.