I was asked to present a one-minute testimonial about what being a Black Canadian means to me at the launch of Black History Month in Ottawa on January 31st at the National Library and Archives. The event was organized by Black History Ottawa.
The truth is there is no way I could answer this question in a minute. Actually, this blog is my attempt at answering this question.
What I decided to do was write a poem. I don’t presume to be a poet but I feel that poetry can often convey complex ideas and emotions more effectively than plain speech in a short period of time. It took me about 5 minutes to write the poem. Here it is:
Before I was a year old
My father was deported
Transported back across an ocean
To his homeland Nigeria
Never again to return to Canada
I grew up Black in Ottawa
Uncertain of my African roots
But aware that I was here and he was there
And so many others were there who wanted to be here
And it’s unfair
So I was burdened with a sense of guilt for being on the plus side
Of the Haves and Have Nots
I saw every opportunity Canada granted me
As a luxury it wasn’t my right to afford
But as I grew older I realized that punishing myself for the sins of a system
I did not create helps no one
So I now grab every opportunity this country offers me
In the hope that I can make equality a reality for those here and there
The Haves and Have Nots
So that these opportunities do not become simply luxuries
For those who can afford them
And this struggle against adversity
Is what being a Black Canadian has come to mean to me
My testimonial was right before the testimonial of a certain Gerard Etienne and we were seated together to wait for our cue to go on stage. I was struck by the name as it is the same as the Haitian novelist Gerard Etienne.
Gerard Etienne fled Haiti in 1964 after spending time in prison under the Duvalier Dictatorship. He taught in Acadia and is still credited for having an impact on Acadian society. Etienne, who is best known for his novel Le nègre crucifié, also is a convert to Judaism. In 2011, there will be a colloquium dedicated to his life and work in Israel.
However, the Gerard Etienne I was sitting beside looked far too young to be the same person. While conversing in French, I mentioned that he had the same name as the famous Haitian novelist. “He is my father.” What a small world! However, I was sad to learn that his father had passed away in 2008. It was obvious that Gerard Etienne fils was still deeply grieved by this loss. We didn’t have much time to chat aside from Etienne explaining that he went into a career in Economics, quite different from his father’s artistic path. We exchanged contact information and I hope to someday discuss his father’s life and work in more depth with him.
Ottawa is interesting in that way, there are a lot of connections with great minds from the entire Black diaspora hiding away in this city. A lot of people complain about how boring and unengaged the Black community in Ottawa is. But, as this is my home town, I have always felt that Ottawa was small enough but diverse enough to really begin to understand just what it means to be part of the Black African Diaspora. Everyone is here, you just have to take the time to find them.