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Book Review: Miroirs et Mirages by Monia Mazigh

Title: Miroirs et mirages

Author: Monia Mazigh

Language: French

Country: Canada

Year: 2011

Genre: Fiction, Novel

Miroirs et mirages is the first novel by Tunisian Canadian Monia Mazigh, who is better known for her work as a human rights activist. Mazigh came to Canada in 1991 to study Finance in Montreal. She subsequently met and married her husband, Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar, started a family, and moved to Ottawa. When her husband was wrongfully rendered to Syria in the hysteria that followed 9/11, she campaigned successfully for his return. She has written a memoir about her struggle, Hope and Despair, which has been translated into English.

Miroirs et mirages is quite a departure from her activism as the scope of the novel is relatively small; it simply follows the sometimes intersecting lives of several women living in Ottawa. But the novel is delightful in its focus on these women’s inner lives, their thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the many challenges they face. There is Emma, a Tunisian, who has fled her emotionally abusive husband and now has to figure out how to rebuild her life with her young daughter in toe. There is Samia, a Palestinian, who enjoys finding new ways to spend the money of her husband, a businessman working in Dubai. There is Samia’s daughter, Lama, a university student, who is trying to figure out just where she fits in her family, her community, and Canada. There is Sally, a second-generation Pakistani Canadian university student, who has taken to wearing the niqab (face veil) much to the chagrin of her dotting parents. There is Louise, a French Canadian university student, who has converted to Islam and hopes to marry the man who introduced her to the faith. Then there is Alice, Louise’s mother, who is appalled by her daughter’s conversion and fears she may be losing the most important person in her life.

The title Miroirs et mirages illustrates the overall theme of the novel as the reader explores how the inner struggles of one character reflect those of another and how several of the characters are struggling with the illusions they have constructed in their attempts to create new identities for themselves.

Personal Reflections

I greatly enjoyed reading the novel for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that it is set in Ottawa. Ottawa is probably one of the most neglected cities in Canadian Literature with few Canadian writers of renown finding it worth writing about-exceptions being Black Canadian writer Andre Alexis and classic Canadian Children’s author Brian Doyle. It was refreshing to read a Canadian novel which describes locations I know and explores the fascinating interactions across culture, language, and religion which are possible in our rather unassuming Nation’s Capital.

Mazigh is a striking new talent in Francophone Canadian fiction who writes with confidence and demonstrates a versatility in the creation and handling of her diverse characters. The reader sometimes only catches glimpses of these women’s worlds yet these glimpses are enough to create powerful impressions of these women’s histories and personalities.

I had the opportunity to attend the launch of Mazigh’s novel in Ottawa at Librairie du centre, a French-Language bookstore on 435 Donald Street . The majority of those in attendance were French Canadians who had read and greatly enjoyed the novel. They asked probing questions about the theme and “message” of the novel. Mazigh asserted that the novel has no “message”; it is not a polemic. Since that event, I have been thinking seriously about the importance of fiction that allows us to “walk in the shoes” of people we may never meet in real life. Fiction, or I should say good fiction, is not polemical, it does not provide easy answers but instead shows how there often are no easy answers and the world is more often full of shades of grey instead of stark Black and White.

At a time when there is so much debate around the presence of Muslim communities in Canada, particularly Quebec, Mazigh’s novel should definitely be welcomed because it simply allows readers to see the diversity and complexity of Muslim women’s lives and experiences. It certainly does not depict an idealized or romanticized view of Muslim women’s lives, as a great deal of the polemical writings by Canadian Muslim women seem to do as a form of resistance to Islamphobia. As Suzanne Giguere writes in her review of the novel in Le Devoir:

À l’heure où les débats autour du voile ne font pas l’unanimité — le voile est perçu par plusieurs intellectuels comme un symbole de l’oppression de la femme, un emblème politique —, Monia Mazigh refuse d’ériger des barrières et tente de créer avec son roman un espace de dialogue. À la fois analyse sociale et peinture intimiste, Miroirs et mirages évoque les questions identitaires auxquelles les femmes immigrantes de religion musulmane sont sans cesse confrontées. Leur situation a souvent été évoquée dans des ouvrages à portée sociologique qui ne prennent bien souvent qu’insuffisamment en compte les données humaines que retranscrivent ces témoignages, ce que permet l’oeuvre romanesque.

The novel points to some quite serious social problems facing Muslim communities in diaspora, some of these problems, like domestic violence, are common to Canadian society as a whole, some, like the conflicts which religious fundamentalism can cause within a family, although perhaps shared by other faith communities, are more particular to Canada’s Muslim communities. By exploring these issues through fiction, Mazigh is able to avoid the many pitfalls we see when these issues are tackled in the form of polemics, which are often defensive and reactionary. She simply presents the reader a situation to reflect on.

Mazigh’s novel isn’t just about Muslim women. My favourite character in the novel is Alice. Alice disapproval of her daughter Louise’s conversion to Islam comes from a variety of experiences and beliefs which are far more complex than simple Islamophobia. The struggles of Quebecois women of Alice’s generation are not well understood outside of Quebec or by newcomers to the province, but it is clear that Mazigh has worked to try to understand women like Alice and this comes through in her writing.

I highly recommend the novel for anyone who enjoys writing about women’s lives. It is currently only available in French but I encourage those of you who are bilingual but have never read French for pleasure to check it out as the French is quite easy to read. The movement to create a Bilingual Canada was aimed at bridging the social and cultural divides between English and French Canadians and facilitating dialogue between these “Two Solitudes“. The fact that many new Canadians like Mazigh are also writing in French should make it even clearer that using the language to explore other people’s worlds through fiction is crucial to building a more socially inclusive and integrated Canada.

Further Reading:

Monia Mazigh’s Blog

Review in French by Le Devoir available online

Audio Interview (2011) in French with Radio Canada International available online

Audio Interview (2011) in French with Radio Canada available online

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Day in the Life: July 1 2011 The Accident of Birth

Posted in Countries: Canada, Day in the Life, The Woyingi Blogger by the woyingi blogger on August 8, 2011

July 1 is Canada Day. the anniversary of the July 1, 1867, enactment of the British North America Act (today called the Constitution Act, 1867), which united three British colonies into a single country, called Canada, within the British Empire. It was originally called Dominion Day until 1982.

This year, it was an extra-special occasion because Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and his new bride Kate Middleton were in Ottawa. Canada used to be a colony of Great Britain and many Canadians still feel nostalgic about the monarchy. Technically, the Queen of England is still our head of state and new citizens still have to pledge their allegiance to the Queen. The Governor General of Canada represents the Queen in Canada and has the final authority on whether or not our parliament can be prorogued.

On CBC Radio, listeners were able to share their thoughts on the Royal Visit. One listener stated that he felt that it made no sense to be in awe of people who were only important because of the accident of birth.

This made me think about how my being born as a Canadian, with all the access to resources and opportunities that this provides, was simply an accident and how unfair it is that other people don’t have access to these resources, through no fault of their own. There is no personal merit involved in being born a Canadian but immigrants and refugees have to earn their right to stay in our country.

Book Review: Some Great Thing by Lawrence Hill

Posted in Black Canadian Literature, Lawrence Hill, Novels, Winnipeg by the woyingi blogger on March 7, 2011

Black Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill has won international acclaim with his novel The Book of Negroes but my review is of his first novel, Some Great Thing, first published in 1992 and reissued in 2009 by Harper Collins Canada.

I chose to read Some Great Thing while travelling by bus to Winnipeg, where the novel is set. This was my first trip to Manitoba and I had a 33 hour bus ride to survive. I easily lost myself in Some Great Thing, with its array of contrasting characters, its insights on Canadian local media, and the cultural context of Canada in the early 1980s.

The central character of the novel is 25 year old Mahatma Grafton, a light-skinned Black Canadian who has reluctantly taken a job as a journalist with The Winnipeg Herald after taking a Double Major in History and French at Laval University and a Masters in Economics at the University of Toronto. Hill describes Mahatma as:

…an intellectual bum. No. He was worse than a bum. He was an M.A. graduate over his head in student loans. He had no particular job skills and no goals in life. What thinking citizen would place his life, or his liberty, or even his bank savings in the hands of an economics major? What Mahatma had discovered about journalism was this: it was the only pseudo-profession left in the world that still hired bums.

Mahatma has also had to move back in with his father, Ben Grafton, a widower and a former Railroad Porter, who he hasn’t kept in touch with during his studies. It was his father who decided to name his son Mahatma, feeling that it was necessary that his son have the name of a great man.It is been who urges his son to do “Some Great Thing”, which is what African American pioneers who came to the Canadian West were urged to do.  Ben Grafton’s past as a Railroad Porter is a tribute to the Black presence in early 20th Canadian History, unlike the US, Canada has a relatively small Black population of recent origin. Black Railroad Porters, often originally from the US, worked and sometimes settled in Canadian cities like Winnipeg, Toronto, and Montreal. In the novel, we get to learn about Ben Grafton’s and his fellow Railroad Porters experiences of racism. The relationship between Ben and Mahatma as they rediscover each other is subtly developped throughout the novel. The novel opens with Ben and Mahatma’s first meeting. Hill writes:

His son was born in 1957 at the Misericordia Hospital in Winnipeg, before men had to start watching their wives give birth. Asked about it years later, Ben Grafton replied, “What’s a man to do in a place like that, except grow all bug-eyed and wobbly and make a shining fool of himself?”

On that windless January night, Ben Grafton didn’t enter the delivery room. He didn’t consider it. He waited until Louise was “finished,” poked his head in the door and shouted “atta way Lulu!” Wearing a blue woolen cap that stopped short of his huge brown ears, he followed two nurses who took the infant to the nursery. Ben Grafton was not invited. Nor was he self-conscious. He was a forty-three-year-old railroad porter who had coped with all sorts of nonsense in the past and had long stopped wondering what people thought of his being this or that. They turned to tell him he couldn’t stay in the nursery. He said he wanted to look at his little man.

The novel traces his journey from a cynical, apathetic, reluctant journalist to a passionate writer who wants to stand for something.  Many of the issues Mahatma becomes passionate about are related to Winnipeg and Canada’s history in the early 80s. For example,  Winnipeg has a significant French-Canadian population who consider themselves marginalized. French-English disputes become fodder for The Winnipeg Herald and Mahatma, who unlike many of his colleagues, is bilingual, befriends with French Language Rights activists and their community’s plight. Mahatma also covers the many triumphs and tragedies of Jack Corbett, a disabled welfare recipent who becomes a public figure through is protests against having his welfare payments cut. Mahatma also encounters a Cameroonian journalist, Yoyo, who makes a hero out of Jack Corbett in Cameroon. In an interview, Hill says that Yoyo is his favourite character in the novel:

But my favourite character in Some Great Thing is Yoyo, for his complete astonishment at the silly, inexplicable ways that we live in rich, developed nations. I like the way his being a foreign visitor to Manitoba offers the reader a fresh lens through which to see Canada and its foibles.

I particularly was fascinated with Betts, the editor of The Winnipeg Herald, and his obsession with the city’s mayor, Novak, who he believes is a communist and therefore will not be allowed to pass through the United States. This novel is set during the Cold War and the paranoia around alleged communist affliations reminds me of what we are living through now with the “War on Terror” and the media’s obsession with “Islamists and Muslim Radicalization”. This makes the novel particularly timely.

Many aspects of the novel are obviously autobiographical, as Hill says:

I could never have written Some Great Thing without having worked as a reporter in Winnipeg. The characters and their flight paths are of my invention; it is truly a work of fiction. But working in a newsroom and pursuing stories daily for two years in Winnipeg offered experiences—sad and hilarious, personal and professional—that made it possible for me to imagine the novel. After I had been away from the world of journalism for a year or two, I had enough emotional distance to look back and begin to concoct Some Great Thing.

Mahatma was urged by his father to do “some great thing” in life, and my own father certainly did the same. I stepped into the world of newspapers feeling somewhat cynical, as does Mahatma. And we both moved from that initial cynicism into a place of personal engagement with journalism. The novel does reflect my voice and its construction reveals the way my mind operates, so in the deepest sense it is autobiographical.

Hill faced obstacles in getting his first novel published because it was set in Winnipeg, but, as he states, there was no where else this story could take place:

The first time I sent the novel in draft form to a prospective agent, I was turned down and encouraged to consider setting the story in a more interesting place than Winnipeg. The argument went that if I set it in Toronto or New York, it would no longer be seen as a regional novel. To me, this was hokum. It suggested that a novel is “regional” if it is set in Winnipeg, but of global, universal reach if it is set in a big metropolis. But Winnipeg is pretty well the only city in Canada where this novel could unfold. The novel gives Winnipeg a communist mayor in the 1980s. What Canadian city, other than Winnipeg, could have had a communist mayor at that time? And the particular French-English conflict that provides the socio-political backdrop for Mahatma Grafton’s growth on the job could only have taken place in Manitoba. I do not like to think of Some Great Thing as a regional novel. I prefer to think of it as a novel set in a specific time and place— Winnipeg, in the 1980s, during a crisis over the constitutional rights of French Canadians in English Canada—that will, if it works successfully as fiction, appeal to a wide swath of readers. I love novels that are anchored in specific times and situations. This doesn’t make them regional. It makes them real.

 

Further Reading:

Lawrence Hill’s Website

Lawrence Hill Discusses Some Great Thing (interview available online)

Browse Inside Some Great Thing on the Harper Collins Canada Website

Black Canadian Profile: William Sylvester Alpheus Beal 1874 to 1968

I recently just got back from Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was my first time visiting this province so in honour of my trip, I decided to write a profile of one of the province’s first Black settlers. The Black population of the Canadian West grew quite slowly in the 19th and 20th Century, with most migrants coming from the United States. One of the first and best documented Blacks to migrate and settle in Manitoba was William S. A. Beal aka Billy Beal.

Billy Beal, Photo Taken by Beal himself

Billy Beal was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on January 16th 1874, the son of Loretta H. Freeman and Charles R. Beal. Billy Beal grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota where he graduated from high school. Minnesota was a region where the Manitoba government was focusing its immigration advertising at the time. Beal immigrated to Canada in 1906 where he worked in the Swan River area of Manitoba as a steam engineer at a saw mill. The area was mainly settled by Icelandic, Scandinavian and German immigrants. Beal describes life on a pioneer homestead in the region as follows (I have made spelling corrections to the original):

The idea of taking a homestead did not occur to me at that time. It was in the fall of 1906 that one of my acquaintances asked me to spend the winter on his homestead. That was in the district that is called Lancaster now. We went out there to fix up the house and things because he had a wife to share his good fortune with him. The scrub was so dense out there that we had to climb a tree to see much of his possessions. I had originally come from the city and I thought a man must have an awful grudge against a woman to take her out in the woods like that.

Unlike many other Black immigrants to the Canadian West, Beal was not initially interested in building a homestead, but he soon changed his mind under the influence of men at the sawmill and a book he read. He decided to settle in the Big Woody region. He writes:

Two years after at the sawmill where I worked most of the men were homesteaders and there was nothing but homestead talk every evening in camp. They would set around the table talked and joked each other about their braking and clearing. […] This and a book that I read that summer inspired me to try homesteading myself. So in the fall when the summer season at the mill was over, I applied at the land office in Swan River for a permit to file on a homestead. The only land then available near Swan River was ten miles North West of town some new land just opened for settlement. It was not then even included in the municipality and I was the first one to locate there. This was in 1908. It was very discouraging looking then, all heavy bush or rather dense trees like a forest and I had to clear and break fifteen acres in three years. There were no roads of course of any kind. Then too, there was the Woody River between it and town and no bridge. I had to cut a road in to haul material in to build my first shack.

But instead of focusing on clearing his land and farming, he started building a library. He collected catalogues from publishing houses and sent away for hundreds of books including the works of William Shakespeare, the Bible, Scientific Literature, Astronomy, and Philosophy. Unfortunately, Beal’s library was lost in 1911, burned to the ground in a spring fire which swept through the Swan River Valley. After this disaster, Beal focused on farming but gave it up in 1916 and returned to working for local lumber companies, just returning to his homestead on off seasons.

Beal was something of a renaissance man. Beal even built a homemade telescope out of lengths of stove pipe and rolled metal from tin cans. Some even believed he had medical training and he even assisted in giving inoculations in the diphtheria scare of 1915, the influenza epidemic of 1918 and the smallpox outbreak of 1920.

In 1912, he was involved in the formation of the Big Woody School District and was elected its first Secretary Treasurer, a position that he held for 37 years. Beal helped to establish a circulating library within the school system. He was the first secretary of the Big Woody Sunday School. He also formed a literary society and debating teams, directed plays, and organized poetry readings and musical concerts.

On top of all this he was also an amateur photographer. Most of his photographs are of people from the Swan River Valley, pictured in their homes of outside in natural settings so that the photographs do not look staged. A selection of his photographs were featured in the self-published 1988 amateur biography entitled Billy: The Life and Photography of William S. A. Beal Beal by Robert Barrow and Leigh Hambly.

Beal was a life-long bachelor. After he retired, he moved to the volunteer run Eventide home in the Pas in 1955. He died penniless on January 25th 1968 at 94 years of age. He was buried in an unmarked grave in The Pas Cemetery.

Very little is known about Beal’s life before he immigrated to Manitoba. Beal wrote an 8 page memoir in the 1950s but it begins, unlike most memoirs, with his immigration to Manitoba, not his birth. The memoir begins:

I came up to this country during Laurier’s land boom and effort was being made to settle the west by giving every man a “homestead” for $10.00, three years residence and fifteen acres cleared and broke. I did not come to this part of the country to homestead then but to follow my trade of engineer as there [were] many saw mills being operated.

Barrow and Hambly, who wrote Beal’s biography, interviewed neighbours, friends, and aquaintances of Beal’s in order to learn more about his early life. Much that they uncovered was only rumour and speculation as Beal didn’t tell many people about his past. According to Tom and Mary Barrow, two acquaintances of Beal’s, Beal immigrated because he was the dark-skinned child of a family that could pass as white, in an interview they state: “Well, he was a—he had Negro blood in him and it really came out in him, and his family, I guess, persuaded him to come up to this country so they wouldn’t be embarrassed having this fella who showed so much Negro in the family.”

Filmmakers Ernesto Griffiths and Winston Washington Moxam have written and produced a feature film about Beal’s life, entitled Billy. Griffiths stars in the film, playing Billy Beal, and Moxam directs. The film’s webpage on Telefilm Canada provides the following description for the film:

In 1967, a young journalist arrives at a retirement home to interview Billy, a 94-year-old black man. Billy tells him the story of his eventful life dating back to his early recollections of when he left the United States to move to northern Manitoba. He recalls his struggle as a homesteader, the racism he endured, his love of a woman, and his gift of photography.

Billy is the story of one man’s constant search for acceptance.

The filmmakers received the 2010 Human Rights Commitment Award of Manitoba for their film.

Further Reading:

The Black Prairies: History, Subjectivity, Writing by Karina Joan Vernon (thesis available online)

Billy Beal: One of the First Black Pioneers in Manitoba by G. Siamandas (article available online)

Profile of Beal by The Manitoba Historical Society available online

Webpage for the film Billy on the Telefilm Canada website

Interview with Ernesto Griffith about the film Billy Beal available online

Trailer for the film Billy Beal available online

Black Catholic History Month in the United States

Posted in African Americans, Blacks and Religion, Blacks and Roman Catholicism, Countries: United States by the woyingi blogger on November 30, 2010

November is Black Catholic History Month. In 1990, during their convention at Fordham University in New York, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States voted to establish November as Black Catholic History Month. November was chosen because of the number  of important dates to the World’s Black Catholics that fall within this month. These dates are as follows:

November 1st: All Saints’ Day, an opportunity to review the lives of the hundreds of Saints of African descent in the first 300 years of the Church.

November 2nd: All Souls Day: a time to remember all those African lost to cruel treatment in the Middle Passage crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

November 3rd: Feast of St. Martin de Porres, the only Saint of African descent in the Western hemisphere

November 13th: The birth of St. Augustine in 354 A.D., the first Doctor of the Church from North Africa.

November 20th: The death of Zumbi of Palmares in Brazil, a symbol of African resistance to Portuguese slavery for Afro-Brazilians.

It is estimated that there are  approximately 270 million Catholics of African descent throughout the world. They represent almost 25% of the World’s one billion Roman Catholics.

There are an estimated 141 million Roman Catholics in Africa, with the largest communities in Nigeria (34 million), the Democratic Republic of Congo (28 million), Tanzania (10 million), and Uganda (10 million). The tallest Catholic Church is actually in the Ivory Coast, Our Lady of Peace Basilica of Yamoussoukro, which stands at 518 feet tall.

According to Michael Scott, Black Catholic History began in The Acts of the Apostles (8:26-40), when the Ethiopian Eunuch, Philip the Evangelist, converted to Christianity. Scott writes:

This text is important for several reasons. First, it chronicles the conversion of the first Black person in recorded Christian history. Second, the text suggests that the man was a wealthy, literate, and powerful emissary of the Nubian Queen and also a faithful, practicing Jew prior to his baptism. Clearly, he was not an ignorant heathen. Third, the Ethiopian Eunuch’s conversion predates the conversions of Saints Paul and Cornelius. Most significantly, many cite this conversion as the very moment when the church changed from a Hebrew and Hellenist community to the truly Universal and Catholic Church.

In the United States, there are 1300 Black Catholic Parishes, with 250 African American Priests and 300 African American Sisters. There are currently 13 Black Bishops in the US. The first Black Seminary in the US was established in St. Augustine Seminary in Greenville, Mississippi. In 1958, American Bishops declared that racism was immoral.

According to Father Cyprian Davis O.S.B., it is important for Black Catholics to know their history. He states:

Black Catholics want a sense of being Catholic, especially if they are converts; but they don’t want to be cut off from  their roots. They desperately need and want a sense of identity. So many were not able to tell their children about what it means to be black Catholics or about black saints or black priests. But now they have that background information, and they can use it. They have a good reason to be Catholic and to be proud of it and not feel they have given up being black.

According to Davis, many African Americans have left the Roman Catholic Church. He explains:

…I think part of it was because the church probably didn’t have the personnel to minister to the blacks and also because the church tended to be racist. Louisiana, however, was a special case. Archbishop Francis Janssens of New Orleans was committed to the cause of blacks and the idea of a black clergy. He began to establish black parishes in the late 19th century. Later it became the law to provide blacks with their own parishes.

After the civil-rights movement started, bishops in the South began to open parishes so that everyone could attend the same church. What that meant most of the time, though, was that the black churches were closed down. What no one realized was that a whole infrastructure of parish life among black Catholics was being dismantled. When the black church was closed and the parishioners were told, “You’re now to go to the regular church,” there was really no place for them. In their own churches they had formed a choir, been the chief ushers and part of the council, had a place to play, and a vital social life; and now suddenly it was gone. White parishes had no place for them.

Roman Catholic History in the United States is troubling for African Americans because the vast majority of Roman Catholics supported slavery and were in opposition to its abolition. Father Davis explains:

The abolitionists opposed slavery on moral grounds and were usually very religious, well-educated people coming from establishment backgrounds. Yet many had an intellectual disdain for the Catholic Church. They often saw Catholics as lower-class immigrants with a bigoted religion, so Roman Catholics in this country saw the abolitionists as their enemy.

There were, however, other reasons for church support of slavery, one of which was exemplified by Archbishop Martin Spalding, who was the bishop of Louisville at the time of the Civil War and later became the archbishop of Baltimore. Spalding wrote a letter to the Vatican and explained his own version of the sociopolitical situation in America at the time. Though he talked about slavery as an evil, he said it would be worse to free the slaves because they would end up becoming drunkards or homeless people. Yet later, as archbishop of Baltimore, Spalding was the one bishop concerned about what to do with the freed slaves and really made an effort to begin evangelization.

The opposition to slavery that existed wasn’t organized, even among Catholics. The first bishop in the country who really took a public stand in support of the Union and the emancipation of slaves was Archbishop John Purcell of Cincinnati, who, along with his brother, decried slavery at the outbreak of the Civil War. Later, however, Purcell met his downfall because Cincinnati became bankrupt and bishops were not happy that Purcell broke ranks.

Another outspoken Catholic abolitionist was Irish statesman Daniel O’Connell. Out of religious conviction, O’Connell saw slavery as a great evil. He castigated the Irish in America who were sending him money to fight for Irish emancipation from English rule while supporting slavery in the U.S. O’Connell sat in the British Parliament with his enemies who were opposed to religious freedom in Ireland and Irish rights, but he worked with them to end slavery in the British West Indies.

Claude Maistre, a French priest originally from the Diocese of Troyes in France, who worked a while in the Chicago area and ended up in New Orleans at the time of the Civil War, also took a very strong stand against slavery. In fact, the archbishop told him to stop preaching against slavery, but he refused. Ultimately, he put Maistre’s church under interdict to get him to stop.

By and large, the Catholic opposition against slavery, however, was found more firmly in Europe than in the United States.

American Catholic seminaries and university were some of the last academic institutions in the US to admit Black students. The first African American Priest who identified as Black was Father Augustus Tolton, who was ordained in 1886 in Rome because no American seminary would accept him. He established the Saint Monica Catholic Church in Chicago.

Father Tolton was raised as a Catholic by his parents who were slaves. According to Father Davis:

Father Augustus Tolton

His mother, Martha Chisely Tolton, was a Catholic slave from Kentucky who became part of the dowry of a young lady who married and move to Missouri. Martha married a slave named Peter Paul Tolton, who was also a Catholic. They had three children; Augustus was the second. When Peter died, Martha decided to leave the plantation with her children and cross the Mississippi River at Hannibal and go to Quincy in Illinois, which was a free state.

Martha was very insistent that her children get a Catholic education, despite being treated very badly by the Catholics. Two priests in Quincy, One German and one Irish, befriended Augustus. He then decided he wanted to become a priest, and the two priests tried to find a seminary for him, but they really couldn’t; no one would accept this young man who was black. The German priest joined the Franciscans and through one of the Franciscans there in Quincy, Tolton was able to take courses at Quincy College. Eventually the minister general of the Franciscans arranged for him to go to Rome and become a seminarian at the Urban College. It was almost like a fairy tale.

Tolton was supposed to go to Africa after he was ordained. When the time came, however, the cardinal prefect said that America was a great nation and needed to see a black priest. So he sent Tolton back to the U.S.

It was a triumphant return, and the whole city of Quincy was there for his first Mass. But after he started work as a pastor of a parish, there was a racial conflict between another priest and him. Tolton almost had a nervous breakdown. He was not at all assertive and wanted to leave the diocese. Tolton never told the cardinal prefect back in Rome what was happening; and when word did get back to the cardinal prefect, he was very upset. Luckily for Tolton, Archbishop Patrick Feehan of Chicago wanted to have a black priest, so Tolton was sent there and formed the black parish of St. Monica’s.

In 1987, Pope John Paul II addressed the Black Catholic community of New Orleans. He stated:

I express my deep love and esteem for the black Catholic community in the United States. Its vitality is a sign of hope for society. Composed as you are of many lifelong Catholics, and many who have more recently embraced the faith, together with a growing immigrant community, you reflect the Church’s ability to bring together a diversity of people united in faith, hope and love, sharing a communion with Christ in the Holy Spirit. I urge you to keep alive and active your rich cultural gifts. Always profess proudly before the whole Church and the whole world your love for God’s word; it is a special blessing which you must for ever treasure as a part of your heritage. Help us all to remember that authentic freedom comes from accepting the truth and from living one’s life in accordance with it – and the full truth is found only in Christ Jesus. Continue to inspire us by your desire to forgive – as Jesus forgave – and by your desire to be reconciled with all the people of this nation, even those who would unjustly deny you the full exercise of your human rights.

My dear brothers and sisters of the black community: it is the hour to give thanks to God for his liberating action in your history and in your lives. This liberating action is a sign and expression of Christ’s Paschal Mystery, which in every age is effective in helping God’s people to pass from bondage into their glorious vocation of full Christian freedom. And as you offer your prayer of thanksgiving, you must not fail to concern yourselves with the plight of your brothers and sisters in other places throughout the world. Black Americans must offer their own special solidarity of Christian love to all people who bear the heavy burden of oppression, whatever its physical or moral nature.

Further Reading:

The National Black Catholic Congress’ Website

National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus’ Website

Global Count of Catholics of African Descent, includes a breakdown by country

Interview Father Cyprian Davis O.S.B.

Archdiocese of Chicago Office for Black Catholics Website

Archdiocese of Washington Office of Black Catholics Website

Archdiocese of New Orleans Office of Black Catholic Ministries Website

African American Catholic Democraphics

An African’s gift to the Vatican: the world’s largest church – Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Basilica of Our Lady of Peace by Hans Massaquoi (article available online)

Do Black Votes Matter? A Young Black Woman’s Reflections on Ottawa’s Municipal Election

I will be voting on Monday but frankly, I am not even sure it matters. I feel awful saying this as someone who works at encouraging members of my low-income housing project to become more civically engaged. But as a young Black woman, I really don’t think my vote matters to politicians and despite the fact that I come from one of the largest visible minority communities in Ottawa, I also come from one of the poorest and throughout this election I have heard politicians talking to those with wealth, those who own houses, those who earn enough disposable income to invest in their campaigns. Not people like me. But one positive aspect of this election has been the number of Black candidates who are running.

Read the rest of my post on rabble.ca

Black Canadian Profile: Fil Fraser

Fil Fraser is a broadcaster, journalist, biographer, television program director, human rights activist and a radio, television and feature film producer. His career has spanned over half a century. He is the first Black Canadian broadcaster. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 1991 for his contributions to Canadian broadcasting and journalism. He is currently based out of Edmonton.

Fil Fraser

Born to Caribbean parents in a French Canadian community in the East End of Montreal in 1932. Fraser experienced racism as a child growing up. He was called a maudit négre and often had to fight his way home from school. However, he believes that he learned coping skills that allowed him to feel comfortable within in mainstream (white) Canadian society.

Fraser began his career in Canadian broadcasting as a teenager when he hosted the afteroon teen program Club 800 on Radio CJAD. He went on to work for Foster Hewitt’s CKFH in Toronto in 1951. He later worked in radio in Timmins and Barrie, Ontario.

In 1958, Fraser headed west. He moved to Regina in 1958, and worked in public relations in both government and private sectors before founding and publishing, in 1960, the Regina Weekly Mirror, which chronicled the introduction of Medicare by the Tommy Douglas Government. Between 1963 and 1969, Fraser began working in the field of public education on the issue of addictions. He was the Director of Education at the Saskatchewan Bureau on Alcoholism, and in 1965, he moved to Edmonton to work in the same capacity with the Division of Alcoholism of the Alberta Department of Health, now known as the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC).

But Fraser continued to work in media. In 1969, he became the program director of Canada’s first educational television station, the Metropolitan Edmonton Educational Television Association (MEETA), forerunner of Alberta’s ACCESS TV NETWORK, which went on the air in March, 1970. He was the “co-anchor” for CBC Edmonton’s supper hour news and public affairs program from 1971 to 1973. In 1974, Fraser got to host his own show, the Fil Fraser Show, on ITV Television.  During that same year, he founded the Alberta Film Festival, now known as the Alberta Motion Picture Industries Association (AMPIA) awards. he same period, he formed his own production company and wrote, produced and directed several educational films for television. After founding his own production company and writing, directing and producing several educational films for television, Fraser produced one of Canada’s most successful feature films, Why Shoot the Teacher? starring Bud Cort (Harold and Maude). In 1979, Fraser founded the Banff International Television Festival.

Fraser rarely experienced racism in his career. As he explains:

Being Black was rarely an issue in my career. There were only two occasions on which I faced overt racism, and I didn’t know about the first until long after it happened. I was working at CKBB, a radio station in Barrie, Ontario in the 1950s as the Sports Director and Assistant News Editor, doing the play-by-play for the Barrie Flyers hockey games. Apparently one of the sponsors didn’t like the idea of a “Black boy” doing his commercials and told Ralph Snelgrove, who owned the station, to get rid of me. It was years later, when I was being inducted into the quarter century club of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, that Snelgrove told me about the incident. He told the sponsor to take his business elsewhere – and never mentioned it to me.

I was in Saskatchewan in the early 1960s, publishing the Regina Weekly Mirror, when a landlord refused to rent an apartment to me because of my colour. I called up the province’s attorney general, who had just passed a fair accommodation practices act and told him about it. The case was the first to be prosecuted by the legislation. The company offered me an apartment, which I declined.

However, Fraser has fought against racism within Canadian society. He was appointed in August 1987, to the Canadian Multiculturalism Council by the then Honourable David Crombie, and was Chair of the Council’s media committee. On behalf of the Federal Minister for Multiculturalism, the Honourable Gerry Weiner, Fraser organized and chaired a National Forum on Broadcasting and Multiculturalism, “Reflections in the Electronic Mirror”, which took place in Toronto in May, 1988. Fraser served as the Chief Commissionar of the Alberta Human Rights Commission from 1989 to 2002. As he writes:

But I have always been keenly aware of the subtle racism than animates so much of Canadian society, and I have very good radar to detect it. When I saw racism in my own life, I simply refused to tolerate what I perceived and volubly identified as ignorance on the part of the perpetrators. At the same time I was angered by the racism faced by other members of the Black community, and, as a journalist and later as Chief Commissioner of the Alberta Human Rights Commission, spoke out against it.

In 1990, Fraser was appointed to sit as a member on The Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future, a Federal Royal Commission also known as the “Spicer” Commission, named after its chairperson, Keith Spicer. Established on the advice of then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the commission was a response to the failure of the Meech Lake Accord. Its goal was to discuss the future of Canada in the face of linguistic and regional divisions with Canadian citizens across the country in town-hall style meetings. The commission’s report was released in June 1991. Some of the reports recommendations influenced the subsequent Charlottetown Accord. Also in 1991, Fraser was inducted as a member of the Order of Canada by the then Govenor General of Canada, Ramon Hnatyshyn.

From 1995 to 2000, Fraser was President and Chief Executive Officer of Vision TV, a multifaith, multicultural cable channel. In 2001, Fraser gave the inaugural lecture of “The Fil Fraser Lecture Series”, presented annually by The Canadian Association of Black Journalists. The series was created to focus on the important role that cultural and social diversity can and should play in the Canadian media. Fraser was also director for a time at CBC Newsworld and Telefilm Canada.

Fraser was granted an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University or Alberta in 2007. Fraser currently teaches a graduate course on film policy at Athabasca University, Canada’s pioneering distance learning institution.

Fraser is also a prolific writer. His books include:

How the Blacks Created Canada (Lone Pine Publishing)

Across the country and throughout time, Blacks have played pivotal roles in the unfolding of Canadian history. Woven into the fabric of the country itself, they have made serious contributions to this great nation.

In the early 1600s, African navigator Mathieu De Costa used his knowledge of Mi’kmaq languages to enable communication between the Europeans and Aboriginals. Arriving in 1605, he was the first Black to come to what would become Canada.

Over two centuries later, Sir James Douglas recruited 800 former American slaves and freemen to settle in Victoria, BC, where they staved off the threat from an America that would gobble up land and stretch up the west coast from California to Alaska.

Josiah Henson escaped half a lifetime of slavery and came to Dresden, Ontario through the underground railway. He established a highly successful business, met Queen Victoria, had dinner with the prime minister and became friends with the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was also an unofficial ambassador for Canada.

And, more currently, Blacks have made great strides in Canadian sports, entertainment and politics, as well as business, academia, the judiciary and a broad range of public service. So take a seat and discover the surprising and satisfying history that is finally making it in the mainstream.

Running Uphill: the Fast, Short Life of Harry Jerome (Lone Pine Publishing)

Harry Jerome was among the greatest runners the world has ever seen. He battled serious injuries, racism and periodically a hostile domestic press as he smashed numerous world records and represented Canada at the Olympic, Commonwealth and Pan-American Games through the 1960s. Running Uphill: The Short, Fast Life of Harry Jerome is the first biography ever published of this important Canadian, who stands as a genuine hero for Canada’s Black community.

Fraser has also written a memoir about Alberta in the 1970s entitled Alberta’s Camelot: Culture and the Arts in the Lougheed Years (Lone Pine Publishing)

This memoir is a personal view of an extraordinary period in the life of Alberta, and of a time in my own life that still astonishes me. When I look back through the lens of the political and economic realities of the early twenty-first century, it is hard for me to believe that for a decade and a half, in the 1970s and early 1980s, the government of Alberta supported culture in ways unmatched, with the possible exception of Quebec, anywhere, anytime in Canada. Premier Peter Lougheed, with the active encouragement of his wife Jeanne, supported the arts with strongly positive attitudes and with generous, well-placed funding. The government treated culture as if it really mattered. And, in the proc-ess, it changed the way that many Albertans, myself included, saw themselves and their communities.

According to Fraser, the role of the writer is effective communication. He writes that:

“We communicate more and more in cliches, which mean different things to different people and nothing to a lot of people. We need to find a new way to communicate across gender, the ethnic, cultural and age divides that separate us. That is the role of the writer.

Further Reading:

Fil Fraser’s Website

The Participation of Aboriginals and Other Cultural Minorities in Cultural Development  by Fil Fraser (1994 Article available online)

Fil Fraser: Alberta Culture Vignette (Video available online)

Books by Fil Fraser:

How the Blacks Created Canada (Lone Pine Publishing)

Running Uphill: The Fast, Short Life of Canadian Champion Harry Jerome (Lone Pine Publishing)

Alberta’s Camelot: Culture and the Arts in the Lougheed Years (Lone Pine Publishing)

Black Canadian Profile: Hamdi Mohamed

Hamdi Mohamed is currently the Executive Director of the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization (OCISO). She is also a historian, feminist, mother, and “institution” here in the City of Ottawa.

But Hamdi, like so many of her generation, was raised to be a leader within the elite of her homeland of Somalia. At 24, Hamdi had graduated from the Somali National University with an Honours Degree in Education. However, as a refugee in Ottawa, Canada Hamdi had to struggle not only with the trauma of a civil war that tore apart so many extended Somali families as well as the country, she also had to take on rebuilding a sense of community and belonging within the Somali Diaspora in the West. While studying for her Masters Degree in International Diplomacy at the University of Ottawa, Hamdi, along with a group of other hardworking and talented women and men, began the difficult task of helping their fellow Somalis resettle in Canada while contending with a country that had never seen such large numbers of African refugees, particularly Muslim refugees, and a city that was, at the time, not very multicultural.

Hamdi was up for the task. She worked with several local community health centres and organizations and was involved in founding the now defunct Somali Centre for Youth, Women and Development. At the height of this centre’s achievements, Hamdi became a key spokesperson for the Somali community in Ottawa. While Program Manager at the Somali Centre, Hamdi spoke out against the Federal Government’s proposal to stop recognizing the Somali passport as legal identification. In a 1999 Ottawa Citizen interview, Hamdi stated“From the community perspective, this is a very racist piece of legislation and we think it’s the way of curbing Somalis from coming into the country.”

When Canadian filmmaker Helen Klodawsky, writer and director of the film Family Motel,  decided that she wanted to look at the issue of homelessness among Ottawa’s Somali community, she went to Hamdi. According to Klowdawsky:

Hamdi Mohamed was our first contact in the community. She’s a brilliant woman and her contribution has been vital. Hamdi posed a number of key questions. Who owns this story? she wanted to know. And I really appreciated that discussion. It helped to focus the story. She also insisted that our protagonist not be presented as victim, that she be a resilient and resourceful character.

Hamdi refuses to be a victim. During an event on Parliment Hill for diverse high school students to which Hamdi was invited by Sentator Vivienne Poy, Hamdi gave this advice to the students:

I learned that you are never a victim unless you accept victimization. You always have the power to choose the path for your life. While I have experienced the legacies of colonialism and have been victimized by sexism, racism etc throughout my life, I never thought of myself as a victim.

Hamdi Mohamed, Photo by Julie Oliver for the Ottawa Citizen

Hamdi went on to complete her Ph.D in History at the University of Ottawa and lectured on human rights issues at the School of Social Work and the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies at Carleton University for five years. She served as the Executive Director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre where she gave priority to developping the organization’s cultural competency.

In 2000, Hamdi became the proud mother of a son, Adam. In a 2009 interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Hamdi admitted that although feeling that life was good at the time, she became overwhelmed with saddness a few days after her son’s birth. She said:

I suddenly became consciously aware of the fact that I couldn’t show my son where I had lived, the trees I had climbed, the sand I had played in, the friends I had had. I wanted to share these things with my son and I couldn’t.

This is the plight of the exile who finds herself in a foreign land and who has no choice but to make a new home for her children. Hamdi is committed to making her new home a welcoming place for refugees and immigrants. She is now the Executive Director of the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization (OCISO). In this capacity, she has focused on expanding Ottawa’s oldest newcomer serving agency’s mission. According to the Ottawa Citizen:

…since she took the job four years ago, Mohamed and her team have been crafting an expanded mission, one that reflects what they see every day: building a new life means more than finding a job and getting a roof over your head, it means feeling accepted in a new home while having the freedom to mourn the old.

Hamdi believes that immigrant issues should not be just a concern of the immigration sector but of the entire community. According to Hamdi:

…in Ottawa, the notion of being diverse is still new. We’re generally kind and generous people but when it comes to difference, we hesitate. But now, the numbers are pushing us to ask, ‘Who are we now?’

Further Reading:

Profile of Hamdi Mohamed available online

Resistance strategies: Somali women’s struggles to reconstruct their lives in Canada by Hamdi Mohamed (essay available online)

“The Somali refugee women’s experience in Kenyan refugee camps and their plight in Canada.” by Hamdi Mohamed In Mending rips in the sky : options for Somali communities in the 21st centry, ed. by Hussein M. Adam and Richard Ford (1997)

Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization’s Website

Day in the Life: A Peck on the Cheek from the GG

Posted in Countries: Canada, Day in the Life, The Woyingi Blogger by the woyingi blogger on September 29, 2010

At the beginning of August I received the following e-mail:

Hello,

On behalf of Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada, we are pleased to extend an invitation to you to attend the Governor General’s Youth Dialogue “Can We Talk” in Ottawa.

Kindly refer to the invitation attached.

Please find below additional information on the event:

YOUTH DIALOGUE

DATE: Tuesday, August 10, 2010

TIME: 5:00 p.m. (Please arrive by 4:30 p.m.)

(This portion of the event finishes approximately at 7:00 p.m.)

LOCATION: Rideau Hall, 1 Sussex Drive, Ottawa

A dinner reception at Rideau Hall and the National Capital Commission’s Sound and Light show Mosaika on Parliament Hill will follow. (Note: participants will be given VIP passes for the sound and light show).

My first response was “Why was I invited to this?” “Who is behind this?” I still don’t know; I’m guessing it was the Governor-General’s advisor on Youth Affairs, Peter Flegel, but other than a brief conversation after a play at the Great Canadian Theatre Company, and being his Facebook Friend, I don’t think Peter really knows me well, and certainly he can’t know much about the work I do with youth. Then I wondered if those who invited me actually thought I was a youth? I guess I am depending on what definition you use but really, I’m too old to be considered a youth by youth the youth I work with but I’m young enough to not be perceived as being like their parents.

But what work have I done to make be deserve to be invite to the GG’s Residence. Well, I have run an after-school program for like about 7 years in my subsidized housing community, I also run a program for immigrant and visible minority girls each day during the school year at six different high schools, and I did come up with the idea to have 15 week workshops facilitated by local Spoken Word artists for at risk (at risk of awesomeness that is) immigrant and visible minority youth. I then wrote proposal and got funding from the City of Ottawa and Crime Prevention Ottawa (There were four streams: An All Girls Stream, and All Boys Stream, and ESL Stream, and a Francophone Stream). So, I’ve done some stuff…but other people have done more…and in less time.

Shopping with an African Muslim Fashionista

So, I was invited to meet the Governor-General. What was I going to wear? My friend/auntie Semira, an Eritrean-Canadian who can’t help to be something of a Fashionista, due to her country’s colonization by Italy and a long stint in African communities in Montreal, where women know how to dress in style, with flair, and on a budget. She was excited for me of course as meeting any Canadian Governor General would be an honour but she couldn’ help but ask which one I was going to be meeting. I assured her that it was Michaelle Jean, who wouldn’t be leaving her post as GG until the end of September. This, of course added to her excitement and desire to help me find something to wear, something that could be described as “smart casual” as the invitation advised.

The Woyingi Blogger at the Mic, this is the GG's Hair! Photo by Ben Powless

For years, Semira has been advising me to develop a more elegant and more African style of dress, something that could distinguish me from other people when I attend conferences or am asked to MC functions.

I don’t care about clothing. As long as something is clean, I’ll wear it. Most of my clothes are hand-me downs from Arab, African, and South Asian friends and aunties. I seldom buy clothes. Why? A combination of poverty and a real inability to shop well. After I shop for clothes, I am seldom satisfied by what I buy so I really try to avoid the experience.

Semira knows how to dress stylishly on a budget. She is always so colour-coordinated from her veils to her shoes. The Muslim African Fashionista is a godsend to the bland streets of Ottawa, and a broke and frumpy Black Girl like me.

Semira drove me to Pennington’s in Barrhaven and picked out some clothes for me to were. We were helped out but a lovely sales associate. Semira picked out a lovely purple scarf that I could wear as a hijab that matched the long empire-waisted shirt I had chosen.  This purple scarf and be seen on the cover of Metro Ottawa, in which the Governor-General is clearly laughing at myself and a young local poet and activist. Why she is laughing at us will be explained further on:

Michaelle Jean and Ottawa’s Lack of Awesomeness

to be continued

African Writer Profile: Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr

Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr is a poet, playwright, essayist and short story writer. Her life has taken her from the Benin port city of Cotonou to the artistic hub of New York’s Lower East Side in the 1960s. Although retired from academia, she still works diligently as a writer and supporter of African and African diasporic artistic expression. 

I first discovered Ismaili while reading The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry, edited by Malawian writers Stella and Frank Chipasula. In this book, Ismaili is listed as a Nigerian poet. However, in French-speaking circles, Ismaili is considered as a Beninois writer. 

Ismaili was born in 1941 in Cotonou, Benin. Cotonou is a port city and the largest city in Benin, often considered the country’s economic capital. Ismaili’s mother was from Benin but her father was from Kano in Northern Nigeria. Ismaili grew up with her maternal grandparents in Cotonou. She studied at her grandfather’s Koran School and at a Catholic missionary school. After her mother’s death, she was sent to a boarding school in France where she stayed for six years. At 15, she married a Nigerian who was studying in New York. She was able to get a bursary in order to study in New York as well. New York has been her home ever since. 

Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr

 

Ismaili hoped to become Africa’s first opera singer. She studied for a BA in Music at The New York College of Music as a Voice major, with a minor in literature. She also studied musical theatre at Mannes School of Music. However, Ismaili went on to study psychology because she felt that this would be more useful for an African who hoped to help shape the newly independent West Africa of the 1960s. She studied for a Masters in Social Psychology at The New School for Social Research and later obtained a PhD in Psychology from the State University of New York (SUNY). 

Eventually divorcing her husband, Ismaili worked throughout her graduate studies in order to support herself and her son Daoud Samir. However, she also partook of the local arts scene, particularly the burgeoning Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. She followed its poets, painters, and playwrights but also its dancers. She befriended the likes of Virginia Cox, Tom Feelings, Ellen Stewart, and Amiri Baraka (back when he was LeRoi Jones). She discovered the dance studio of Syvilla Fort. Fort was a leading teacher of  the Dunham technique, which was rooted in the dance traditions of Africa, Haiti, and Trinidad. She also developed her own Afro-Modern Technique, which incorporated more modern styles of dance. At this studio, Ismaili had the opportunity to  meet the young dancers, singers and actors who came to learn movement and dance. 

Ismaili went on to have a successful career in academia, both as a lecturer and administrator. She is noted for her expertise in the literary movement of the Harlem Renaissance and Negritude. She has written essays and lectured on African Writers, such as Mariama Ba, as well as African American writers such as Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. In 2000, she retired as Associate Director of the Higher Education Opportunity Program at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, a position she held for 15 years. 

Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr continues to live in Harlem and now writes full-time as well as conducting workshops, lectures, and seminars on a variety of subjects from the history of African American dance, to anti-war poetry readings. She also is asked to speak and perform at conferences across the United States as well as internationally. She is helped develop the curricula and is a faculty member of the online Masters in Creative Writing Program at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. She is the second vice-president of Pen and Brush, an organization founded in 1894 that is dedicated to supporting women working the fields of literary, visual and performing arts. 

Home to Harlem 

In her essay, Slightly autobiographical: the 1960s on the Lower East Side, Ismaili reminisces about what it was like to live in an area that was a centre of African American artistic innovation in the 1960s. Ismaili, like many of the artists who lived in the Lower East Side, came for the low rents. But she soon found an environment that would help develop her own literary impulses even if it presented many frustrations. For a single mother, an African, a Muslim, and an independent-minded woman, the Black artistic scene in the Lower East Side of the 1960s could be inhospitable to say the least. She writes

For me this was a painful time. I was separating from my husband for the first time. Alone, with a small boy, trying to complete graduate school and write, I felt very estranged at times from my ebon scribes and painters. They made it clear they were not interested in me because I was Black, African, and too ethnic; i.e., |not beautiful.’ Besides, I did not do drugs or drink. In fact, cigarette smoke made my eyes tear and my throat choke. To add fat to the fire, I had strong opinions and was extremely independent. These were the ’60s, and Black men were coming into their own. Black women had to understand their manly needs, walk ten paces behind, submit to male authority. We were not to question a man’s work, even if it were incorrect. We were to dress “African,” assume the persona of “The Motherland,” and raise little revolutionaries. Most of all, we were to remain unconditionally loyal to the Black man and never, under any circumstance, be seen in intimate association with a White man. This, of course, was in stark contrast to the behavior of almost all of the men I knew–excuse me, brothers–who had not a single “significant other” but several White women as lovers and wives. 

But Ismaili also found friends and supporters. There was the great sculptor Valerie Maynard, who babysat for Ismaili in exchange for having Ismaili and her son pose for her. There was artist and children’s book illustrator Tom Feelings who encouraged Ismaili’s writing. About him she writes

Tom was my best friend, my soul brother. (We used terms like that then.) I told him of my feelings of rejection and isolation in the midst of parties and other social events. He always understood and helped me understand the fear and difficulty Black men had when asked for something they had historically been denied–fraternity with sisters. (I might add that sisters had difficulties among themselves, too. We often cast a “cut-eye” at one another when “possibility” was in our midst.) But Tom always encouraged me. In fact, he was responsible for my coming to my first Umbra meeting and for my first publication in the now-defunct Liberator. He said that, in the final analysis, all that mattered was The Work. We have remained friends, sister/brother, for more than twenty-five years. 

There was Ellen Stewart, founder of the La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, who also encouraged Ismaili to write, but in her own voice. Ismaili recalls Stewart’s feedback on a play she wrote

My friends told her I was a writer and had written a play, which Ellen asked to see. Embarrassed but eager for her comments, I took it to her. “Do you know this?” she asked. “Have you experienced this?” It was a small piece fueled by the issues of the 60–racism and Southern oppression. I was crushed because I thought her inquiry was a negation of my work and my ability. She saw that, and spoke slowly to me, sharing her experiences of having been born and raised in the South. Then she said, “Little Sister” (I was so elated that I almost didn’t hear the rest of it) “you can write; there is no question. That is not the issue. The issue is truth and artistic honesty.” She urged me to produce a reality fueled by my own thoughts, in my own words. We ended with her saying, “When you have something you feel you want me to read, let me have it.” She was, and continues to be, true to her words. Whenever and wherever I see her subsequently, she always calls me “Little Sister” and asks about my work. 

It must have been difficult for Ismaili to be an African among so many African Americans to find and keep her own creative voice rooted in her own experience as a West African. Although amongst Blacks, she was still an outsider because of her African and Muslim identity. African Americans were discovering their own stories and their own unique ways of telling them. But these were still American stories, written for Americans. It must have been perplexing for Ismaili to figure out who she was writing about as well as who she was writing for. 

Life in exile 

The alienation facing West African women writers is expressed in Ismaili’s essay, West African Women and Exile: City, University, and Dislocated Village. The intended readership of this essay is other Western-educated West African women who are torn between “back Home” and life in exile in the West. Ismaili writes

This paper has evolved from conversations with sisters from “Home.” We mourn our “Exile.” With enthusiasm of a born-again [Christian], we return “Home” with our degrees, earnest and eager to “work.” Then we come face to face with socio-political constraints of our nations. Run squarely afoul of Senior Lecturers who remained in the trenches while we were abroad, frolicking in the lands of plenty. Our personal expectations, our family pressures, societal restrictions on women are some of our greatest enemies. Things we took for granted before are now luxuries. Assigned readings being fulfilled are dependent not only on financial resources of students but the availability of books in the libraries and the country. Simple needs, xeroxing machines and paper, faxes, and now complex telecommunication systems and computers, are seen as extravagant and often are prohibitive. Intellectual famine confronts us with all its grisly remnants; empty library shelves, university censorship and hoarding. Books on the illegal market at twice the price offer little salvation. Defeated or overwhelmed by it all, we send out triplicate resumes and write all former professors to come to our aid in getting us the heck out of our “Homes” as soon as possible. We come back to former host countries, to universities where we are able to earn a decent wage and maintain a tolerable standard of living. 

Exile is not always the romantic notion of heroic revolutionaries. It is a place of uncertainty, pain, frustration and anger. The struggle to maintain one’s sobriety and to support the family is waged in tears with one self and the kindred at “Home.” It is real and deeply felt when one reads of massive five-year projects to introduce village women to water purification and social development. Hard to bear are those embedded memories of things we saw as children. Our experiences and rites of passage, stories we heard, all are negated by those amongst whom we have learned and possibly been influenced. 

You get a glimpse at the dilemmas that must have plagued Ismaili as a lecturer in African Literature with the following passage

It is getting late. We must prepare a lecture for a graduate seminar on “Sisterhood Within Polygamous Compounds.” In our central heated homes, we choose each reference to silence the anticipated negative response our students have formulated. We call each other with our concepts of female language and how it operates in Aminata Sow Fall’s novels. We stray from the immediacy of the subject as we reminisce. How clearly we see Sall Niang in her chair, beautiful and big. We laugh knowingly or, as we have learned, as is said in the parlance of psychological terminology. We connect with her as she uses a winnowing basket to count her money. The flow of conversation is not hindered. Schooled fingers are computerized eyes that separate coins according to value. We can see the wide spread of her lap forming a printed cloth carpet for her computations. This woman is familiar to us because she is in fact, an aunt, mother, neighbor who never seemed to understand she wasn’t our mother when it came to scolding. 

It must be frustrating to teach people in an objective and coldly academic way about works of literature that reflect one’s own lived experience. For West African women writers, there is the added frustration of having to defend “Africa”, “African Traditions” and “African men” from students and colleagues who tend to look down on non-Western communities out of racism and ignorance. But on the other hand, these women are frustrated with the corrupt governments in their countries of origin and the patriarchal structures that subjugate women; but these are the types of conversations West African women would prefer to have with each other, not with their students. The need for sisterhood to make this exile livable comes through in this essay. Ismaili writes about her first meeting with fellow West African writer, Ama Ata Aidoo

I see her today as I saw her over twenty years ago. She was already a writer of note, and was here on a research fellowship. I was in graduate school hanging on by weekly pinching from wages to pay my tuition. I was walking down the Avenue of the Americas and W 4th Street. Just about to turn down Cornelia St. to walk two more blocks to my four-flight walk-up flat. Out of the African Cosmos, a voice came. “O-wee sister.” I was relieved of my anger over an undeserved grade by this intrusion. There was a full-bodied woman with a huge head-tie and a buba over a pair of Blue Jeans! Well, her face was so full of smiles, I almost cried. We embraced. I was asked about myself. I told her where I was from and why I was in New York. She told me who she was and why she was here. 

While living in exile, West African women are able to connect across national, ethnic, and religious lines, united by the common cultures of West Africa and a need to commune with who have been equally displaced and who understand the longing for home, the nostalgia for the past, the financial pressures of family “back home”, and the frustrations of coping with Western racism and ignorance. 

On Ismaili’s poem Solange 

My favourite poem by Ismaili is Solange. It can be found in The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry. The poem is about Solange, a young of French and West African descent. Because I myself am of mixed parentage, I like to find literary works that meditate on this experience. In the poem, Ismaili rhymes Solange with melange, which means “mixture” in French. Solange is fair-skinned but troubled by her more “African” physical features from her flat nose, her curly hair, and her protruding backside. Although the poet keeps reminding Solange that she is beautiful, she doesn’t believe it. Solange “frets” over her African physical traits. She can try to control her curly hair by using chemicals to straighten it. She can try to control her backside by trying to “strap the buttocks that/will not flatten/inside a Chanel line.” But there is nothing she can do about her lips and her nose, and, as the poet contemplates “What is a face with those?” My favourite passage in the poem is the following: 

Your eyes are Parisian dreams 

and your hair has a mind of its own 

like you. 

Sometimes it would be French 

Sometimes it would be Cassamance

Solange, like many women of mixed race, is struggling with trying to fit a Western standard of beauty. She is made up of “A little bit of this and/a little bit of that”. Although she may be considered beautiful, particularly in an African context where fair-skin is coveted, she will never fit into the French ideals of beauty she seems to be aspiring to. Solange has not yet accepted that she is beautiful on her own terms. 

Further Reading: 

Profile available online 

Interview (2005) in French available online 

Rice Keepers: A Play by Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr published by African World Press 

Website of Pen and Brush Inc. 

Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr’s Writing available online: 

Poems available online 

Slightly autobiographical: the 1960s on the Lower East Side – Lower East Side Retrospective (Essay published in the African American Review available online) 

West African Women in Exile: City, University and Dislocated Village (Essay published in Jenda: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies available online)