by Zetta Elliot
“When You’re Strange”
Last semester I was displeased but not surprised when a student raised her hand at the end of class and asked how I felt about my hometown’s crack-smoking mayor. Rob Ford is ridiculous enough to be quickly dismissed, but another controversy emerged from Toronto last fall that was deeply disturbing and much harder to ignore. When I first read Orville Douglas’ controversial online op-ed, “Why I hate being a Black man” in The Guardian last November, I was immediately embarrassed and enraged. “Of course, he’s from Toronto,” I fumed. “Only Toronto could produce a freak like that.”
I immediately shared the article on Facebook; two Black Canadian women responded and agreed that Douglas was an anomaly who in no way represented Black male Torontonians. A few days later I shared the article with my community college students; we had spent the semester dissecting the stereotypes that surround Black men, and my working-class students of color were amazed that any Black man in 2013 would see his race as “a prison” and publicly ask, “Who would want to have this dark skin, broad nose, large thick lips, and wake up in the morning being despised by the rest of the world?” I asked my Black male students to describe the ways they practice self-love. They struggled with that question but had no problem listing the ways they showed love for other Black men. We concluded that Douglas’ “condition” likely stemmed not only from a lack of self-love, but a lack of community.
Orville Douglas’ public admission of self-loathing earned him a great deal of international attention—a mixture of condemnation and pity. When a friend directed me to his earlier articles in NOW Magazine, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Douglas had once hoped to migrate to the U.S. declaring, “America is a land of opportunity, while Canada is a nobody’s land.” It seemed logical to me that a Black man who felt unwanted, invisible, and unloved in Canada would believe he could build a better life in the U.S. since that’s exactly how I felt back in 1994. Despite (or perhaps because of) my initial reaction to Douglas’ op-ed, I’ve since had to consider the possibility that this troubled Black Canadian man isn’t “a freak like that” but rather “a freak like me.”
Toronto does something to Black people. I’ve toyed with this theory for years and occasionally it is affirmed by African American friends who visit “the Great White North” and return to ask, “What’s wrong with Canada?” Yet if you asked Blacks in Toronto if they would rather live elsewhere, I’m sure most would say no. Canada is a wealthy, progressive country and when I first moved across the border many of my friends and relatives assumed I was just “going through a phase.” They couldn’t imagine trading life in quiet, clean Toronto for the chaos of New York City, and the fact that my loved ones couldn’t see the limitations of such a “safe” life helped cement my decision to leave. I knew that if I stayed in Toronto and continued to talk openly about my dissatisfaction, I would be dismissed and/or ostracized. Canadians don’t like to talk about racism, which they prefer to think of as something that only happens south of the border. Douglas insists he submitted his essay to The Guardian only after it was rejected by Canadian newspapers. And though his lament immediately found an audience in the UK and the US, at the time of its publication no major Canadian media outlet bothered to cover the story: as Black Canadian lawyer Anthony Morgan points out,
“The deafening silence is curious, telling and typically Canadian.”
For the past few years I have written about racism in the Canadian publishing industry; I also critique conditions here in the US, but I believe things are worse in Canada. Recently I was invited to film a segment on diversity in children’s literature with David Ushery of WNBC; I’ve never received a similar request from any Canadian media outlets, and would have fewer resources to help make my point should an invitation ever come my way. Here in the US I was instantly able to send two graphics to the show’s producer.
The first was created by Lee and Low, a small, multicultural press that holds an annual contest to discover writers of color who have “new voices” and “new visions.” My picture book Bird, about a Black boy who uses art to cope with the loss of his drug-addicted brother, won their honor award in 2006 and was published in 2008 (I unsuccessfully submitted the manuscript to several Canadian presses—my favorite rejection letter came from an editor who declared that the story was “too sad”). Unfortunately, most publishers don’t share Lee & Low’s commitment to diversity; multicultural content has not increased over the years despite the “browning” of America, and Tina Kugler’s illustration makes this abundantly clear. Every year the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison gathers data to show how many books by and about people of color are published in the US (it is important to note that the number of books BY authors of color is lower).
Clearly, things are far from perfect here in the US. But there is, at the very least, an ongoing conversation—started in 1965 by the Council on Interracial Books for Children—about the problem of inequality in publishing and its ramifications. Here in the US I have had no trouble connecting with other writers, illustrators, parents, librarians, educators, and children’s literature scholars who reject the status quo and are willing to work for change. By contrast, I have met only one or two individuals in Canada who share my sense of outrage at the abysmal lack of diversity in Canadian publishing. Only 500 English-language children’s books are published annually in Canada, and yet despite endless invocation of the nation’s multicultural mission, no one in the academy or even at the Canadian Children’s Book Center keeps track of the race of published authors. When I attempted to count the number Black children’s book authors published in Canada, I queried members of the publishing community and got the same startled response over and over: “I don’t know.” Most small presses I reached out to had no idea how many Black Canadian authors they had published in recent years, though the numbers were so low they should have been able to recite the titles by heart.
In 2011, I began to compile a bibliography on my blog and discovered that since 2000, on average, only three Black-authored books for children were published each year. And, in that time, of the nearly thirty middle grade or young adult novels featuring a Black protagonist, only two depict Black children living in contemporary Canada. Far from reflecting the nation’s racial diversity, these books portray contemporary Canadian society as devoid of Black citizens. Instead, there is a disturbing focus on Blacks who are represented as distinctly not Canadian, not living within the country’s borders, and not active in the current historical moment; Blacks are imagined as foreigners and/or figures from the distant past rather than established, integrated members of the national mosaic.
When Black youth are represented in Canadian children’s novels, they appear as fugitive and/or former slaves or as impoverished Africans grappling with violence and disease.
I know from experience that this “symbolic annihilation” can have devastating consequences. I attended majority-white schools in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) and never once had a Black-authored book assigned for class, nor did I have a Black educator until my last semester of my last year of university. Like Orville Douglas, I had tastes in clothes, music, and literature that some deemed “white” or at least not “Black enough.” I also struggled to build my self-esteem and rarely saw positive images of Black women on Canadian television. I wanted to become a writer but saw no young Black women publishing novels in Canada; at 19 I discovered the work of Toni Morrison and Jamaica Kincaid but couldn’t find Canadian equivalents. When compared to their African American counterparts, the few Black Canadian artists I knew of seemed like poor imitations at best. Canada didn’t seem to produce greatness in its Black citizens and I felt no qualms about “switching sides.” When I looked at my options at age 21, I felt it was better to fail at a more ambitious life in the U.S. than to settle for a mediocre existence in Canada.
In 2005 I wrote my first memoir following the death of my father and the unexpected termination of what was supposed to be a year-long teaching assignment in East Africa. From the discomfort of my childhood home I created a mixed-media memoir that examines the shifting terrain upon which we negotiate race, kinship, and identity. A couple of years before his death, in the heat of an argument my father said, “You’re a stranger in this family.” I decided to use his accusation as the title of my memoir since it accurately reflected the feeling of alienation I experienced in Djibouti and within my country of origin. Jamaica Kincaid once wrote,
“For some people, a fixed state of irritation is like oxygen. I understand this all too well.”[i]
This seemed an apt epigraph for the book since my frustration with Canada fuels most of the essays.
The remaining essays reflect upon my difficult relationship with my father. As a child, I thought my father could do anything but by the time I became a teenager, I had grown weary of his endless schemes, none of which ever paid off. Once I became a migrant myself, however, I realized that my father was right to conclude that Canada was a place where dreamers like us “couldn’t get anything started.” Writing my first memoir helped me to see that I had inherited from my father a certain restlessness that led both of us to continuously cross borders in our ongoing search for opportunity and belonging. I have now lived in the U.S. for half of my 41 years and though my father passed away in 2004, I say a prayer of thanks to him every day for giving me an alternative to life in Canada.
Born in Canada, Zetta Elliott moved to the US in 1994 to earn her PhD at NYU. Her writing has been published in several anthologies, and her plays have been staged in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland. Her essays have appeared in Horn Book Magazine, School Library Journal, and The Huffington Post. She is the award-winning author of four books for young readers: Bird, A Wish After Midnight, Ship of Souls, and The Deep. Zetta Elliott is Assistant Professor in the Center for Ethnic Studies at Borough of Manhattan Community College and currently lives in Brooklyn. zettaelliott.com Twitter @zettaelliott
This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.
- “You can’t do that! Stories have to be about White people” (mediadiversified.org)
- Writing and Reading While Black. Lessons learned. (mediadiversified.org)
- Black Girls Hunger for Heroes, Too: A Black Feminist Conversation on Fantasy Fiction for Teens(bitchmagazine.org)
- Why Hasn’t the Number of Multicultural Books Increased In Eighteen Years?
- Children’s Books by and about People of Color Published in the United States(http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu)
- How to Write Women of Colour and Men of Colour if you are White (mediadiversified.org)
[i] Jamaica Kincaid, My Garden (Book).