No Going Back - What Black voices can teach us about the power of stories

On February 23, Pillar and the London Black History Coordinating Committee came together to host a panel discussion at Innovation Works called No Going Back. This panel conversation brought together Greg Frankson, Editor of AfriCANthology: Perspectives of Black Canadian Poets, Carl Cadogan, Chair of the London Black History Coordinating Committee and host Nicole Kaniki, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Research and Innovation at University of Toronto. The evening set out to address how we can maintain momentum in sharing Black stories locally and across Canada and what the role of the arts – or stories more broadly – may be in this process.

The conversation began with Frankson sharing two of his own deeply impactful works from AfriCANthology - The Blackened Room and The Green Canvas Knapsack – a recently released collection of poetry, essays, conversation and short fiction by Black Canadian poets that he edited. The anthology calls the reader to “reflect on and respond to the realities” of the multiple intersecting, yet distinct, experiences of Black people in Canada. Through many twists, turns, and powerful stories shared, the event achieved the same goal.

The panelists and host shared their own personal stories, stories of Canadian history and world history highlighting Black experiences while noting that Black history IS our collective history in Canada. While Frankson’s storytelling was centered on sharing creative works, the personal and historical truths shared by all three speakers wove beautifully together to highlight the incredible, transformative power of stories. Through the lens of the stories shared by our panel, here are few of the reasons that stories, especially Black stories, are so important as we collectively strive to understand the past and move forward in hope to build more equitable communities. 

Stories help to us to preserve history and understand who we are – Growing up in apartheid Capetown, South Africa, Kaniki treasured the oral history passed down to her by her great-grandmother. She explained that apartheid “tried to disconnect us from our Indigenous Black Heritage to draw us toward whiteness, because we were supposed to aspire to whiteness.” As a woman of mixed Black, Filipino and white heritage, Kaniki was called “Coloured” in South Africa, a term assigned by racist white rulers of South Africa as the official term to describe mixed-raced South Africans. She explained that the designation “gave us also a sort of internal white supremacy that we held, because we were told you're closer to whiteness.”

Looking back, Kaniki is grateful she had the opportunity to learn about her family’s history from her great-grandmother, including how her great-grandmother met her West-African husband who had jumped a ship to end up in Cape Town. When Kaniki’s journey brought her to Western University for grad school, a fellow student recommended that she read Lawrence Hill’s, The Book of Negroes. She was shocked to find that her four times great grandfather, Thomas Peters – “a Black Loyalist who was resettled in Nova Scotia, where he became a politician and one of the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the nation of Sierra Leone in West Africa”1 - was in the book. Until then, she didn’t connect the dots from the book to the oral history passed on by her great-grandmother.

First hand stories enable us to understand the truth and act from a place of empathy – On the importance of the works in AfriCANthology, Frankson noted “there's power in hearing the words being shared in the voice in which it's been created.” He added the collection aims to capture the poets speaking in their own voices and share “what their lived experience has brought them through and shown them and taught them” so the reader can learn from them and pass on that knowledge. He also notes the importance of understanding the diversity of backgrounds and experiences that make up the people of Black communities living in Canada adding how harmful it is to make generalizations or treat Black people as monolithic. 

Cadogan also shared a story from his travels to Africa in 1990 that highlighted the power of seeking out first-hand stories. He explained how during his visit during the apartheid he visited with the Pan African Congress, a group fighting for freedom in South Africa. He shared how remarkable it was to hear from brave people who were taking a stand and creating a vision for a just future while sharing stories and common experiences. The visit left a lifelong impression on Cadogan and he believes if more people were able to get to know the stories of the people impacted by apartheid, then it wouldn’t have lasted as long.

The story of what your community is today is informed by all of the people who lived here – In Canada, and in many countries, our view of history has been taught through a damaging Eurocentric lens that doesn’t capture the stories of all the people who live there. We know this to be especially true of the erasure of Indigenous truths that validate the need for reconciliation. 

Cadogan notes that the concept of dedicating one month to Black history continues to feel disheartening when the truth is that the experiences of Black people in Canada (as well as Indigenous people in Canada and other equity-deserving communities) should have a rightful place in the history books and in ongoing education about the history of this country. 

Cadogan shared his involvement with the Fugitive Slave Chapel project, to relocate the 1848 built church to Fanshawe Pioneer village. The Chapel once served as a safe haven for Black people who fled the U.S. to escape slavery via the Underground Railroad. He explains that we must consider the chapel to be an integral part of London’s history and ensure it is relocated and restored because it’s not just Black history, it’s a critical story of our community that must be preserved. It was Frankson who then said that “the story of what your community is today is informed by all of the people who lived here.” 

In the Green Canvas Knapsack, Frankson writes: “I would learn as I grew that erasing the need to confront the challenging realities of others is one of the most formidable tools at the disposal of the powerful.” We need to hear Black stories because they teach us the history we may not have been taught, history that our white supremacist systems have sought to diminish. As the panelists reminded attendees, communities impacted by historical and ongoing injustice should not bear the burden to educate others. Anyone who strives to be an ally has a collective responsibility to seek out, celebrate and amplify Black stories, not just in February, but always.

Visit this site to learn where you can purchase a copy of AfriCANthology: Perspectives of Black Canadian Poets. You can find a full video recording of the discussion below. 


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