Why Black Role Models Matter

 

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As a young child, if someone were to ask me about my race, I would say with great pride: I am Black. Being the daughter of a Women’s Studies Professor definitely had its informative advantages – by the age of 6, I was familiar with heavy terms such as systemic racism, visible minority, and gender politics. This early exposure, untainted by perspectives of my peers, made me proud to identify as Black. Unfortunately, various life experiences caused this pride to waver. It never died completely, but at times it did temporarily burn out.

The first time my Black pride died was in fourth grade. I had just returned from Nigeria, and upon being re-introduced to an environment where being Black meant being Other, I realized that my identity was bizarre to those around me. At first, I did not realize the slight differences that caused my peers to distance themselves from me. However, when my rude awakening did happen, it altered the picture-perfect idea of my Blackness. It was my first day at a new school, and all I wanted was to be friends with the tattoo club girls, who would always be on the basketball court making cool designs for their temporary tattoos during recess. I distinctly remember mustering up all the courage I possibly could in order to approach them; more importantly, I remember my request being politely declined because the tattoos would not show up on my skin. After that, it became difficult to take pride in something that my peers considered strange – so I gave up embracing my identity in order to be accepted by them. I decided that I needed to re-define my Blackness, and I turned to the Internet for inspiration. At the time, I did not realize that re-defining such an important part of my identity in order to be accepted by my white counterparts would cause me to view being unapologetically Black as something to be ashamed of.

As an adolescent, if someone were to ask me about my race, I would pause and quietly admit that I was Black. I was no longer the young Black girl who ran around the house shouting, “sing it loud I’m Black and proud!” The girl who begged her mom to tell more stories about the Nigerian Civil War, and about the history of slavery in Canada, was gone. This young carefree Black girl was replaced  by the Black girl that loved catfish, grape soda, and fried chicken, because the media told her that this was the acceptable way to embrace Blackness. This girl refused to have crushes on Black boys because she thought they would all eventually become “thugs” and “gangsters.” She idolized Cinderella and knew that her Prince Charming could only be white. She identified as stereotypically Black in order to be convenient for her white friends, but wished she was white so that she could be exactly like her idol, Cinderella. The media told her that her Blackness was only okay when it was stifled by the stereotypes created by whiteness to control Black people and Black bodies. Her Blackness was accepted only when she realized that she was ‘other,’ while whiteness was the standard. She accepted this as the truth because Cinderella did not look like her, but the characters who did were servants, antagonists, and clowns. She truly believed that in order to be the princess she wanted to be, she had to somehow achieve this standard called whiteness.

I know the effect of not having role models that look like you in the media, and for me it was a catastrophe. When you see people that look like you represented in a negative way, you begin to believe that there is something wrong with you. The shift from young pride and innocence is subconscious and slow, but before you know it you have stifled yourself in order to attain a certain standard that the media enforces. In times of self-doubt, I looked to my movie and TV show characters for an affirmation that my Blackness was acceptable. When I failed to find this affirmation, my ten-year-old self watched the movies with the white Disney princesses and began to idolize them. But my ten year old self looked nothing like her idols and this was a problem, because in order to become them, she had to look like them.

I say all this to emphasize the importance of events like the Montreal Black International Film Festival, which took place earlier this month. This annual festival allows Black artists and creators to express themselves in an area where they are often both underrepresented and misrepresented. Representation of Black people in the media is crucial because there are young Black children out there, watching and waiting for their next idol. They all need to know that not only are they acceptable, but they are beautiful and destined for excellence. In times when their non-Black peers question their Blackness, they need a Disney princess that looks like them so they know that they too are royalty. And lastly, they need to know that whiteness is not the default, and that Blackness is not the ‘other’. They need to be able to turn on the television and see a positive representation of someone who looks like them. These young people need to be aware that unapologetic Blackness is not only acceptable, but something to be proud of.

 

Chidera Ihejirika is a proud Nigerian Canadian in her second year at McGill University. She is an admirer of Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie and a lover of storytelling, dance and hiphop. 

“Make Me,” new poem by Justin Million

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so we took up inspired
fights like the -isms,

the air, the water,
the rolling glaciers,

the fears we feel
in homes, our least conversated

doors staying owned,
most only accepting MEN, to say (like anyone intelligent asked or cared)

they still exist
to pretend they wouldn’t jerk a man off in a secret vacuum.

The glow of a few decades’ mistakes
still spreads red,

despite us being in charge forever and no one else, no handed down way, no alien us,
most mostly

alike, tho some stopped reading this poem
because of my science on men wanting to try cock at least once,

my science being don’t make an individual
a video of that same individual being you. They are not you.

This is where we’re at.

No gigantic man handing us down to us. I can’t stress that
or anything else enough. I am shaking for a world of reasons.

We have a 2000 problem, 0000’s of MEN
are videos displaying how dim men continue

to study spectrum
with the light out.

That last bit was a metaphor
for porn, men’s rights, and the new Nazis

(you lost fucks see me on George Street, stab fast,
or you’ll lose the personal war too this time);

this open bomb of a world.

Amazing we exist in this at all. Amazing we exist.
Amazing.

The young man at the protest about to climb the lamp
can’t be Gene Kelly,

trained to keep his hands off the high light,
take home as much grace as he can scrape off the bottom.

There is a baby who is important to the future lying
by the political blast zone Schrodingering,

and because everyday’s a news day, the knife
or branch in your hand;

keep the future you don’t know down is the red lesson. Stab a gay baby.
You have to have a gun,

your right to not much isn’t God
given, or taken. It’s plain. Your belief is a ladder to another finity.

In charge of nothing
but fixing

the world we went into
debt to see, and have

since brunched back
to our mothers and fathers,

lived inside basements, inheritances,
until we had the wall space to hang

what failed us; photos of hairdos all
ecstatic to be sepia, cross-legged on the wall, denying they’re putting us down;

every memory back then
straight.

Oh mother,
come back to bread.

Yes, we are furious,
because we were ushered in, without shushing, when the world was still

blind, and quarrelling over how much YES is left when it’s a ruin, and the whole
time just around the corner

You, absolutely
not your father,

maybe President;
worth a shot-

these words by Justin Million were inspired by the photography of Alison Scarpulla

 

“Code Switching of the New Romance,” new prose by Kate Shaw

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Spanish cropped up in their discourse in a very predictable way. Their relationship was established in English — her first language, his second — and Spanish tended to couch the more intimate sentiments. For her, it created distance — both from the topic and from him — when they traipsed into territory that was rife with vulnerability, con dudas.

—Pues ¿por qué crees que te sientes así?

Spanish, in case asking directly about his emotions was too big a threat to his masculinidad, to the machismo of his culture. Spanish to distance herself from a fair question, but one that asked for vulnerability from a new partner who maybe wasn’t ready to give it. Spanish, porque tenía miedo.

She used code-switching as a buffer, a way to protect herself when she took a tentative step into the thick haze that was an infinity of potential futures for them.

It was different for him.

—Te escondes con mi idioma.

He didn’t fear that haze. The lack of clarity was something he simply accepted as inevitable, even beautiful in its incertidumbre. His Spanish was meant to pierce it boldly, shoot it through with light — aunque efímera — so they could both see, at least for a second. See each other.

The contexts overlapped almost perfectly. If you didn’t know them — as individuals, as partners — you might think the role Spanish played for each of them was identical. You had to have a much more personal perspective to see that what allowed her to hide was what most allowed him to show.

these words by Kate Shaw were inspired by the photography of Alison Scarpulla

From the author: “What spoke to me most about the photo was the haziness of the image and the reflections. I linked the lack of visual clarity in the photo to the uncertainty of the future shared by the two characters, which they approach in different ways. The idea that a reflection appears identical to the source it reflects without actually being the same is connected to the fact that the characters use Spanish in the same contexts but with very different intentions.”

“Sleeves,” new prose by Charlotte Joyce Kidd

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She stood on the edge of the bedroom. The walls, floors, and light were grey. She was wearing her shoes. The room was cluttered. Some of the clutter was hers, natural to her. Her uniform lay crumpled vertically in a corner by the closet; she’d stepped directly out of it and into her party dress that night. The covers were pulled back on the bed. The sheets were unruffled and unstained. Only the pillows spoke: she had owned the same two since early undergrad, and she stacked them to sleep alone, spread them for a guest. They looked especially thin and silent, offered no apology to her where she stood in the doorway.

She nudged a foot into the room. The toe of her boot landed between a pair of tights and a wool sock. The tights were torn, but that didn’t mean anything; almost all of her tights were torn. Still, something about their twisted angles, the way they were tangled into each other, suggested they’d been the victims of something. Stop, she thought. It’s only because you know what happened. She tried to open her eyes wider. The walls were covered in drawings and poetry made by people who had been her friends. The colours now seemed ludicrously bold, broadcasting a goofy happiness that was too tempting to crush. The uniform was in the corner to her left. She stepped past it. On the floor by the edge of the bed was the necklace she’d been wearing that night. The clasp was broken. Two beads had come off. One was hiding in the shadows under the bed and one was halfway across the room. Her eyes flew from the abandoned bead to where, floating gently, a strip of frayed, gauzy material was snagged on a corner of her nightstand drawers. She climbed across the bed, drawn to it and not caring about her shoes on the furniture. Strips of translucent white fabric lifted gently from the floor and swirled around her head. She tried to fight them away as they surrounded her, nudging her and blocking her view. Then they settled back down to the ground, ballooning and dropping like baby spiders’ webs. On the other side of them, between her and the door, lay the shell of their progenitor, the torso of the see-through dress she’d been wearing that night.

Then it happened quickly. She remembered where everything was and moved fast to see it all: the lamp knocked from the nightstand, her underwear balled up by the leg of the bed, then dark and square and too concrete, his passport (she’d dropped it in a mailbox days later, hoping that it would find its way back to him so that she could continue pretending nothing had happened) and then she crouched down and looked under the bed, and as always, the corner of the bed frame was broken, the wood splintered, the slats halved. The mattress still drooped in this spot. Everything’s here, everything’s here. Breathlessly, she searched harder. She couldn’t move anything much; she lifted things and put them down again, cursing herself for never tidying up, she opened drawers and shifted stacks of books and touched the tights that sent pained shivers up her arms into her spine. She looked under the covers and then started craning her neck and searching impossible places: the ceiling, the full-length mirror (her own reflection), were they hanging from the curtain rod? Please please please. She could hear her alarm ringing. She shut it off and willed herself back. Again. Door, tights, beads. This time, the pieces of torn dress stayed in their place. There was the dress itself, but where were the sleeves? Where had they gone? The sleeves were loose and gauzy, like the rest of the dress, and they had elastics at the wrists so that night, when she’d been dancing, arms in the air, the dress had billowed around her and then swayed away without a care in the world and where had they gone? Had he taken them? The sleeves of her dress? As she slipped away, she thought she saw them outside the window, floating over the tops of smoky buildings far away.

 this prose by Charlotte Joyce Kidd was inspired by the art of Alison Scarpulla

“A Field Guide to Fairies,” new prose by Samantha Lapierre

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When I was young, my mom would dress me in a warm coat and bring me out into the autumn woods next to our cottage, and we would look for fairies.

In my mittened hands I held a pen and notebook. My mom held a pack of cigarettes. We would traipse through the crunchy leaves, our boots sinking into the soft ground. We would weave in and out of the birch bark trees, and our dog, Pal, was never far behind.

My mom would tell me that fairies live in small nooks and crannies in the woods. They live in trees, they play under the large tops of mushrooms, and they are magical. They are friends with birds, bunnies, and other creatures.

I’d spot fairy houses and jot down the sightings, and my mom would spot some too. She was at her gentlest during fairy expeditions. She would sip coffee from a travel mug, hold my hand, and listen to my excited chatter before it was time to leave.

When I grieve for my mom now, I grieve for her at her gentlest. The leaves in the treetops turn orange. A chickadee calls out from somewhere in the cityscape. I try not to grieve too hard, or too angrily. When I smell cigarette smoke in the cold fall air, I am still a girl wrapped up tight in her secondhand coat, surrounded by fairies.

this prose by Samantha Lapierre was inspired by the art of Alison Scarpulla

New prose by Annie Rubin, “We Are Survivors”

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It felt like dying, only you’re expected to reincarnate much faster: rapid loss of breath, chest heaving to compensate. Dizzy. The room would fade in and out. I watched myself descend into fight or flight, an encumbered observer over my own body.

At fifteen, I asked to be separated from that part of my identity rooted in fear. Was it possible to unlink? Could I attain the division of self: an existence without the weight of imminent extinction?

My father felt it too. He brought me tea one night, bourbon and honey. It Will Help You Sleep, he promised. What If I Die, I asked. You Will, he said. But Not For A Long Time. We Are Survivors, You And I.

They gave me Zoloft to stop the shaking and Seroquel to help me sleep and Prozac when I had the urges to go to temple when it rained and they gave me Lexapro for the side-effect depression. They gave me Klonopin and Ativan and Valium and Xanax was my favorite; it made the room spin the least.

The effort was in solid determination to mute what so viscerally tied me to my ancestors: that brink-of-death anxiety we all know so deeply. It ebbs and flows through our veins tethering us to each other, the Jewish people.

Maybe we didn’t speak Hebrew at our Seders but the bloodlines flowed. We were descendants of those lucky enough to hold on, who knew they had to keep living. At family gatherings, the room would get silent. Why Is Our Family So Small? someone asked once. The Rest Of Us Were Killed.

But the drugs seemed to perpetuate more drugs; we were desperate for some kind of medicalized solution, capitalizing on our ingrained identity. Could we learn to escape? Or to ever quell the pharmaceutical self?

The healing had to begin through the (re)discovery of voice. Shrouded by years of institutionalized hate, the beauty of our culture must manifest itself in celebration, unapologetic lighting candles and sharing kindred spirit. Singing and loving and never- forgetting, we must come out of hiding. I want to hear each voice.

this prose by Annie Rubin, “We Are Survivors,” was inspired by the art of Christine Kim 

From Annie: “This work is inspired by the image of a character looking poised and overwhelmed, the base, supporting a dilapidated castle. The figure represents the protagonist’s Jewish ancestry in the strife and struggle of the Jewish people, who bear a weight that has been carried through generations. Striking colours provided a glimmer of hope through the subversion of institutionalized hatred, confiding in the expansive possibility of self-expression.”

New poetry by Ivana Velickovic, “Fabric”

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We no longer wait in line for apricot pits.
As the arched windows of our building
fall fast, become tombstones,
we are not there.
I let her cling to thick fabric,
dragging her feet,
leaving deep grooves in the soil
that connect small footprints and
form a map of disproportioned scale.
With a head raised to level,
pulled up only by maternal duty and disparity,
I tell her we are impenetrable.
This empty lightness
tenderly strokes her glowing eyelids to rest.
In time, she may return to the rubble,
pick bones for a living
in open fields scattered with footballs and
broken nets.

 this poem, “Fabric,” by Ivana Velickovic, was inspired by the art of Christine Kim

New prose, “Macaroons,” by Erin Flegg

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I stopped being able to see the art in the situation. The crack down the centre of the table where the two halves came together was always clogged with the leftover crusts of things, clumps of flour and milk, the hardened white sinews from the inside of a pepper. I would tear fingernails trying to dig it out, doing so almost absently in the mornings while she made pancakes or slices of ham or sometimes just peeled fruit with a sharp knife, right on the table, leaving the light translucent spray that comes from lifting the tough skin of an orange.

She hated to shop for groceries. She never said it out loud but I think it had something to do with the fact of money, the tangible, generally negative change that happened to her material worth in the world after paying for a block of nice cheese. How it took the romance out of the thing. She didn’t believe in saying that kind of thing out loud. I came home from work one day in the winter with a bag full of big hunks of white chocolate. I had no intention of eating it and I knew she didn’t like it. It was a small test, I suppose. To see if she could resist something that should have been so sumptuous, resist turning it into something she could hold up, if only to me, and declare through her own culinary grace that this, whatever it was, colourless, malleable, opaque stuff, had romance. Even if neither one of us did. I sat on the floor by the stove, my back against the island and my feet pressing against the dishwasher, while she melted the chocolate in a metal bowl over a pot of water. She wouldn’t tell me what she was doing and I stopped just short of accusing her of having no idea herself what she was making. It probably would have given me away. In the end she made macaroons, searching the baking cupboard and unwrapping open packages of ingredients from their grocery-bag coverings to find the coconut shreds and oatmeal, mixing them into the thick puddle. She coloured it with a pinch of curry powder and cinnamon. Antioxidants, she said, flicking a bit of the brown dust onto me from above. I grabbed her by the ankle and bit her calf, still tense from pressing her weight forward into the stove. She jumped to one side and accidentally flung the wooden spoon out of the pot. It dropped molten clumps of chocolate on the floor and the top of the island and then hit the back wall. Like a baby after a fall, she waited wide-eyed for me to show her what kind of tone we were going to use to move forward. I got up and went over to the wall, sat down again and started to lick the spoon clean. I smiled without looking at her and she started to laugh. She threw her tea towel at me and used her finger to swipe up the drips from the countertop. I just sucked on the wet spoon, grinding bits of coconut between my back teeth.

this prose by Erin Flegg, “Macaroon,” was inspired by the art of Christine Kim 

New prose by Finn Morgan, “Home Enough”

 

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CW: abuse mention (child)

A peach morning, shards of grass sneaking into the sidewalk, branches swaying dull and dead. I arrive at the building gate and I am shaking, shaking still; should have kept the winter coat. I call the number saved from the last round of search scrolls and feigned phone pep. The concierge answers: “I’ll be right there!”

I am courteous, perform norm, stand straight and feminine, chuckling at a stray comment on tattoos and irresponsibility; be in-group, be in-group, be in-group to get what you need.

In the elevator, unmoving, with steady smiles. My tired eyelids linger closer shut with each rumble conveying us up, up. I hear the crash and the sobbing; the anxious adrenaline snaps me to wake. Concierge and I meet glances and she, with a light nod, softens her smile. The elevator sounds at the 22nd. “It’s right over this way,” she says, pointing, as the door rolls slowly open.

The hall is well-lit but there are scuffs on the wall. From neighbours? Is the building not maintained? How much can I afford to care? How much does care cost?
Concierge fidgets the key and jerks the door. A good lock. The apartment inside is fine. Nice view. Thick walls. Clean enough. Big enough. Enough is enough sometimes. Concierge points out the kitchenette, the fridge, the bathroom, the balcony. I remove my coat as we look around. I yawn and I hear a small sniffle as we head towards the bedroom.

The concierge gets a call. Issue on the 4th, will be right back.

I don’t expect the shaking and unsettled breathing to leave with her but I am still disappointed when it doesn’t. I open the room door, feel empty. I close my eyes, knowing exactly what will appear: a child with thick ringlets, crouched and sniffling in the corner of the open closet. This child lives in every empty room I visit. Ever since our first room was emptied. I know them well. Sometimes they tell me when I need to leave, sometimes they just need to be held. I am tired and this room is wide enough, sunny enough, so I tell them:

“She won’t find you here.”

“But what if she does?”

“There are locks on the door.”

“But you’ll still hear her.”

“We’ll drown her out.”

“How?”

“Music. The Shower. However we can.”

“And what if we can’t?”

“We’ll survive.”

“I’m still scared.”

“I know. Me too.”

“What do we do?”

“What we can.”

“Will it be enough?”

“It has to be.”

When Concierge returns I ask to start the paperwork. Home is wherever I’m without you.

 

this prose by Finn Morgan, “Home Enough,” was inspired by the art of Christine Kim 

New poem, “Bystander,” by Jeff Blackman

stillness
Tell her not to ask what I can do.
Tell her I wish someone else would help.
Tell her I’m not joining the defense.
Tell her something she already knew.

Tell her I read but I did not share her story.
Tell her I checked in & checked away from there.
Tell her she’s not in my thoughts or prayers.
Tell her, from here, I don’t see her territory.

Tell her, here, the fall has been so long.
Tell her, here, we had the Friday off.
Tell her, today, we took a thousand photographs.
We’re working through them. Tell her it’s a slog.

 

this poem by Jeff Blackman was inspired by the art of Dominique Normand