Being part of the 2.9 can be stifling.
When you’re part of a minority this small, you can feel like you don’t have a voice. Like you’re lacking in community. Or that you’ll never find your place with the colour of your skin or the differences in your culture. And so, with so much stacked up against us, not everyone stays. Artists move away all the time in pursuit of success. My grandparents moved back to Jamaica. And Zetta Elliott, PhD, back for a second Tale from the 2.9, made the short trip to Brooklyn, New York more than 20 years ago, where an entry new world lay in wait!
If anything, I think that Zetta’s perspective from the outside looking in is one sorely needed in Canadian conversation, where our polite undertones hold us back from honestly approaching ideas that make us uncomfortable. It’s that objectivity and separation from everything going on in our nation that lets us see our issues for what they are, with the hope that one day the issues that’ve plagued us entirely too long will be part of our past, where they belong.
Enjoy Zetta’s submission (I know I always do), and I’ll see you tomorrow for another Tale from the 2.9!
What does being Black Canadian mean to you?
I’m proud to be Canadian. I’ve been critical of the country and the limited opportunities available to Black Canadians, but I start every author presentation here in the US by telling kids that I’m an immigrant from Canada. The Black Canadian identity is all about hybridity for me—I participate in multiple cultures and I’m the product of multiple histories, and that confounds many White Canadians who don’t understand intersectionality and like to imagine all Black people stepping off a boat or plane yesterday. Being a Black Canadian means never forgetting the sacrifices made by my Caribbean ancestors who gave up their status and professions in the 1950s to start from scratch in such a cold (and often hostile) place. Being a Black Canadian also means honouring my African American ancestors who came north hoping for a better life in the 1830s. The racism they encountered was so severe that it pushed them across the color line; my job as a Black Canadian writer living on the other side of that color line and the other side of the border is not to judge my ancestors but to tell the truth (as I see it) about “the promised land.”
What’s your experience been like as a Black Canadian and how has it shaped who you are today?
I received an excellent if incomplete education in Canada, and I grew up with access to free, high-quality healthcare. I’m grateful for that. But as a Black girl, I grew up feeling invisible most of the time; I rarely found my reflection in Canadian culture, and I don’t know if that’s changed all that much (a remake of Anne of Green Gables in 2016—seriously?) But I have fond memories of attending Caribana back in the ’70s and watching Black men playing cricket in Scarborough on a patch of land between the city’s endless highways. Feeling isolated and invisible made it easy to leave Canada as a young woman, and in the US I became a scholar, an educator, and an author. Not without struggle—nothing’s handed to Black women down here. But twenty years of fighting to be seen and valued in Canada prepared me for just about anything.
What’s something you’d like to see more of within the Black Canadian community?
I can’t pretend to know the Black Canadian community; I’ve lived in the US for over twenty years. I was happy to see Black Lives Matter activists disrupting events and occupying spaces in Toronto to get their message out. Were they supported by most folks in the Black Canadian community? I have my doubts since I believe Black parents came out against the first Africentric school in Toronto. I was appalled by the overwhelming Whiteness of Word on the Street—where are all the Black Canadian writers? But folks seem satisfied with having one or two big fish in the small pond. So I guess I’d like to see more rage—unfiltered, unapologetic rage. More folks who are willing to rock the boat and risk being unpopular.
What do you think those outside the Black Canadian community need to better understand in order to coexist with Black Canadians in a respectful and considerate way?
Anti-racist training! With a specific focus on anti-Black bias and White privilege. All Canadians need to stop believing it’s impolite to discuss race and start acknowledging the fact that they live in a White supremacist country. Canada is a progressive place but it’s not perfect, and its proximity to the US allows for a kind of smug satisfaction that leads to passivity and an inability to see how prejudice operates in the Great White North.
If your life could teach but one thing to your fellow Black Canadians, what would it be?
Live beyond limits—those imposed upon you by others and those you have consciously or unconsciously set for yourself. I often say that what makes me Canadian is knowing how to live a small life in a big place. The vastness of Canada can be overwhelming and it’s easy to feel like you’re wandering in the wilderness. I would urge my fellow Black Canadians to travel as often and as far as they can. Seek out other communities throughout the African diaspora. Don’t be afraid to live a bigger life!
Born in Canada, Zetta Elliott moved to the US in 1994. Her poetry has been published in several anthologies, and her plays have been staged in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland. Her essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, School Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. She is the author of over twenty books for young readers, including the award-winning picture book Bird. Elliott is an advocate for greater diversity and equity in publishing. She currently lives in Brooklyn.