On Growing Up Black in Canada

A letter to my thirteen-year-old daughter about family and race

series of letters made of construction paper

“Where are you from?” is a question I’ve been asked throughout my life, most often by those who have been born and raised in Canada. I was asked it fairly recently, when we were together at the beach. As you know, I’m not a big fan of beaches or beach life. It’s just not my thing, not really in my DNA, I’m tempted to explain, although it’s true, people sometimes remind me, that both my parents are from the Caribbean. But it was one of those summer days in Vancouver when the damp and chill seem permanently banished and the sky turns hot blue, and even I cannot help but be lured toward the sand and ocean. We had arranged to meet friends, but I ended up speaking with a friend of a friend, someone who quickly informed me that he worked in finance and now lived abroad most of the time. “But I was born and raised here,” he asserted, before looking out at the ocean and shaking his head. “Things are changing,” he told me. “This country is changing. It’s just not like it used to be even twenty years ago.”

He was not Indigenous and so not someone who might hold a much deeper and more complicated sense of change. He was not Asian and so not someone historically targeted when white Vancouverites voice anxieties about change. I remember looking out at the ocean, focusing on the line where the distinct blues of sky and water met, until I heard the question, “Now, where did you say you’re from again?” I explained, for the first time, that I had been living in this city for over a decade but that I had been born and raised in Toronto. “No,” said my beach companion, smiling. “Where are you really from?”

When I was little, I had a way of speaking that suggested to many that I was not really from Canada. The truth, however, was that I’d absorbed the Trinidadian accent of my parents, giving me a singing cadence and an inability, or else the unwillingness, to pronounce certain sounds. I remember how a primary-school teacher noticed this and how she booked me sessions with an in-school speech therapist. I remember one day leaving class under the watchful eyes of the other students and then waiting in an unusually cold office for the first session to begin. The speech therapist turned out to be kind and eager to help children like me say the right things the right way. On the first day, she pulled her chair close. She leaned her face in even closer to demonstrate a particular sound. “Thhhh…” she hissed at me, her tongue slightly out and pressed between her teeth. “Thhhank you,” she pronounced, “thhhhhhank you.” Her breath wasn’t good, and spit bubbled out between her teeth and worm-pink gums. It was the single most obscene thing I’d ever seen an adult do. I wouldn’t have felt any more confused and disgusted if the therapist had tried to teach me how to fart.

I did, in the end, learn how to pronounce “th.” Like others, I have made a concerted effort to speak in a way indistinguishable from other Canadians born here, although I do understand, of course, that many times it isn’t my voice or what I say with it but the louder silence of my body that suggests to others I am from elsewhere. I do sometimes wonder if you, of a very different generation and upbringing than me, have had similar experiences. If even now a girl like you can be asked, “Where are you really from?” or that worse question, “What are you?”

Do you know, dearest daughter, that you also had a Trinidadian accent when you were younger? During your childhood, my parents helped raise you, and through this beautiful closeness you absorbed their way of speaking. You offered tanks. You gasped at the tought of seeing a tousand penguins. I considered your way of speaking a gift, the proud evidence of an experience I never enjoyed, since, being the child of a certain class and generation of immigrants, I’ve never felt the warmth and closeness of grandparents. But when I remarked with pride to my father, “She speaks like you,” he nodded gravely. “Don’t worry,” he reassured me. “She’ll grow out of it.”

For as long as I can remember, my parents yearned to be understood as simply Canadian, if not for themselves, then at least for their children and grandchildren. They knew, of course, who they were and where they came from. For good reasons, however, they were somewhat reluctant to declare their cultural or ancestral heritage either publicly or to strangers. They did once surprise me by doing just that.

It happened before you were born and when your two sets of grandparents met for the first time. In many ways, your mother’s parents could not be more different from mine. Your mother’s father is an Oxford-trained professor of philosophy who worked at an elite Canadian university. Your mother’s mother is a nationally renowned printmaker from a family of prominent business people and patrons of the arts. Both are multiple-generation white Canadians whom many middle-class people, never mind my parents, would consider intimidatingly sophisticated.

My parents decided to offer a lunch, which they prepared with great care not only because they had never before hosted people like your grandparents but because hospitality is important to them, regardless of the guest. Out of their old glass cabinet came things reserved for special occasions. A heavy bowl of cut glass, delicately dusted, to hold the coleslaw. Something ambitiously called “silverware,” which was really just knives a little heavier and more polished than the ones we normally used, as well as forks with largely unbent tines. My mother carefully laid out White Swan napkins, purchased for the occasion, bright and soft with embossed designs at the edges.

Before the guests arrived, I did wonder how the conversation would go. Both of my parents grew up in Trinidad without a single book in their homes, and my mother in particular can get quite nervous around people she considers “cultured.” She can find herself stumbling over words or descending nervously into quiet, forgetting all she has to offer. But your mother’s parents, when they arrived, turned out to be exceptionally warm and “down to earth,” as my parents afterwards pronounced. I know you love your mother’s parents, and I also know that they love you, and I do sincerely believe that people of different backgrounds can learn to love one another. But I also believe that the acts of seeing and hearing are never automatic; during that first lunch, when seated at the dining room table, there were, most definitely, more than a few moments of what your generation might term serious “awk.”

Your grandparents politely asked my parents about the Caribbean. What was Trinidad like in particular, they asked. Was this coleslaw Trinidadian cuisine? What were the native languages, the native customs? My mother tried, haltingly, to explain that she and her ancestors weren’t really native to the Caribbean, that they had come…been brought…from elsewhere. The conversation shifted to your grandparents’ parents and the fact that your grandfather’s mother had been a doctor, a remarkable achievement for a woman of the time. “And are there any doctors among your ancestors?” your grandmother asked politely. My mother looked quickly to her husband. My father finished chewing and neatly wiped his mouth with his White Swan napkin. “No,” he answered. “No doctors. We were enslaved.”

In 1498, upon his third voyage to what he imagined were the Indies, Christopher Columbus experienced uncertainty about the prospect of safely hitting land. After frightening days staring only at a watery horizon, he purportedly spotted three mountaintops and, in thanks to the Holy Trinity, named the island Trinidad. My parents, at least, don’t have any idea what three mountains Columbus might have seen. And so it is possible, as with all self-appointed discoverers of new lands and peoples, that Columbus saw only what he himself wished to see.

Trinidad was, at that time, densely populated by the Indigenous peoples the Arawak and the Caribs (from whom we get the name Caribbean). But, through the brutalities of contact, the theft of resources, and European greed, many of them died and many were murdered. And, soon after, another profound violence occurred. Over long centuries, African people were stolen from their homelands and transported across the Atlantic to work on plantations throughout the “New World,” and especially in Trinidad and other parts of the Caribbean, to feed the growing European addiction for what we might now call “real cane sugar.” An estimated 10 to 12 million individuals were killed simply to make the business work. Many millions more survived for successive generations in conditions of living death. There is a story here of unimaginable cruelty and sorrow that we must nevertheless try to glimpse, not only because it is still an unrecognized human story but also because it is, in part, our story.

Recently, you proudly announced to us that you had read your first adult novel: Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes. It is a story about transatlantic slavery, though it is set in the US and Canada, not the Caribbean. The book is told in the voice of a woman named Aminata, who as a child is stolen away from her family and community in Africa and, with others, shipped like cattle overseas. She bears witness to the murder of many family members, friends, and acquaintances and to the lives of many more, including those of her very own children treated not as human beings but as property to be used and traded away. What helps her survive her terrible ordeals is a sense of herself as a djeli, a traditional teller and keeper of stories. Against the laws of the time, Aminata learns not only to read but also to write English, and thereby she comes to tell in her own voice a story of suffering but also of courage and resilience.

It is, in many ways, a discomforting novel for a girl of thirteen to read, and an essential one too. And what makes the experience extremely special is that you and your brother happen to know Aminata. Lawrence Hill gave his character the middle name of his oldest daughter. One day, when you were younger, he let me know that she was moving to Vancouver and would be in need of work to support her studies. Your mother and I were just then searching for child care, since my parents had moved back to Toronto, and this is how you and your brother came to spend happy months with Genevieve Aminata Hill, one of the smartest and most radiant people we know. You could see, first-hand, why Lawrence was inspired to name his character after his eldest daughter.

There are other inspiring Black women in our life. Recently, we travelled to Toronto, just you and me, to attend a wedding between two of my dearest friends. You found yourself the only child in a restaurant filled with Black people and their friends, all laughing, eating, and carrying on. There were extravagant speeches. One of the toasters was a Black woman, a long-time organizer for the rights of Black people, queer people, and women and vulnerable workers in general. She raised her glass to the two newly married men, and she spoke of love and struggle and creativity as if they were natural and even necessary extensions of each other.

At the end of her speech, she reminded us of a legacy. She called out the first names of writers, asking the crowd to remember and shout out the second. She called out “Audre,” and the crowd said, “Lorde.” She called out “Toni,” and the crowd said, “Morrison.” She called out “Dionne,” and this time you may have answered, “Brand.” I know that, with the exception of the last, you might not have recognized all of the names, but I hope someday you will.

After her speech, the celebration continued. There was a DJ, and there was wild dancing. The women present, the most brilliant people I’ll ever know, kept asking you to dance with them. They were femme and butch, they were cis and trans, and they were much, much more than I could see and attempt to describe, and they were all laughing at your athletic energy and at the way you danced with quick feet and lifted arms and also at the fact that, steaming hot though the place was, you wouldn’t for a moment take off your black leather jacket. I think their desire to dance with you was a fierce insistence upon joy and an expression of a still-deeper commitment through thought and action against any power that would harm or control their bodies or yours.

You have always been “a tough girl,” dearest daughter. You have never wanted help lifting something heavy; you have never admitted to anything being physically taxing, even when it was. You have never wanted me to conceal hard truths. I’ve actually confessed to you my fear, as a father, in admitting these things to you, and your response was, “But you must, because it matters.”

I felt chilled when, together, we first viewed a heat map of my “maternal line” and saw that only the continent of Africa was lit up with concentrated colour, although my mother also has European heritage, as does her own mother and grandmother and still more distant ancestors. In that moment with you, I feared that the heat map of my maternal line indicated a long historical legacy of exclusively Black mothers with the occasional possibility of white fathers in the decades and centuries before sexual consent was possible for Black women. I feared that I was seeing in graphic form our ancestry as a story of recurring sexual violence. Such violence is an indisputable fact, but so is the story of Black women surviving against incredible odds. And this is why we must together remain close to the women who dance, and promise always to keep learning from them.

Excerpted from I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You. Copyright © 2018 by David Chariandy. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

David Chariandy
David Chariandy is a Vancouver-based writer. His latest novel, Brother, won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.