The Black History Month Project

The first time I saw the image above – it hit me – my ancestors were on those boats.

End Notes

Who Am I? I'm Danielle Russell - I learned a lot about this girl during February 2012

In January of 2012 I had a stroke of inspiration, born from that initial idea was this blog – The Black History Month Project. For 29 days I have researched, meditated on and written about, people and events that speak to my history and experience being Black. Its been a long month – I’ve Laughed, I’ve shed tears, I’ve been humbled and honoured. AND I have learned so very much about myself.

Throughout this month I have been pleasantly surprised by the stories others have been inspired to share, and the feedback I have received about which stories spoke to people or stories I have been telling for years that people felt deserved a public airing. Thanks to those who inspired postings from The Patty War of 1985 to the very personal relationship I have with The Banana Boat Song.

Early on, my God-Mother shared two things with me as inspired by my early postings about Amazing Grace and Marcus Garvey. She sent me a video that her father had shared with her, about Black Keys and Amazing Grace – this is one of most inspiring and informative segments I’ve ever viewed.

Along the way stories have been covered so well that I didn’t think there was anything I could add, but that I found interesting or personally related to. From A Little Something Extra where I posted an article my Uncle Wrote about my Great-Grandfather Rudolph Burke, to a Toronto Star article about Toronto’s First Black Postman.

I was also somewhat surprised by the sheer number of links to pop-culture that I made to this blog –  a testament to my love of, and identification with pop-culture. This experience has really brought me some clarity about how often I used culture as a lens to view the world. I have also been watching with interest how Black History Month has been covered by others, particularly in the Media.

But at the end of the month, what I really got out of this is a better understanding of who I am.

 

The Parental Units

I still have a list of topics and people that I would happily have covered for this blog – The Black History Month Project, but I’ve realized that there seems to be one glaring omission. If this whole experience was about me articulating how I identify with my history, then there are two players in this story that cannot be ignored. Dear old (I sense that the use of the world old requires a disclaimer – lets just call it a meaningless saying shall we?) Mom and Dad.

Family Photo - Hanging at the Appleton Estate

Art, Culture, Politics, History. My parents are ground zero, from the now disproven story about where the name “buffalo soldier “came from, to the dedication required to stand in a crazy-long line to get the black cabbage patch kid doll, they were the impetus for my interest in so many of the topics I’ve explored this month.

The Parents in their "Natural" Habitat - Jamaica

A quick bio note for those who don’t know. My parents – Bruce S. Russell and J. Marie Russell were both born in Jamaica in the same year (which I will not list publicly) in Christiana and Kingston, respectively. They were born into very different backgrounds; my dad studied by lamplight and lived his early years without running water; my mother grew up in the city, with all the modern trappings. My Father aka “Professor Russell” (no PhD just a penchant for lectures) is a Chemist, an Economist and an Entrepreneur. My Mother is a Realtor and Painter. If you’ve ever tried to figure me out, the newfound knowledge that I am the offspring of an Artist and a Businessman should be pretty enlightening.

The Rents Hanging at Casa Russell

My Father climbs trees, my mother worries he will fall out of the trees… once while he was 10 feet up our cherry tree she told me “go stand under the tree and catch him if he falls” it never occurred to her to say “go keep the motor running or get ready to dial 911).  Last year I rode in Ride for Heart, having just lost over 50 pounds it was a huge physical undertaking; in my head the voice I heard urging me not to quit was his; at the end the worried face that greeted me was hers – a thousand times, Thank You!

At The (National) Mall

I was watching the West Wing Week 100 on YouTube a few days ago where we see President Obama, the US’s First Black Commander and Chief attending a ground breaking for the newest Smithsonian Museum.

President Obama at the Ground Breaking

So what a new Museum? Well this is not just any Museum, the 19th Smithsonian opening in 2015 is the African American History Museum. The ground breaking ceremony last week was emceed by none other than Mrs Huxtable herself – Phylicia Rashad.

Artist Rendering of the African American History Museum

This seven level facility will rise above the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the National Museum of American History. What better way to cap off Black History Month.

“Those Who Do Not Learn From History Are Doomed To Repeat It”.

Toys for Little Girls and Boys

As Black History Month draws to a close I have begun to reflect on the influence that my parents have had on me, and the subtle and not so subtle things they have done to make be proud to be me.

In the early 1980s Cabbage Patch Kids were the “it” toy for Christmas, my mother stood in an extra-long line up to get me a black doll; Sarah (my favorite name, I even sent away to have her name changed on her “birth certificate” as she was originally named Rebecca) was my constant companion for years afterwards.

Sarah Russell

For years my mother refused to let me have Barbie Dolls (for reasons beyond the colour of her skin and hair) but when a well-meaning neighbour broke that particular ban my mother quickly found me one of Malibu Barbie’s black friends to join my collection.

I had bed-time stories such as Mongoose in the Mall – a Jamaican retelling of “City Mouse, Country Mouse” and other books sourced from Jamaica that featured Black Children.

Its little wonder that with some of our earliest role-models and playmates (our toys) not reflecting us, that there are so many image issues in the Black community. A quick google search of “black toys” netted me a lot of stuffed black labs and such.

Keith Constantine (KC) Burke

I started off wanting to use this blog to tell personal stories alongside the stories of significant figures in Black History. And, as I noted on February 3, 2012 in A Little Something Extra in some cases these two objectives are one and the same. I have told stories based on stories I’ve learned from my father, I’ve written of my Mother’s influence on my love of art, I’ve celebrated the lyrical accomplishments of my grandmother, today I recall the life of my Maternal Grandfather – KC Burke.

Its a funny thing. KC was at once a well known Jamaican public figure (something I failed to understand or notice as a child), and at the same time quite simply Grand-dad. In the days following his death his life was recounted by the Jamaica Gleaner and the Jamaica Observer, I don’t feel the need to recount all of the details here, simply the ones I find most interesting.

KC Burke receiving the Order of Distinction

Unfortunately, I would only learn of most of his professional accomplishments after his death on November 18, 1999. I know, for instance, that in 1982 he was awarded the Jamaican Order of Distinction; as someone who places a high value on Public Service, I hold the honour and the deeds that earned it in the highest regard. My Grandfather was a driving force in the Credit Union Movement in Jamaica as well as a leader in the Legal Community.

In the early years, very little of this mattered to me. The manifestations of his professional life fascinated and amused – perfectly polished shoes, luggage that would not have looked out of place in the first class cabin of the Titanic, and three-piece-suits not matter how hot the day was. The throw backs to a lifetime of privilege – an inability to cook (we’re talking boiling water and toasting bread). The occasional reminder that before he was KC Burke Attorney-at-Law he was a farm-kid from St. Thomas – I distinctly remember him climbing the Mango Trees in the yard to pick me fresh fruit for breakfast when I was a child.

My Grandfather as I remember him - playing peak-a-boo

Most clearly I remember the times when he was simply Grand-dad (tree climbing aside). During the week I never saw him when we were in Kingston – a hard working man he rose with the Sun and often came home long after my bed-time – but on the weekend there were walks to the coastline of the harbour mere steps from the gate at his home on Fairbourne Road.  And one enduring memory, finds me at 4 or 5 years old being held over the stove to stir mac and cheese because my Grandfather (see above for a description of cooking skills) was allowing a child to teach him how to cook KD – I have blocked the memory of eating it, which leads me to believe that it was a bit of a failed experiment.

The Banana Boat Song

As I mentioned in yesterday’s Patty Post, as the month has worn on people have started suggesting topics for this blog, and in the case of today’s post a specific story to be told. One of the reasons I started The Black History Month Project blog was to find a tangible way to relate to my own history, so what better way to honour that goal then, by telling a story of how I personally relate to a well known Jamaican song.

My Dad - Bruce Russell, whose lessons taught to his daughter (Me) have inspired many of the Stories told in this Blog

So first, what is The Banana Boat Song? The most famous rendition of this song was performed by Harry Belafonte and originally released in 1956, a version of the song was also performed with the Muppets. While born in New York City, Harry spent time living with his Grandmother at her home in Jamaica.

A Still of Harry with the Muppets

Truth be told, The Banana Boat Song is not my favorite Belafonte tune, although I know my younger cousin would disagree with me. A quick look at my iTunes log will show that Matilda and Coconut Woman get the most play. And Mama, Look a Booboo (a song about children who won’t respect their father because he is too ugly to be their daddy) is the unique ringtone set to play when my Dad calls my blackberry from of either his Canadian or his Jamaican cell phones. I’m also partial to Jamaica Farewell, but mostly because it reminds me of my Grandmother.

Banana Tree on the Farm where My Dad grew up in Christiana Bottom - Photo Credit: Joyce Arscott

This week I was coming home from dinner with my non-biological-twin at The Real Jerk in Toronto, my iPod served up the “Banana Boat Song” and just as I was launching into a story, Kat said “this is a great story (which I’ve now heard at least three times – but I learned a lot the FIRST time) you should add this to the blog”.  If you’ve watched the link to the Muppets segment above you will know that this song is about the dock workers calling to the Tally Man to count their Bananas because its the end of the night and they want to go home. I’ve heard this same story many times, but, in my Dad’s version its him and his Grandfather having brought bananas grown on the farm to be counted. Given the distance between Christiana, Jamaica (my dad grew up in a place called “Christiana Bottom”, although those who lack pride in their heritage tend to fancy it up by calling in “Lower Christiana”) and the closest docks I assume that they were calling a tally man in a market somewhere.

Banana tree spotted growing amongst the Yams near the driveway.

Lyrics:

Day-o, Day-ay-ay-o
Daylight come and me wan’ go home
Day, me say day, me say day, me say day
Me say day, me say day-ay-ay-o
Daylight come and me wan’ go home

Work all night on a drink a’ rum
Daylight come and me wan’ go home
Stack banana till the mornin’ come
Daylight come and me wan’ go home

Come, Mister tally man, tally me banana
Daylight come and me wan’ go home
Come, Mister tally man, tally me banana
Daylight come and me wan’ go home

It’s six foot, seven foot, eight foot BUNCH!
Daylight come and me wan’ go home
Six foot, seven foot, eight foot BUNCH!
Daylight come and me wan’ go home

Day, me say day-ay-ay-o
Daylight come and me wan’ go home
Day, me say day, me say day, me say day…
Daylight come and me wan’ go home

A beautiful bunch a’ ripe banana
Daylight come and me wan’ go home
Hide the deadly black tarantula
Daylight come and me wan’ go home

It’s six foot, seven foot, eight foot BUNCH!
Daylight come and me wan’ go home
Six foot, seven foot, eight foot BUNCH!
Daylight come and me wan’ go home

Day, me say day-ay-ay-o
Daylight come and me wan’ go home
Day, me say day, me say day, me say day…
Daylight come and me wan’ go home

Come, Mister tally man, tally me banana
Daylight come and me wan’ go home
Come, Mister tally man, tally me banana
Daylight come and me wan’ go home

Day-o, day-ay-ay-o
Daylight come and me wan’ go home
Day, me say day, me say day, me say day
Me say day, me say day-ay-ay-o
Daylight come and me wan’ go home

Jamaican Patty: Patty War of 1985

One of the really cool things that has happened as the month as worn on is that people have started sharing news stories with me about Black History Month (or prompting me to tell my stories to a wider audience). A couple days ago (Thursday February 23) Metro Morning on CBC Radio ran an interview with Michael Davidson owner of Patty Palace in Kensington Market. [Interview starts at around 18:20 of the linked podcast], while I didn’t hear the original broadcast a co-worker was helpful enough to tell me about it.

Look for the George's Tastee Sign Next Time You're on Denison

I must confess I had never heard of the Patty War of 1985, nor the Patty Summit that would end this conflict. While credit must be given to the owners of Patty Palace and Patty King for fighting this injustice (more on that in a bit), for my money the best Patty in Toronto can be found at George’s Tastee (600 Denison Street in Markham and various other locations). I drive by George’s on my way home from work everyday and it takes every ounce of self control to not stop for a pre-dinner snack everyday of the work week.

George's is full service Bakery, they made this NKOTB cake for one of my Birthdays as a kid.

I have learned this week that the Patty War and Subsequent Patty Summit took place in early 1985. Beginning with a visit to the Patty Palace in Kensington Market by a Food Inspector for the Department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs. She threatened a $5000 fine, noting that the Meat Inspection Act defined a Meat Patty as that which goes between the bun in a hamburger. An alternative suggested at the time “Caribbean Pie” was a no-go. For those unfamiliar, the Jamaican Patty is Beef (traditionally, although other fillers are used) spiced with Jamaican Spices and Scotch Bonnet Pepper and stuffed inside of a flaky, golden crust.

Jamaicans take their Patty’s very seriously, they are one of the staples of my diet when I am on the island. I was amused enough to take a picture when I discovered that the restaurant attached to the Juicy Patty factory on the road between the Millennium (Usain Bolt) Highway and Porus has a drive-thru window for quicker Patty acquisition.

Juicy Patty Drive-Thru; Jamaica

It is little wonder that during the Patty War the Jamaica Gleaner ran a headline proclaiming that “Canada Bans Patty” and that Brian Mulroney who visited shortly after felt the need to quell Jamaican annoyance by sampling the delicacy. Having sampled (and Loved) the Patty our Prime Minister brokered a deal whereby “Jamaican Patty” could be used to differentiate the pastry from a burger filling.

As an interesting add-on, while doing my research I found this article by Royson James of the Toronto Star calling for February 23 to be celebrated as Patty Day in Toronto.

 

 

 

 

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

I decided to cover Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in the same week and having covered Archbishop Tutu yesterday it seems only fitting to cover Mandela today. I have been thinking about Mandela a lot as his name features in one of he Soca songs on my iPod – Bally’s Shaka Shaka — “White Canadian Youths Protest, Free Mandela on the Chest”.

There are interesting parallels between Tutu and Mandela, not only are both former advocates for Anti-Aparthied in South Africa but they have both won Nobel Peace Prizes for their efforts. Also, interestingly, both are survivors of Prostate Cancer.

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in Jail from 1962 until his release in February of 1990. In 1994 he was elected President of South Africa in the first of that Country’s multi-racial democratic elections. Throughout his time as president he worked to make reconciliation a reality.

Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu

For me Desmond Tutu is symbolic of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the first time I remember seeing him he was talking forgiveness and the need to forgive in order for all South Africans to move on together.

“Without Forgiveness There Is No Future” ~ Desmond Tutu

Retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Anglican) won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 and was a tireless crusader to end Apartheid in South Africa. He is also thought to have coined the term “Rainbow Nation” to describe the post-apartheid reality in South Africa.

Archbishop Tutu also works for a host of other causes, including; AIDS, Non-Democratic Governments in the 3rd World, Darfur, Poverty and the Environment. Also having survived Prostate Cancer he also works to eliminate the disease.

Malcolm X

Like most members of my generation I first heard of Malcolm X on the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. A respect for Malcolm X is a key point of bonding for Will and his Uncle Phil particularly in the early seasons of the show.

Denzel Washington as Malcolm X

I know there was a Malcolm X Movie that was released in 1992 staring Denzel Washington, but I have never seen it. Unlike most other figures in black history I don’t have a pop culture touchpoint for his life (beyond Fresh Prince references). Although, he is mentioned in the Billy Joel song We Didn’t Start the Fire so every few days my iPod spits out his name as the song plays.

Malcolm X

Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965 when he was only 39 years old. He was a African American Muslim minister and a Human Rights Activist. For many years he was a Black Supremacist at a time when most in the Civil Rights Movement were simply fighting for equality. His tendency towards supremacy did not make him a particularly popular voice in the fight, but as it is believed that his Father was killed by White Supremacists it is somewhat understandable.

Excerpt from We Didn’t Start The Fire:

Pope Paul, Malcolm X, British politician sex,
JFK, blown away, what else do I have to say?

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it