FIONA CLARKE ROLE MODEL & AMBASSADOR
AUTHOR & LAW STUDENT
Officially Inducted into the “National Wall of Role Models” on June 7, 2014 ( See full list www.BlackCanadianAwards.com )
Tell us a little bit more about yourself?
I am a passionate writer and researcher of the Black experience. Having lived in US, Trinidad, Nicaragua and the UK, I write fiction and non-fiction about people of colour and other marginalized individuals from around the world. I have an Honours BA in Philosophy from the University of Toronto and am currently studying Law at the University of Southampton. I have given Black History Month talks at schools, presented papers at conferences, completed Afrocentric research for organizations such as the Ontario Black History Society and written profiles of Black excellence for Who’s Who in Black Canada. My aim is to restore Blackness globally and in Canada. Last year, I released my first book, an edited collection of youth essays, short stories, and poetry on issues of being young, Black and Canadian called Basodee: An Anthology Dedicated to Black Youth. Basodee was published by General Store Publishing House and was one of the Toronto Public Library Recommended books for Black History Month 2013
Tell us something not many people know about you?
That I grew up in Texas.
What's your inspiration or how do you get motivated?
My inspiration comes from traveling, hearing people’s stories, and from books. I like to interview people who would never make it to mainstream media and write about them so that their stories are heard. A work of fiction that inspires me is Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin. It motivated me to write short stories and to write about the Black experience from more than the ‘typical’ perspective. My work in writing, researching, and speaking critically about the Black condition was inspired by The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson and I Write What I Like, a collection of writings by Steve Biko. I was really moved by Biko’s life, work and death for the abolition of South African apartheid and heavily influenced by his idea of ‘Black consciousness.’ I was also influenced by the work of William E. Cross, particularly his concept of nigrescence in my ideas about Blackness as process. To get motivated, I just need to walk through a library or bookstore and I am reinvigorated. Books give me strength.
How did you get to where you are now and what more should we expect?
My journey has been a long one of trauma, struggle and many years of toiling. I think I’ve gotten where I am today because I’m not afraid to confront the truth – no matter the cost. I think if you are truly being brutally honest with yourself, it costs something – I find the price I’ve paid is some of the people in my life. My philosophy is that you can learn something from everyone who comes into your life, but not everyone is supposed to stay in your life. I’m currently working on a collection of short stories set in the various places I’ve lived around the globe, so you can expect that and an anthology I co-edited on Black Canadian religion. From me, you should expect more books, more community work, perhaps even a career in politics.
What would you like to be remembered for?
I would like to be remembered for my words. When I write, I strive to make my work critical, original, impactful and enduring.
How do you balance work, family, friends and leisure?
I travel a lot right now so balancing friends/family and work/school is a bit tricky – it’s always tempting to cram everything into a short period of time and to make unrealistic goals about what can be achieved by when. For me, as well, writing is a slow process; I have to go over things dozens of times before I’m satisfied. So, I try my best to dedicate time every day to writing – whether it’s writing a target number of words, outlining or just reading about writing. It’s a good week when I’ve spent some time doing something spiritual such as visiting a sacred space, being around spiritual people, or meditating.
What's your favorite food, book, music and movie?
Favorite food: Sushi and Chinese food
Favorite book: Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin and The Giver by Lois Lowry
Favorite music: Alternative and Indie Rock, Electronic, Jazz, Classical, and R&B
Favorite movie: Hook (1991) and Gattaca (1997)
What's your experience as a Black person in Canada?
In Canada, “Blackness” is a process and an achievement – not just a matter of your skin colour. Some start the process early, others start it late, and perhaps some never start it at all. I didn’t start the process of nigrescence (or becoming Black) until after my first degree. Previous to that my experience was coloured by post-racialism. But no matter how comfortable we are in the system, we can’t rest there. We have to wake up to and speak out about racial inequalities. No matter how educated, successful or “integrated” we are as Black people what’s insidious about the Canadian Black experience is that often we feel so well-treated that we don’t stop to see how others with the same skin colour are being treated. Until all Black people realize the injustice inherent in being Black in Canada and fight for change, injustices will continue and opportunities for members of our community will be few.
What is the Black community doing right or wrong in Canada?
A first issue, I think is in speaking of a ‘Black community’ in Canada. Black Canada has the challenge of including people from many different cultures, continents, and countries. Thus there is no homogenous “Black identity” in Canada and therefore ‘Black community.’ There are many communities doing work, however, there is no overriding singular group working for the “Black community” in Canada. So I would say the primary issue is lack of unity. Until continental Africans learn to work with West Indians, Caribbean people with African Canadians, and so on, the Black community will not move forward. Moreover, key problems within the Black Canadian experience are education, criminalization and incarceration. Since there was no consistent civil rights movement in Canada, Black Canadians are ‘presumably’ integrated into Canadian society; this, however, is completely untrue. The high school drop-out rate among Black youth in Ontario is over 40%. Black Canadians must disengage from the harmful “multiculturalism” and “post-racialism” rhetoric and take responsibility for the fate of their youth. What some Black Canadians have done right, is that they successfully petitioned for the establishment of a publicly-funded Africentric school in Toronto. The program has been so successful it has been expanded to include a high school program starting this September. Despite continuous opposition from some, including members of the ‘Black community,’ and misguided accusations that the school is a form of segregation, community members have stood their ground and have been successful. I think more displays of political lobbying like this by Black Canadians are needed.
Are there as many opportunities for Blacks in Canada compared to the US (e.g: when can we have our Obama, Beyonce, Oprah, Tyler Perry, BET, etc)
The opportunities as they stand are fewer for Blacks in Canada, but it just means we have to make the opportunities for ourselves. We have to invest in ourselves as a community before we can ask others to invest in us. While there are a few notable Black Canadian leaders such as Jean Augustine, Charles Roach, and Dudley Laws, and notable Black Canadian artists such as Dionne Brand and George Elliot Clarke, Canada won’t have its own Obama or Oprah until Black Canadians begin to consistently rise above middle management or form influential businesses, with those that do rise reinvesting in the community – socially, educationally, and most important, financially. Other races in Canada thrive because they often have a head-start: assets passed down through generations, clear aspirations for achieving professionalism, and excellent financial management skills. Due to the economic apartheid existent in Canada, Black Canadians usually don’t have this advantage and thus have to establish themselves from scratch. Unfortunately, those that do establish themselves often look down on those who haven’t or become influenced by the tokenism that exists in the Canadian workplace. Tokenism makes those who ‘have made it’ believe that since there are so few opportunities for Blacks they must prevent others from taking their token position – thus they sabotage others or ‘kick the ladder down behind them’. Only when the social acceptance of tokenism is eradicated, will Blacks in Canada have their fair share of opportunities.
Should and do Blacks support Black music, events, and businesses?
I think Blacks absolutely should support Black art, music, events and businesses. Black Canadians have a lot to contribute to Canada, events such as the formerly-known-as-Caribana or the now defunct Sway Magazine, which were – in the case of the former, huge income-generating tourist attractions, and in the case of the latter, well-read by the community. So Black people do support Black businesses, however, I think there are sadly numerous examples of businesses geared towards Blacks that have been taken away or merely sold. In order for Black Canadians to have Oprahs and Beyonces we have to support our own, ‘own our own’ and learn how to keep it. As a writer, I think we should especially support our Black writers as there are many gatekeepers in the publishing industry who seem to be under the impression that there are only a few Black voices worth publishing a year. I think if we supported our writers by going out to book launches, buying their books and showing publishers that Black people do read – then more Black writers will have the opportunity for their voices to be heard and counteract negative representation in the media.
What’s your understanding of Black History in Canada?
I think my understanding of Black history in Canada is a bit nuanced due to my work with the Ontario Black History Society. It means so many things to so many different people. For some, Black history starts with their personal family histories in historically Black towns in Ontario, such as Buxton. So I think Black history is mainly a way for us to tell our stories as Canadians. I think for most people, the ‘main event’ in Canadian Black history is the Underground Railroad. However, this narrow view neglects the lengthy history of Blacks in Canada starting with Mathieu de Costa the first recorded Black man in Canada, the Black Loyalists, and Canadian slavery. Canadian slavery is unfortunately one of Canada’s best-kept secrets and has a legacy which, if carefully studied, might shed light on some of the systemic and social issues we see around us today. For example, the fact that there were free and enslaved Blacks living almost side by side in Canada created social tension, stratification and disunity within the Black community; a disunity which I think is similar to what we see today with the waves of new immigrants being added to the existent Black community. Of course, Black history in Canada is more than slavery: it’s the Blacks who fought in the War of 1812, Viola Desmond refusing to give up her seat in a Nova Scotia theatre years before Rosa Parks took her stand, Jackie Robinson playing for the Montreal Royals before making history with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and more recently the late Lincoln Alexander the first Black Member of Parliament and Lieutenant Governor. I think Black history is fluid and is being made all the time; as a community we just have to make sure to learn and record it.
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