Afrofest: We Will Not Be Moved
Black bodies are always being moved around and are always made to feel illegitimate in “white” spaces, even as Black cultural products are appropriated and consumed by non-black cultures. Witness Caribana aka Caribbean Carnival aka Scotiabank Caribana aka Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival (now defunct), each name change reflecting and representing the obdurate confrontation between Blackness and its other. And it always appears a zero sum game. In 2011, Toronto City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam was adamant that Afrofest be moved from Queen’s Park: “If we continue to let them come back, because of lobbying efforts and a campaign to stay in Queen’s Park, then we throw out every other objective.” Toronto Star, July 10, 2011. The “them” has unfortunate connotations, intentional or not. One of the “other objective(s)” was the health of the park, which is important. But no mention of the cultural richness of the festival; of the economic spin-offs for the various African communities, which are plagued with higher rates of unemployment; no mention of what a bracing example of an inclusive city it was– if one wants to speak the language of multiculturalism (She and others missed the powerful message that Afrofest being located at Queen’s Park sent out to our communities and to the world.); no mention of understanding what the festival’s location meant to African and Black communities. Of what a deep, deep joy it was for us all — those of the Afrospora (the African Diaspora) as well as our brothers and sisters from the continent. It was a moment– a moment when what was lost connected with what was found. All under the trees. I recall all the inspired musicians who performed there, including the incomparable mbira artist and performer Stella Chiwese, as she called down the Ancestors, incense wafting up from the stage. There, you witnessed Muslim women grooving to their and our African rhythms; you saw Ethiopians, Eritreans, young and old, shaking their shoulders in ways foreign to us who weave rhythms with our hips, but still recognizable; you saw families of all backgrounds camped on the grounds of the seat of power of this province. What a ting! What a ting! i saw a woman/once/dance- in front of the stage/she dances/dust swirls/a black woman dancing on a land/not hers/yours or ours /then and now/feet draw veves of/thanks and praise to the First/and Last Peoples. At Queen’s Park. Of all places! And little did we know we were there on sufferance. As we appear always to be in these spaces marked by the geographies of loss. Ours.
Hard decisions often have to be made in the complex world we live in, and, perhaps, Afrofest’s days were always numbered at Queen’s Park, but had all the stakeholders been involved – and those who support the Festival comprise one of the most important stakeholders; had respect for our cultures and our communities been demonstrated — then the arbitrariness of moving and policing Black bodies might have be lessened.
Today, in response to the Black Lives Matter occupation, Councillor Wong-Tam is one of the councillors calling for possible changes to the SIU when racialized individuals are killed. She might not recognize it, but there is a link – a direct one at that — between the arbitrary moving of Black bodies, which she was a part of in 2011, and police shootings of Black people. It’s all about control.