By RON FANFAIR
To say that Ayanna Black was a jack of all trades and master of many would not be an over-statement since she did almost everything she committed to very well.
The health care professional, who was more widely known for her artistic creativity and activism, died last month after a lengthy illness. She was 69.
Last Saturday, family, friends and colleagues celebrated her rich and multi-dimensional life at the Cardinal Funeral Homes chapel in Toronto.
“She was my soul sister and one of the touchstones in my life,” said poet Gay Allison who met Black 35 years ago at the Times Change Employment Agency for Women where Black was a counselor. “I had just returned to Canada after spending a year in Europe and I was seeking a new path in my life like so many other women at that time.
“Change was certainly in the air in that era and Ayanna would always advise us to be the change we wish to see in the world. She also said change is the only constant thing in life. That was her motto and she certainly became a role model for many of us over the years. She was a special part of many important ceremonies, rituals and landmarks in my life and I will always remember Ayanna as a unique woman who was beautiful in every sense.
“She had an infectious laugh which often turned out to be a cackle, an incredibly positive attitude even in times of deep despair and a sense of style that was incredible. She was also insightful, intuitive, determined, loyal, creative and innovative and everything she did was for community and giving back.”
Born Marjorie Black (she changed her name to Ayanna in the 1970s to reflect her cultural roots) in Hanover, Jamaica, she went to England in 1957 to help her uncle raise his three children. In return, he funded her education at King’s College Hospital in London where she trained as a nurse before relocating to Canada in November 1964. Two years later, she secured employment at the Queen Street Mental Health Centre now known as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
“Ayanna was generous, vibrant and always willing to give back her time to anyone who needed it,” recalled co-worker Hyacinth Rowe. “She was also well liked by both staff and clients and she will be missed.”
It was, however, as a poet, arts advocate and activist that Black stood out.
She was a member of the League of Canadian Poets and part of the original Women’s Writing Collective in 1974 that started the women’s poetry salon and organized poetry readings, concerts, festivals and the first Women & Words conference.
Black published three books of poetry, No Contingencies that she dedicated to her mother Olga Powell who died in 1995, Linked Alive and Invoking the Spirits.
“The pursuit of her art was no flight of fancy, “said artist Vernon Eccles. “She loved collaboration among artists and across the arts disciplines and so my own sense is that the pieces she best enjoyed creating were those in Linked Alive.
“Achievement of her social goals was neither a picnic nor a walk in the park for those she targeted. Ayanna was relentless on issues of equity in all spheres, on fair pay for the fruits of artistic endeavour and on responsiveness from political representatives…She never met an injustice she did not want to set right or a just cause for which she would not be an advocate, or a young artist she would not mentor or a working artist she would not encourage.
“She was all about fairness and equity for all in return for which each of us held up our end of the societal bargain.”
Vancouver-based film & video producer and former Ontario Black History Society executive director, Glace Lawrence, poet Vancy Kasper, raconteur Itah Sadu, Daria Essop and Beverley Simpson-Gayle also paid tribute to Black whose body was cremated.
“We loved and cared for one another very much,” said a tearful Simpson-Gayle, a cousin of Black. “She took me under her wing as the little sister she never had.”
Black co-founded the Canadian Artists Network: Black Arts in Action (CAN:BIA) and collaborated with Zanana Akande, Gloria Fallick and Ann Wallace to establish Tiger Lily, a literary magazine devoted to women of colour. She was also a member of the Toronto Arts Council and the Harbourfront Corporation and she served as president of the Women’s Art Resource Centre.