Karma catches up with Gates and Drabinsky


Karma is a concept that is based on the belief that all deeds, good or evil, will shape future experiences. African people have long understood this principle based on their collective historical experiences, and are often heard quipping that “what goes around, comes back around.”

In communities such as Toronto, the just struggles of African-Canadians are often reduced, by the wider society, as the harpings of a “fringe” or “special interest” group. This categorization is perpetuated by the 3 P’s – the Press, the Politicians, and the Police.

The power brokers of society often manage to buy “pliable” Blacks in the same way the slave master bought slaves – below market value. In doing so, a situation is created where one group is played off against the other. Contemporary slaves eagerly look to be validated by White society by virtue of the positions they take, often in diametric opposition to the communities they claim to represent. Political scientists often refer to this phenomenon as the system of neo-colonialism, where the indigenous bourgeoisie attempts to become the new colonialist.

Conversely, social advocates struggle to transform White society so that it becomes more equitable, egalitarian and inclusive.

It was in this milieu almost 20 years ago that the unholy alliance between academic Henry Louis Gates Jr. and theatre impresario Garth Drabinsky was consummated. This marriage was fostered in order to oppose the aspirations of protestors in Toronto, who vociferously condemned Drabinsky’s production of the musical, Showboat, as racist and demeaning.

Harvard academician, Gates, was dispatched by his overlords to oppose this “fringe group” of extremists. Gates was all too eager in his attempt to sanitize racism by legitimizing the production through the use of pseudo-intellectual gymnastics that would have made Romanian Olympic gymnast, Nadia Comaneci, proud.  

Drabinsky and then Mayor Mel Lastman were equally steadfast in ignoring the legitimate concerns of the African community – and why shouldn’t they? After all, they had a “leading Black” in their corner versus the musings of a “special interest” group.  Which leads one to digress – which interest is indeed not special?

It should also be noted that there were a few opportunists within the African community in Toronto who chose to endorse the production in their eagerness to join Team Gates as the “responsible” members of society, or in their wily pursuit of one of the 20 pieces of silver.

Fast forward to August 2009. It is ironic that both Gates and Drabinsky resurface simultaneously in the news media, albeit for the wrong reasons. Perhaps it was Karma at play – for the deeds of the past?

Henry Louis Gates is the victim of racial profiling and arrested without justification. Despite his class standing, his carefully orchestrated ascension in academia, his body of published works, and his appointment as a leading Black academic by the mainstream, he is reduced to just another Black man in America.

In his outrage at this new reality, he is purported to have told the arresting officer about “his mama”. At the White House beer summit, President Obama orders Bud Light but Gates defiantly orders a Jamaican Red Stripe – supposedly instead of the White Man’s beer. Gates wins a few points culturally for a hot minute, but the steam fizzles and eventually wears off. Perhaps in an Obama-esque moment, he vacillates and realizes it is just not worth rocking the cradle and compromising his “leading” Black status.

About the same time, our old nemesis, Drabinsky, was being convicted of fraud and forgery. Despite his pre-eminent stature in the world of theatre, his productions of grandeur, and his extensive connections in the industry, he is reduced to that “fringe” group of corporate criminals.

The irony here is that if Gates and Drabinsky listened to the “fringe group” of protestors almost 20 years ago who gave up Saturday mornings to march up and down Yonge Street in the dead of a Canadian winter, they might have learned a thing or two. They might have learned that the attempt to sanitize the production of Showboat was indeed a fraud and a forgery, and the play racially profiled African people with some of the most demeaning stereotypes. And that the real obstruction of justice was the endorsement of the production, not Gates being arrested.

If these men had understanding and compassion instead of arrogance, self-importance and opportunism, they could have charted a different path and avoided their recent hardship. However, when you sow corn, you reap corn. So says Karma.

Mesfin Aman is a writer and social activist based in Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at Mesfin_Aman@Hotmail.com

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