Letter to Councillor Mihevc: Caribana is a Black woman!

By Admin Wednesday December 10 2014 in Opinion
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Dear Councillor Joe Mihevc:

What unjust processes, what ill-considered templates and diverging expectations forced Caribana away from her optimistic communal birth in 1967, to the 2017 designs of purging her memory?


For example, how do official definitions of “culture” imply social expectations which differ from the expectations then and now of Toronto’s Black community?


For the feds, “culture” is synonymous with “heritage”. As in an official Heritage Day, February 16, which primarily glorifies the role played by Europeans defining “Canada”. For the Province, “culture” plays the water-boy role to tourism. As for the City of Toronto, “culture” dances to the tuning-fork of economic development. In short, at all levels culture is a utility: that is, more dependent adjective than independent noun; more describing than described.


From experience, I think that the Black community’s definition, explicit/implicit, differs from these. Here, culture is the marriage of memory and hope. More on this later.


If these are the differing social expectations which affect Caribana, what, in addition, are the templates which, like cornerstones, cement the shape, torque, and function of her structure and future? First of all, to Black residents, Caribana has been a colossal failure. The usual response given in exasperation is, “Why not shut the damn thing down till the politicians come to their senses?” And, “Stop people from tiefin’ Caribana money,” etc.


This great Black soul has been victimized by a sustained, vicious character assassination. Her detractors’ goals: dissing her African ancestry and embracing a Parisienne burlesque.


If these, for good and ill, are some social expectations, what is the template which cemented Caribana’s current challenges and tribulations? It has several discernible features. The first was inserted into the Carnival’s 1967 budget of $50,000. Initial contributions were: $4,000 in cash from the Black community; and $1,000 from a Centennial fund. In addition, leaders like Julius Isaacs, Romain Pitt, Peter Marcelline, etc., undertook personal financial commitments.


Thus, from a budget of $50,000, 99 per cent came from the Black community. Note too, that $50,000 in 1967 would in 2014 be $354,177.81. And that the Black community who raised this vast sum were then mostly recently-arrived students, hotel/house-maids, nurses-aides, some lawyers, cab drivers, railroad porters, etc. In short, then and now, Caribana’s been capitalized primarily by the commitments of the Black community.


The second feature of this initial template came from City Hall. Then mayor, William Dennison, asked Sam Cole, Chair of the then organizing committee, to stage the Carnival the next year. Why? Wasn’t the Centennial over? Yes, but follow the money! For example, the harbour boats ferrying visitors across to Centre Island, had previously recorded 3,000 as the highest number for a weekend. That Centennial Carnival weekend, the 3,000 rocketed to 35,000!


Additional revenues were earned by such enterprises as the Village Market on Front Street. From jump-start, Caribana has been a tsunami of revenues breaching all records across Canada! For everyone except…


The Black community then, as were we in 1989 after the Price Waterhouse Impact Study, thought the future of Caribana and the community was brighter. The founders had even considered leveraging Caribana to build a community centre.


The third aspect of the template came again from City Hall. This time it was Metro Chairman, William R. Allen – as in the Allen Expressway. The organizers of the Carnival, who had officially been requested to carry on, were meanwhile faced with onerous Centennial debts. They thought it reasonable to meet with Chairman Allen about any possibilities of the City assisting. He advised them to “get it from your community”. His advice remains topical.


However, another official responded differently: True Davidson, Mayor of what was then East York; seeing the benefits, financial and “inter-ethnic” the carnival brought, berated her council, as “petty” for opposing a City contribution of $3,000 to the debt.


To reiterate, from1967, the template shaping Caribana’s current conditions included:


  • The Black community—ever under-employed—bearing Caribana’s burdens;


  • The hospitality industries celebrating Caribana as, “Christmas in August”;


  • The same industries not reciprocating via sponsorships with Caribana;


  • Every level of government trying to get away with the least possible funding, but insisting on oversight to the max;


  • Caribana, chronically underfunded, being berated publicly for “financial mismanagement”, but regarding her chronic “financial insecurity?” Deafness!


  • Other “Anglo-cultural” shrines like the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Art Gallery of Ontario combined, annually having operational budgets it would take Caribana decades to obtain; yet Caribana’s average annual revenues are $400 million compared with $103 million total, for the ROM and the AGO combined;


  • Caribana annually hamstrung with criminality. For example, one newspaper headlining an “Eaton Centre shooting” with “Caribana”; Any sponsors available?


  • By contrast, no acclamation that Caribana creates jobs; Caribana creates wealth.


If this then and now is the template that still determines the relationship between Caribana and public-sector Canada; between Caribana and private-sector Canada; between Caribana and her maternal Black community, what defines our social expectations of her?


Ours is a city in which for too many Black youth, “every day is another ambush”. For us, culture as memory reminds us of both our ancestors’ past experiences, and of our present circumstances. Continuing within the context of Caribana as Black female avatar, many of us – definitely not all of us – are a range of skin colours. These testify to a past, not only of enslavement and genocide, but also to one of ubiquitous rapine. I am humbled, awed at these Black women, who vulnerable to sexual abuse, still fought valiantly to keep these half-caste children of rape – our ancestors – many of whom slave-owner fathers sought to sell.


Read Jubilee (1966), the historical novel by Margaret Walker. And the poem, Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point. It was written by the 19th century Jamaican poet, and descendant of slaves, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, on the night of her wedding to Robert Browning – himself so obviously negroid, he sat in the church loft with the other “coloureds”. The poem, a dramatic monologue, describes a slave who, raped by “her master”, sought revenge.


This series of letters is my attempt to right a wrong. We’ve known each other beyond Caribana. In fact, long before most Torontonians even considered an imprisoned Nelson Mandela, you as a scholar used your influence both against apartheid, and also in support of fighters like Dudley Laws. Joe, you were there, long before others arrived for the glory. Which is why I’m so dismayed at plans under your leadership, making Caribana, “damnatio memoriae”.

Again, while culture, for some Canadians is utilitarian, for others like me, it is a sanctuary of memory and hope. Thus, from our Carnival arts must come the memory by which to commemorate and celebrate our ancestor’s struggles, both against enslavement and for emancipation. There is then also our hope for a present and future in which the choice before us: privileged and invisible, is between what’s just and what’s unjust; not between what’s just and what’s justifiable.


With regards to you and yours into, and beyond this Season of Memory, and of Hope.

Lennox V. Farrell

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