For seven days in August, 2012 a group of 35 young people between the ages of 14 and 17 and who are involved with the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) of Toronto, travelled to New York City, accompanied by chaperones, on a “Soul Journey”.
Soul Journey trips are an initiative of CAS of Toronto’s Black Education Awareness Committee, made up of staff, volunteers and foster parents from CAS of Toronto who help organize educational and cultural awareness trips and learning opportunities for Black children and youth involved with the CAS. Previous Soul Journey trips have included Africville in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Uncle Tom’s Cabin/Underground Railway near Chatham, Ontario and Washington, D.C. The following article was written by a youth who participated in the New York City Soul Journey.
By T.H. FRANCIS
Before leaving for New York City, I was thinking about everything except African-American culture. My mind was filled with the often shallow thoughts of a teenager. Will I make friends? What outfits would I look best in? What would I spend my money on? As our chartered coach began to move, it finally hit me that I would be spending the next week away from my comfortable suburban life.
On the bus ride to New York City, we watched films about the freedom riders and Bob Marley, exposing our minds to the struggles and triumphs we would soon learn more about. After the long bus ride everyone was eager to get into the surprisingly trendy loft-style rooms at the Moore Hostel, where we stayed. As tired as we all were, the girls in my room fought to stay awake talking about the trip. That was my first uplifting experience as part of a Soul Journey, being able to get issues off my chest to other girls just like me.
Most of us were slow in adapting to the fast pace of New York City, but were more than eager to explore it. We found ourselves immersed in the food, bright lights, shopping and the convenience stores (which were actually convenient, unlike their Canadian counterparts). But, as the days passed and we visited places like the Apollo Theatre, our thoughts began to shift.
At the Apollo, we were not only entertained but enlightened about how the Black community and its musical talent changed the world and the entertainment business. We learned even more about ourselves as Black people by visiting numerous art and historical museums where we discovered how the Black community had strengthened and helped shape North America. Slowly the thought occurred to me that in some way, almost every Black person had contributed to the fight against racism. Whether it was through painting, poetry, music, athletics, business, politics, etc., we as Black people have fought racism in our own way.
We visited the United Nations, where we learned what it takes to create and sustain freedom and what actions are being taken to ensure that the world remains relatively peaceful. We also visited the Weeksville Heritage Center, where we learned about the lifestyles of freed slaves and their work to help bring about an end to slavery. While at the Weeksville Heritage Center, we also created our own artwork and learned a new skill – printmaking.
One experience we had at a small museum in Harlem stood out for many of us. While at the museum, we sat in a circle reading African nursery rhymes and playing the drums. This was an experience most of us have never had. Most of us had never been exposed to the idea of African culture as being universal to all Black people.
On Sunday morning, we attended the historical Abyssinian Baptist Church. This church played an important role in the freedom of slaves and had been a stop on the Underground Railroad. Another memorable experience from the trip was seeing a production of The Lion King on Broadway. It was a profound and beautiful display of African culture through music, dance and drama and held true to the essence of African culture and its philosophy toward life.
One moment we will all take away from the New York City Soul Journey experience was visiting the African Burial Ground. Viewing the brief but powerful film that was shown there moved many of us to tears. Many of us were hurt and shocked that such an important part of our culture was disrespected when the buildings on Broadway were constructed on top of a burial ground that held the bodies of African slaves. Through tears, we discussed our feelings after the film and walked around the museum with a new respect for our history. We left the African Burial Ground singing an old Negro spiritual and with sombre hearts.
Apart from all the places we visited, we learned a lot just from being in the company of one another. It was comforting to know that there were other teens going through experiences and emotions similar to my own, and being able to express our thoughts in a place where we felt safe was important. Making new friends and being able to share our goals and aspirations for the future with others who are understanding and supportive, in addition to sharing their renewed belief in the power of the Black community, was a positive experience.
During this Soul Journey, I came to understand that Black history is not limited to Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X. We, the members of the Black community, are living members of Black history. Therefore it is up to us to learn, embrace and pass on our culture as one people. Every time we further ourselves individually as a Black person, we further us all as Black people.