Vancouver isn’t known for having a large African community. And unlike most other major cities, there isn’t a part of the city where the existing population concentrates itself. At least not since Strathcona’s Hogan’s Alley was destroyed coincident with the construction of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts back in 1972.
The community, as it currently stands, is also so diverse that the very idea of seeing it as one coherent body seems absurd. It’s made up of people from dozens of countries within the African continent, African-Americans, Caribbean people who see their roots as tied up to the continent, and people from South America with African descendents.
How can such a disparate group still consider itself a community?
According to Afuwa, a Guyanese artist and illustrator who only uses her first name, the differences mask a deeply important shared experience. She points out that the common thread for many people of African descent is the history of colonization, which has, ultimately, set in motion a migration process bringing displaced peoples here.
Interestingly, the shared experience of displacement is also one that, ideally, should bring us closer to Vancouver’s own displaced peoples, according to Afuwa. “How does one act in solidarity with indigenous people here?” she asks during a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “How do you address colonization when you are yourself a settler, and how do you navigate that with integrity without replicating those colonial practices that we have all learned so well? I think decolonization has to be foregrounded in an awareness of indigenous struggles, not only in Canada but worldwide, because black people are indigenous somewhere as well. So how do we, as displaced indigenous people, interact and live on land of displaced indigenous people? Where do we find commonality, and how do we support each other?”
Afuwa believes that by recognizing our common experience of displacement and colonization we might be able to construct a new kind of community. The African diaspora might be, along with other diasporas, a beautiful adaptation to an unfortunate circumstance. “I don’t believe in either/or,” she says, rejecting the primacy of some divisions. “I don’t believe in those dichotomies that set up people against each other. Those dichotomies are the fruit of colonization.”
In her capacity as an illustrative artist, Afuwa will be examining diasporas and relationships as a visiting fellow at UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues this fall, with an exhibition taking place at the end of the semester. For the September-October issue of Briarpatch magazine, she created the illustrations accompanying Ajamu Nangwaya’s article on police violence against people of African descent. Her work was part of the Feminist Wire’s Love as a Radical Act forum earlier this month. And along with slam poet and activist Josiane Anthony-H, she’s organizing Black Before February, a free black arts, performance, and community-dialogue event to be held at the Roundhouse Community Centre next January.
“We just brought that diasporic stuff together,” she says about Black Before February. “It’s not just the people who are coming from the continent of Africa but also people like me who walk in the world in a different way. For example, my family is Chinese as well. It’s sort of a different way of relating to Vancouver.”
Through her art, Afuwa uncovers themes touching on identity and on the prevalence of racism in Vancouver—yet another shared experience in the African diaspora. “It’s especially a problem for young men who walk in the world as black,” she says. “They’re criminalized in a certain way. And, especially for young boys who grew tall quite quickly, that can come at a time when they’re not prepared, especially if they’re dealing with people who can’t actually see them for who they are because all they have is stereotypes. Stereotypes stop us from seeing people for who they are because all you can see is this exotic monster that you’ve managed to create in your head from Hollywood movies alone.”
Personalizing this phenomenon, she continues: “I get followed around in stores. Blackness is one of those things that transcends so much, and people who have been taught to see blackness in that way—it is a challenging task to get them to unsee it because it’s so easy to have someone to blame. It’s very powerful.”
Handel Wright, a UBC educational-studies professor, echoes some of Afuwa’s thoughts. He has coedited an upcoming book called The Promised Land: History and Historiography of Black Experience in Chatham-Kent’s Settlements and Beyond. One of the many other books he has edited is entitled The Dialectics of African Education and Western Discourses. In that book, he has a chapter titled “Is This an African I See Before Me? Black/African Identity and the Politics of (Western, Academic) Knowledge”. In it, he fleshes out his identity—one which may not match the prevailing assumptions people have of Africans. His family in Sierra Leone, for instance, is middle class; he’s a member of the Krio ethnic group, which can trace its ancestry back to Jamaica and Nova Scotia; and, though his middle name, Kashope, is Yoruba, his first name is German and his last is English.
His personal journey to Canada revealed something pretty surprising. “When you’re coming from the continent,” he says during an interview with the Straight, “there’s a process of entering into blackness. On the continent, I wasn’t black. Everybody around me was black, so blackness was not a real form of identification. But it becomes quite stark—with all the positives and negatives—when one enters Canada. Sometimes it’s quite disorienting to people who haven’t experienced the process, especially when it comes to discrimination.”
That particular process applies to many members of the African diaspora in Vancouver. How it manifests itself depends on the individual, but it is, for the most part, a common experience. “At stop signs, I’d always start to hear these clicking noises,” he says of the sound of car-door locks being activated while he crossed the street. “It was a form of everyday racism that was very new to me.”
Wright takes note of the great differences within the African diaspora and how the process of arriving here tends to blur them. “There’s so much diversity in that category. And yet, all of a sudden, all of these people are lumped together in the minds of Canadians as black or as African-Canadian without much thought to differing origins and what they mean.”
Sharing Afuwa’s understanding of racism’s importance and insidiousness, Wright points out that “people might not be able to immediately recognize forms of racism when they’re occurring because there are so many different forms, including forms of institutional and structural racism”.
“I think there ought to be an African community, an African diasporic community, but I can’t say that there actually is, “ he admits about the notion of this particularly unique Vancouver population. “So part of what I would advocate is we ought to be working towards an African diaspora in Vancouver.”
Best African radio show
Sundays, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., on Vancouver Co-op Radio. The eclecticism of the continent is on full display on this show, with host Henry Mwandemere playing African tunes, sharing news, and notifying the community about upcoming events.
Best place to get some food from the continent
2149 Commercial Drive
Harambe is the place to go for a taste of authentic food from the Horn of Africa. A typical dish consists of a colourful medley of aromatic traditional stews cooked in a specially selected combination of spices. Harambe offers a generous selection of both meat and vegetarian dishes, all served on a bed of injera, the sourdough flatbread that is distinctive to the cuisine of Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Best place for recent immigrants to share information
Neighborhood Care International Association
757 West Hastings Street, Suite 254
Neighborhood Care International, founded by Jean De Dieu Hakizimana, is an African-focused immigrant-settlement organization where recent migrants can receive help on immigration applications, gain assistance pursuing work, and obtain career advice.