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By Dannielle Piper, Mx. Bukuru, Doaa Magdy and Cicely Blain
What does it mean to be Black in Vancouver?
It’s a hard thing to answer, even for people in this community. It’s a small community, for sure, but a place is built from its people—all of its people, regardless of how large or small their representation in the larger community. Black perspectives are a vital part of the city’s cultural fabric, and should be celebrated as such.
In honour of Black History Month, we've asked four local creatives and activists to tell their own stories, in their own words, about what being Black in Vancouver means to them. Not just to celebrate the past, but to take stock of the present, and offer hope for the future.
By Dannielle Piper
“Vancouver? Why Vancouver?”
It’s a question many people asked after I announced my decision to immigrate to Canada.
“There are no Black people in Vancouver,” they told me. “Go to Toronto. That’s where we are. You’ll find our people there.”
For the record, I come from a long line of proud Afro-Caribbean ancestors and we’re known to travel far and wide. As an aunty once said: “There ain’t no place we haven’t been, and there ain’t no place you won’t find us.”
Her words comforted me… but only for a short time. As my departure date grew closer, a seed of fear dug deep into the soil of my subconscious. For the first time in my life, I was going to be seemingly all alone. I was going to be Black in Vancouver.
To be honest, I didn’t know what that truly meant at the time. But I do now.
Being Black in Vancouver means oscillating between multiple binaries several times a day. Binaries that are confusing, nonsensical, and paradoxical.
I’m diverse but indigestible; invisible but conspicuous; educated but ignorant; exotic yet too foreign; beautiful but undesirable; classy but uncultured; friendly yet aloof; polite but antagonistic; innocuous but still threatening; remarkable but forgettable; and, my personal favourite, well-spoken but incomprehensible.
The list goes on.
Truthfully, who I am constantly clashes with Black stereotypes. I’m either too Black or not Black enough. Ultimately, I had to navigate my new life in a new country with these limitations. In many ways, it was—and still is—extremely liberating. I get to prove everyone wrong on a daily basis. However, it’s also exhausting. It’s like working overtime with no breaks and definitely no pay.
So, how do I put up with this nonsense?
First, I remind myself that Blackness is varied, multifaceted and multicultural. That my worth, my voice, and my experiences are non-negotiable, and that I have no obligation to be anyone but myself—regardless of how uncomfortable my identity makes others.
Why? Because my continued presence holds this city accountable. It keeps it in check and challenges cultural erasure. Because, believe it or not, those same people who asked, “Why Vancouver?” were wrong.
Black communities have existed in British Columbia for over a century. Over the years, these communities have settled, expanded, consolidated, shifted, dissolved, reappeared, and repeatedly realigned their diverse histories with that of this city. In doing so, Black people have consistently confronted systemic racism and carved out small yet vibrant communities for themselves.
We are here. We’ve been here. And we’ve been here for a very long time. And to pretend otherwise is a slap in the face to those who have contributed to Vancouver’s cultural wealth. Until we accept this fact, I’m going to oscillate between binaries that I created for myself.
I am exhausted, but I’m liberated.; Frustrated but hopeful; rigid but adaptable. But most importantly, I am vulnerable and strong.
Dannielle Piper is a freelance journalist and a graduate of the UBC School of Journalism. Born and raised in Jamaica and now living in Vancouver, Dannielle covers identity politics, social justice and pop culture criticism.
Tension is the word
By Mx. Bukuru
Blackness is not a monolith, so let me define mine: I’m a queer, fat, light-skin, mostly able-bodied Black performer. I’ve been tearing up Vancouver for five years with a mixture of drag and burlesque, hosting and teaching, sex and political sass. I know what it is to be me and Black in Vancouver. More specifically, what it is to be Black and onstage in Vancouver. The feelings of constant observation are similar. Unlike many, I do often get paid for the pleasure.
My drag is queer interruption. I used to sing gospel in the club.
As I write this, it is the evening before Black Futures Month. I don’t have to tell you that, though. I’ve already written Black eight times. May we meet at a show/tasting/warehouse/event put on by Black people (or paying Black people) sometime this month. And you will scream/“yaaas!”/tip/celebrate your way into feeling educated/chastised/uplifted/entertained. Haus Bukuru looks forward to seeing you.
When performing, I have certain bits that only come out when the money high. Not because they are technically hard, involving stunts or circus animals. I only put myself through it once a year because… I know you aren’t listening.
Often, when I teach people the meaning of my name, I will give helpful hints. I’m not Nigerian, so it’s not from Bukuru, Nigeria. I am not Rwandan, so it is definitely not the definition that Google pulls up for “first born twin.” And everytime I give these hints, people say, “Bukuru, it’s a city in Nigeria!” Or “Bukuru, that’s Rwandan for the higher twin!” They’re not listening.
So here’s my final hint. I’m of Jamaican descent. If you run into me at a show, tell me the definition of my name and I’ll give you a drink ticket. When I chose my name, it was with an intention of difficulty. I wanted audiences to stutter, wonder, and research.
Some are stuck on the stutter.
I’m going into February with a goal. It is not to perform Black Excellence—though I am excellent indeed. Let’s call back to what it means to be onstage and Black in Vancouver. Within the drag community, there is a tension in knowing your coworkers used to lip sync the n-word, used to wear cornrows, or regularly profit off of fashion styles popularized by Black artists, and also want to lip sync to Black artists while giving Black diva energy… Tension is one word. Unease is another.
When a performer does those things and you’re the only Black person on the lineup, how do you frame the conversation? Community doesn’t have HR. I am tired.
But there are good things ahead. This is my first year as a house parent. There are three new beautiful Black drag babies taking the stage this February: Batty B Banks, Acacia Gray, and Levi Thrust/Lilac Lust put the “future” in Black Futures Month.
What is your future? What is your past? February sometimes feels like I have to dislocate my Blackness to make it through; put it on a shelf so as not to be overwhelmed by the voices silenced and ever-weighing.
So in this future tense, I say: you will be supporting Black artists, you will be donating to the Vancouver Black Library Ko-Fi fund, and you will be learning the definition of my name.
Mx. Bukuru is a multi-disciplinary drag artist. They’re a member of Enby6 and parent of the only all-Black drag Haus in the City. Follow them at @mx.bukuru on Instagram
A Fresh Start
By Doaa Magdy
I moved to Vancouver in 2010 with huge suitcases full of hopes and dreams of a better future. I came to complete my first master of arts degree at UBC, located in the city with the mildest weather in Canada. Clearly, the word “mild” means a different thing for an Egyptian—as you can imagine, I found that out the hard way.
My first couple of years here, the grey skies and cultural shock served me a cocktail of emotions: loneliness, homesickness, racism, and depression.
Being Black in Vancouver was mostly an isolating experience because what my heart was yearning for was a sense of belonging, a community that I could connect with and relate to.
But then I realized that I was never alone, which is something easy to forget when moving to a new country. Thanks to the friendships I made, I realized how interconnected we are as humans and how much we need each other to grow and thrive, which definitely enriched this new chapter of my life.
It opened my eyes to the power we have in building communities rooted in compassion, and using our differences to foster unity, not division. It felt like getting a completely new prescription after a long overdue eye exam.
Despite the global trauma we all experienced in 2020, that year shifted the meaning of the word “community” and paved the way for the birth of the digital community as a portal of social change and compassion towards our diverse experiences.
2022 was the most traumatic year of my life, yet the most connected I felt to the Black community. Thanks to my Dynamic Diasporas project with VMF during Black History Month, my connections expanded through my artwork and my community contributions.
The digital community, including my therapist, saved my life in so many ways as I continue dealing with the impacts of racial trauma in my workplace and the fight with WorkSafeBC to recognize race-based stress injury. It helped me navigate ways of healing by accessing Black joy, which to me looked like dance walking around East Vancouver and making new friends along the way. It warmed my heart seeing people dance along with me, cheering me on, and coffee shops offering me treats as they compliment my energy, my earrings, or both.
I want us all to heal, so that joy in our DNA outweighs the trauma for all the future generations. Radical joy is revolutionary, and this is what I aspire to create with my art. My passion for cinema and the power it has in transforming societies inspired me to found Horror in Seconds: a new upcoming horror film festival for Black and Indigenous emerging artists.
Radical joy is telling and writing our own stories from our perspectives and sharing them with the world. Horror in Seconds will revolutionize and decolonize the concept of film festivals by creating a space for the community to witness the magic that underrepresented artists are capable of creating when given the opportunity to unleash their creativity.
Doaa Magdy is a Nubian interdisciplinary artist and educator, subverting colonial norms of storytelling and highlighting Black joy in film, dance, poetry and photography. Follow her on Instagram at @doaaliciousart.
An Undeniable Resilience
By Cicely Blain
When I sit down to summarize my experience as Black, mixed-heritage, queer femme in this city, I find it hard to consolidate the mosaic of happy, scary, joyful, and isolating moments into one cohesive descriptor. However: what strikes me most about being Black in Vancouver is the exhilarating feeling of change.
I come from London, England—you can feel the city’s age and the history that has moved in and out of the concrete and asphalt. By comparison, Vancouver is young. The settler-colonial process renders cities, particularly on the West Coast, uncertain in their identities. Where Indigenous communities lived in symbiotic harmony with the land and water, farms, factories, and tall glass buildings now extract from the surrounding nature. Processes of oppression like colonialism, slavery, forced migration, and indentured labour have all caused cultural loss..
The resurgence and revitalization of the languages and culture that has resisted extinction is a key part of Vancouver that I find beautiful and inspiring. Attempts to destroy cultural connections, like the placement of Indigenous children in residential schools or the demolition of Hogan’s Alley, have been unsuccessful in destroying the spirit and resilience of marginalized communities.
When I first moved to Vancouver in 2012, the smallness of the Black population was immediately evident. Living on campus at UBC, I would go days without seeing another Black person. The duality of being both hyper-visible and invisible was confusing and isolating. People wanted to touch my hair because they hadn’t seen an afro before, and they based their interactions with me on superficial pop culture stereotypes. I was called on in class to speak on behalf of all Black people and “complimented” on my eloquent speech. I sat through lectures on Black trauma that were merely a distant spectacle for my peers, rather than a lived reality.
Vancouver is often disparaged for being boring and characterless; young people can end up feeling disconnected and disillusioned. In the same way that Vancouver evades definition, the type of racism that manifests here can be subtle, non-committal, and careless. As a visitor or migrant, it’s confusing. It’s hard to make meaningful relationships, especially in academic and professional spaces where Blackness is so often othered.
Yet somehow, I’m still here; lucky to enjoy the crisp ocean air, meandering forest trails and beautiful mountain views. To this, I attribute the undeniable resilience of Black communities and our ability to find one another despite fear and isolation. It’s something marginalized people have done for generations.
Eleven years later, there are two stores for afro hair products on my doorstep, good Caribbean roti in walking distance, and a familiar Black nod or smile almost every day. Sometime during my decade-and-a-bit in Vancouver, the Black community has grown, but not just in numbers.
The growth of the Black community also feels like a growth of expression, freedom, vibrance, and connection. There are more events centring Black experiences: conferences for Black-owned businesses, theatre performances with Black leads, books by Black authors on the front shelf. Through protests, marches, articles, art, policy, education, training, and community building, Black folks continue to carve out the space they deserve in this city. Black, Indigenous, and racialized folks are often the driving force behind systemic change and social progress, and it’s starting to show in Vancouver’s gradual transformation.
Being Black in Vancouver is an ever-evolving experience, and I feel optimistic it’s trending towards a vibrant, joyful future.
Cicely Blain is the CEO of Bakau Consulting, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Vancouver, the Editorial Director of Ripple of Change Magazine, and the author of Burning Sugar (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020).