Fight or Flight? Jan Wong meets two black Torontonians with different solutions to troubles in their communities

Fight or Flight? Jan Wong meets two black Torontonians with different solutions to troubles in their communities

New books by two black Torontonians propose radically different solutions to troubles in their communities

(Image: Taylor Callery) 

It’s a gorgeous summer day in 2003. Imagine you’re 21 and with your extended family and a few friends at a backyard barbecue in Rexdale. Suddenly you hear shots being fired. Your neighbourhood is locked down, everyone is sent inside, and an emergency task force surrounds your home. Guys in flak jackets barge in and make your entire family—including your sister, who was mid-shower, your mom and your four-year-old nephew—walk out of the house with their hands in the air. They fling you and a friend against a neighbour’s door and demand to know what gang you belong to. The whole neighbourhood watches as you’re escorted to the police cruiser. You’re in handcuffs and feel mortified.

The police are looking for two young black men. You’re a young black man, and so is your friend. You sit in the back of the cruiser, trying not to look guilty, or scared, or drug dealer–like, for about an hour, though it feels much longer. The police run your ID through the dashboard computer, and someone curses and mutters something about the wrong address. Then a cop unlocks your handcuffs, saying, “It’s your lucky day, buddy.”

If that’s a lucky day, why stick around for an unlucky day? I certainly wouldn’t, and Joel Powell didn’t. All of that happened to him. Sitting in the back of the police car, he resolved that when he was old enough, and when he had enough money, he’d get the hell out of the neighbourhood. “I figured eventually somebody would kill me. You know, a case of mistaken identity,” he says. “I spent 26 years of my life living in the ghetto. I’ve been robbed twice. I’ve been falsely accused and harassed by the police. I had to get out of there.”

I’m grateful that my own grandparents fled the Chinatown ghetto more than a century ago. But to leave is to assimilate. Inevitably, no matter how much you think you can hang on to your roots, assimilation means you leave behind your culture and your community. To many, the word “assimilation” is a pejorative. I understand the angst. If too many people flee, your community withers away. But personally, I think assimilation equals opportunity.

Today Powell is a 28-year-old DJ, recording artist and owner of his own entertainment company. He remembers that summer day as a turning point. He spent the next five years saving up for a down payment on a house anywhere but the neighbourhood where he grew up. On his first day of house hunting, a real estate agent drove him and his wife, Natasha, all over Toronto. None of the properties they saw felt right. After many hours, the agent said, “I have one more house to show you before I go nuts.” By then it was dark. Powell, who is a slight man with a goatee and tiny braids pulled back in a ponytail, walked up to the front door of a three-bedroom, semi-detached brick house. “I feel the vibe. This is it,” he said, turning to Natasha. She said, “Can’t we look at the rest of the house?” They were in Caledon, of all places. They’d never heard of it; they only knew it was nothing like home. They bought the house.

Powell has just published Black Empowerment and Minority Issues, one of two new books about being black in Toronto. In it, he doesn’t mention the police raid or his move to horse country. Instead, he talks about the problems in the Jamaican-Canadian community: too much negativity, too much low self-esteem, too little education, too many single-parent households, too few male role models. His controversial opinion: the older generation doesn’t want the younger generation to surpass it. “There’s a nasty level of bitterness and anger deep within the black community,” says Powell, whose parents came here in 1976, his father from Jamaica, his mother from Trinidad. “There was no planning for education. All of a sudden, you wake up, you’re 18 and you have to do it yourself.”

That’s one view. Another comes from Dalton Higgins, a Harbourfront arts programmer and blogger for the Toronto Star. In his book, Fatherhood 4.0, he tries to address why 40 per cent of black children in Canada grow up in homes where the father isn’t present. That’s Statistics Canada information. It’s also something Higgins has observed throughout his life. “Nowhere is the absent father more painfully obvious than in the black community in North America in general and in Canada in particular.” To make the point that the dominant black culture treats fatherhood cavalierly, Higgins writes that Bob Marley fathered 13 known kids with seven or eight women across several continents. Marley’s bass player, Aston “Family Man” Barrett, had 52 children.

Higgins and Powell, who have chosen different paths in life, agree that the odds of success are stacked against black men, but they propose different ways of overcoming the obstacles.

Higgins was born near Little Jamaica, a stretch of Eglinton Avenue West that runs approximately from Keele Street to Marlee Avenue, which he likes to call “Bob Marley Avenue.” Unlike Powell, Higgins has never been handcuffed at gunpoint. His lucky day happened when he was just 10 years old. The cops loaded him and his brand-new orange Supercycle bike into the back of a cruiser without notifying his parents. Then they drove him to the home of a family that had reported a stolen bike. When the white dad shook his head, the cops let little Dalton go home.

“Yes, slavery happened. People got lynched. But enough is enough. There is a black president now. Let it go. I’m personally fed up with people using slavery as a crutch.”

Today, Higgins owns a house two minutes away from where he grew up. He lives with his wife, Karen, an arts administrator and mural artist, and their two children: four-year-old Solomon and 11-year-old Shiloh. “You know the African proverb ‘It takes a village to raise a child’? Little Jamaica is my village. I crave being around the African-Canadian community,” says Higgins.

At midday, we stroll “the strip,” an entrepreneurial stretch of black-owned businesses on Eglinton. The neighbourhood feels safe, and it is. (Crime rates are relatively low and decreasing each year.) There are many grandmother-aged women around. There are several dollar stores and an astounding abundance of hair-related businesses. On one four-block stretch, I count 30-odd barbershops, hair salons and hair-product stores. I ask Higgins why so many exist, and he explains that haircutting is a business in which someone without much capital can become an entrepreneur by renting just one chair. And he tells me something else: instead of visiting a community centre in Little Jamaica, men come to these barbershops to shoot the breeze, whether or not they’re getting a haircut.

Four years ago, Higgins became a facilitator of monthly workshops for men called More Than a Haircut, organized by Macauley Child Develop­ment Centre, which is funded by the United Way. The drop-in sessions, held at select barbershops in the area, are intended to provide a safe place for black men to talk about personal problems. Recent topics include absentee fathers, disciplining children and family separation. He thinks the airing of issues is a step toward finding solutions.

Facilitating these workshops in part prompted Higgins to write his book—he wanted to recommend some fatherhood-related books to the participants but found none that specifically addressed the problems of his culture. “I didn’t find any literature out there for dads of colour in a Canadian context.”

Both Powell and Higgins want to start conversations about taboo subjects, including the fatherlessness problem, that are hard to talk about publicly. But their approaches couldn’t be more different. Powell is angry. “People see problems—they keep their mouths shut.” He’s tired of excuses, and he’s impatient with people blaming the past. “Yes, slavery happened. People got lynched. But enough is enough. There is a black president now. Let it go. I’m personally fed up with people using slavery as a crutch.”

Higgins believes in the power of the positive role model and fills his book with case studies of black men who were raised primarily by their mothers and who are now high achievers and good parents themselves. He interviews Cameron Bailey, co-director of the Toronto International Film Festival, and Michael “Pinball” Clemons, vice-chair of the Toronto Argonauts football team, both of whom grew up without a father at home. Now Bailey has a toddler son, and Clemons has three daughters. Higgins says, “Fatherhood 4.0 is about taking an oath to be a better dad.”

Both Powell and Higgins have been hassled by police for DWB (Driving While Black) or WWB (Walking While Black), and both men were forced to decide how that kind of treatment was going to affect their lives. Fight or flight? Powell is the realist. Higgins is the idealist. He wants to do something. He’s trying to help. It’s admirable and maybe even possible. I wish him the best of luck. And I hope, out there in Caledon, Powell won’t have to endure another lucky day any time soon.