I Cannot Turn Away: On the Dire Necessity of #BlackLivesMatter in Canada

By Chanda Chandalala

They say the happenings are over there; they could not possibly find their way here. Those who say these things have chosen to be blind. Chosen to shut their ears, chosen to look the other way. It’s not that bad here they say. But the plight of Black Lives has always been an issue and my visit to the museum reminded me and the Canadian public of that fact.

I went to see Jean Michel Basquiat’s exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario in April and was moved, so much so that I blogged about it. I was flooded with a wave of emotions as I walked from room to room and could hear the echo of Dr King’s voice in a room not too far away:
“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.
Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.
Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children.
Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”
I felt a tight knot in the pit of my stomach and then a rush of anxiety, the same knot and anxiety I felt when I watched Selma, the video of Eric Garner’s murder and the video of Walter Scott’s murder. I also felt it when I read Ta’Nehisi Coates recounting the death of his friend Prince Jones. This time I resisted the urge to cry. I looked around. I took a deep breath and moved on to the next painting. It had this quote by Sizzla:

“They can’t keep a good man down
Always keep a smile when they want me to frown
Keep the vibes and they stood my grounds
They will never ever take my crown”
As I moved gradually from painting to painting, I had an eerie feeling knowing that this wasn’t just art that mattered then. That this was real. These issues of economic and systemic discrimination, of unwarranted harassment and police brutality, of media scrutiny and bias, they’re all real. The frustration, the anger, the uprisings, the angst. We are hemorrhaging. This stuff matters.

Basquiat’s message was simple but powerful: BLACK LIVES MATTER. They mattered then and they matter now.

I wanted to sit at the foot of the paintings and weep. I wanted to shout, “Do you see what he’s doing here? No, do you really see it? Do you get it? No, but do you really get it? If so, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about about what’s happening in the U.S., or better yet, what’s happening in our own backyard. Let’s talk about carding. Let’s talk about the amazing but heartbreaking article written by Desmond Cole.”

I wanted to capture most of, if not all, of the quotes, but I didn’t want to risk being embarrassed by being told to put away my phone or, worse, be escorted out. I also didn’t think I’d be writing about this, but here I am. This is what happens when the personal is political. Never have I seen “write what you know” – in Basquiat’s case, “draw what you know” – illustrated quite so unapologetically.

The Basquiat exhibit left me feeling like I am connected to something and that hiding behind the Canadian pride of multiculturalism and not talking about justice (or lack thereof) would be a lie. It’s ‘easy,’ and I use that term loosely, to ignore that there are injustices occurring right here in our “home and native land.” Often we just read about issues that are going on in racialized corners of the cities we live in that never really come up to the door to meet us or smack us in the face.

I have worked in these ‘corners’ and have seen first hand the damage that systemic racism can do, especially to Black youth. And I have experienced that discrimination come up to my door and smack me in the face through the recent death of Andrew Loku, a man I came to know through work, who like many suffered from mental illness, a disease still greatly feared and misunderstood. In his case, he had the added layer of being a Black man, which put him at a disproportionately higher rate for discrimination especially at the hands of law enforcement.

I didn’t have to grow up in America to understand the continuous and persistent disregard for the Black body. All I need to do is to turn on the news and see how my people are being murdered. All I need to do is turn to Twitter and witness heartbreaking statistics and hashtags preceding names of the dead: #WalterScott, #EricGarner, #TamirRice, #JohnCrawford, #RekiaBoyd, #AiyanaJones, #JermaineCarby, #Charleston9, #SandraBland, #AndrewLoku. All I need to do is turn to YouTube and hear J Cole sing these words:
“All we wanna do is take the chains off,
All we wanna do is break the chains off,
All we wanna do is be free,
All we wanna do is be free”
Hip Hop is not noise.

All I need to do is listen to Langston Hughes’ poems or read James Baldwin’s words. These are people that lived during the era of segregation, who hoped and dreamed that these tragic events against the Black race would cease long after their deaths. Yet, here we are. Their words as poignant and relevant as they were then.

People talk about it not being like the past, not like slavery or Jim Crow. I’ll refer again to J Cole’s “Be Free.” The past is now. History is now. It is all happening right now. And we cannot afford to ignore it. Lives are at stake and already too many mothers have buried their children way before their time.

With every death, I have felt a bit of myself die. I remember taking the subway home one night and crying as I saw over and over in my head the face of Kalief Browder, a young man who spent three years at Rikers Island for allegedly stealing a backpack. I imagined how scared, helpless and hopeless he must’ve felt, my sobs getting louder with each thought. When he was finally released, it was too late. The system had killed his spirit, and in the end he took his life. That is what systemic racism does. And this is what systemic racism is doing to the spirits of Black men and women through the practice of carding, which deems them suspicious, presumed guilty by way of just breathing, walking, merely existing.

But it was the death of Andrew that really shook me and took me down a path of sheer despair. He was a gentle and lovely, lovely man. Soft spoken and polite. His death was shocking and senseless. Since these recent deaths, especially Andrew’s and Sandra (Bland)’s, I have felt a weight in my spirit that I cannot describe. I have had to consciously inhale and exhale for fear that my fatigue, my tears, and my anger, will choke me to death.

But why should I care? Why should you care?

As a country that prides itself on its diversity, on its pride in being good citizens and good neighbours, IT IS OUR DUTY AS HUMANS to support our brothers and sisters at home and abroad by standing in solidarity with them and using our voices. I was so moved to see this wonderful display as the Black Lives Matter Movement here in Toronto literally stopped traffic during a peaceful protest.

There are thousands of Black immigrants who come here from across the globe seeking a better life for themselves and their children. Yes, we are now Canadian, but our race, its history, whether from Nigeria, South Africa, or the Dominican Republic, binds us. Yes, BLACK LIVES (DO) MATTER, and though our spirits are weary, in the words of Kendrick Lamar, “we gon’ be alright.”

Photo: Shutterstock

Chanda Chandalala is a Toronto based writer/blogger and fashion enthusiast whose tales of fashion and real life collide at www.chandalalaland.com. Her blog post, The Truth About Immigrating: Citizen and Stranger, was published in the February issue of the Canadian Immigrant Magazine. You can follow her on twitter @chandalalaland.

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