By Moboluwajidide Joseph
Immigrating to Canada is a choice that is accompanied with a slew of challenges. However, often one of the least well-voiced or described challenges to racialized foreigners, is the sudden phenomenon of becoming part of a marginalized community. It is true that Canada is a largely accepting place relative to its southern neighbour, yet racial parity is still an ideal being striven towards. For myself, as an international student taking up studies in a new place, the question of what it meant to be Black in spaces where it wasn’t normative, was one that I had never even imagined.
I had no tools to navigate this sudden reality of having to be spatially aware all the time, to wonder if my presence was making someone else feel ‘uncomfortable’. I was Black, but in many ways I wasn’t born that. Things I had watched about Black North American families that felt distanced and fictional, were suddenly present and lived. I had to find community to survive, and I was fortunate enough to find the Good Guise.
I will confess that prior to finding this program online, I had never encountered the phenomenon of community arts. The idea of creative practices, community dialogues and transformative justice inhabiting a single project, to provide individuals new opportunities to express their lived experiences and investigate social problems, was completely strange to me. In hindsight, I am glad I took the one hour commute to 180 Shaw St, where Sketch is housed, to try out the Element of He.
The Element of He is a program run out of Sketch –a downtown community arts centre for youths living on the margins –that provides an environment in which racialized men can have honest conversations about their intersectionality, while making art. We were all artists of some sort: writers, photographers, musicians, dancers, visual artists, the list is exhaustive. And in creating a communal space where we could air the unique lived experiences that infused being a Black man in Toronto, we could approach something like healing and accountability for ourselves.
This was the Good Guise, a name coined from the quick catchphrase “I’m good, guys” tossed around as a disguise for our hidden hurts, and a witty critique of a society that protects “the good guys” in response to allegations of abuse. A promise to do better and be better. It was here, that I was able to first articulate how it felt to be treated and responded to as dangerous. That collection of incidents where women cross the street once they glimpse me behind them, or roll up their windows when I drive by, or get up to choose a seat two train cars away when I get on, was new, weird and it hurt a lot.
Black men need community, especially newcomers, and spaces where they can come to terms with new histories they have now inherited. Thankfully, Element of He does not exist in a void. It is long past time that Black women stop being expected to do the emotional labour of healing and care for their male-identifying counterparts, in societies where both are picked apart by the same racist institutions.
We all need to take charge of our own self-care and survival in a land that is rife with micro aggressions needling away at who we are. It might not be community art, though one doesn’t have to be exceptionally talented to try this avenue, but it has to be something. Or we risk breaking ourselves.
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