Planting Seeds for Tomorrow, By ‘Tope Oriola
Memory and the act and art of remembering do not occur in a social vacuum. We remember cognizant of the consequences of that historical moment for global inequality and relations of the African diaspora with others in their new homelands. The intrinsic link and intertwined relationship between slavery on one hand and the industrial revolution and modern capitalism on the other is fairly incontrovertible, as the likes of former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Eustace Williams, and more recent works by Robin Blackburn, Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, among others remind us.
Memory is transcendental. Therefore, thousands of kilometres away from the Motherland, we remember our beloved Africa and the conditions that fabricate growing streams of not-so-voluntary migration to Europe, North America, Asia and other parts of the world. However, this is not a gathering for lamentation. It is a gathering to reassert the words: Never again! Never again must a human being be the property of another. Never again must naked force be used to suppress human potential, talent, intellectual prowess and spirit. We recognize that we are all diminished by the suffering of our fellow human beings. Therefore, we gather to reassert our common humanity.
We also gather to remember and celebrate our heroes past and present. As a cross-section of the African diaspora in Canada, we remember Anne Clare Cools, the first Black person to become a Senator in Canada; we remember Carrie Best, the Black woman who established in 1946 The Clarion, the first Black-owned newspaper in Nova Scotia. We remember Alberta cowboy John Ware and James Mink, a successful business man, who acted as his Irish wife’s slave in order to rescue their daughter who had been sold into slavery by her husband. We applaud living phenomena like the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, 27th Governor General of Canada and Michael Lee-Chin, a Jamaican-Canadian who was appointed Chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University in 2011.
These individuals have demonstrated the highest human ideals in spite of gargantuan impediments. Some of these individuals came to Canada as slaves; others as refugees; and some as immigrants. What they have in common despite the variation in time is that they embodied courage, uncommon determination, unwavering belief in their God-given abilities and an unflinching desire for a better life. Some of these individuals were seeds dispersed on the Canadian landscape. Others wittingly planted themselves on the sands of time.
The organizers have chosen a theme that reflects a specific focus on the future rather than the past although as Archbishop Desmond Tutu admonishes the ‘past refuses to lie down quietly.’ This year’s theme is a breath of fresh air. I admire the metaphorical signification and insignia of planting seeds. I shall emphasize this theme first generically to the African diaspora in Canada, particularly our beloved City of Edmonton and second, specifically to our young people…
Civic engagement is fundamental. The likes of Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, for instance, recognized the salience of participating in politics. Gibbs was a successful businessman who relocated to British Columbia from the US and encouraged the black community to get involved in politics. When Gibbs contested for a seat on the Victoria City Council in 1862, he missed out by only four votes. Gibbs was later elected in 1867.
My unscientific research on the Alberta Legislative Assembly website indicates that as of February 5th 2015, two seats were listed as vacant; 22 seats were occupied by women and 63 seats by men. Only one person appeared to be black. We can do better than that as a community. This entails getting engaged at the grassroots level and working closely with other communities, as black people make up just over 2% of Alberta’s roughly 4 million people. Having elected representatives may be the difference between being on the inside to propose relevant policies or make key decisions and staying out wondering what is going on in the corridors of power.
It is also imperative to be involved in activities that bring the various African diasporic groups together regardless of national origins, language, religion and other social divisions. These differences must no longer be reified; they must no longer define the extent of our relationships with one another. I wish to reiterate the significance of family stability for children’s well-being regardless of how the concept “family” is defined…
My main focus is on our young people and how they may navigate their way as individuals with what WEB Du Bois calls “double consciousness”— in this case, persons who epitomize cultural hybridity. Persons with identities that are both Canadian and African; Western subjects of African origins. The issues raised are also relevant to those who do not necessarily live hyphenated lives.
From time immemorial older people have always viewed younger folks with scepticism. Older people talk about the good old days: When youths and children used to obey their parents, when they used to study hard, when things were fine and the world was at peace before the current generation — the lovers of Ipads, Iphones, Samsung Galaxy, arrived—a generation with ostensibly improbable sense of entitlement and immune to gratitude to parents. They paint a romanticized picture of the past. Good music stopped in the 1970s; good food existed in the 1960s, artistic and genuinely talented people walked the earth before this generation of cell phone touting, texting, sexting, shop-till-you-drop-dead generation. To be sure, the juxtaposition of the apparently horrendous imagery of the present generation and the perfect picture of the past is a misleading one…
My plan today is to share a few lessons that I learned along the way… First, I have learned that if you drop out of school, you are fulfilling somebody else’s agenda for your life. I was at a train station years ago when a fairly well-respected professor wanted to know how I was faring in the doctoral program. As I responded he laughed and said “so, you have not dropped out?” His comment was interesting because I was admitted to the university with a doctoral scholarship of about $100,000. Somebody expected me to drop out despite having a prestigious scholarship offered to only 12 PhD students every year. This is my first lesson for our young people: Whether you are in high school or studying in any university, if you drop out, you are fulfilling somebody else’s agenda for your life. That fellow now knows that I did not drop out. May I say with every sense of humility that that professor is now my colleague.
Second, I have learned that education is my heritage. People often point to ancient Egyptians to demonstrate Africans’ love for knowledge. I will use the example of contemporary Nigerians. Available evidence shows that about 27% of working-age Canadians (25-64 years) had university degrees as of 2010. In the US as of March 2011, 30.4% of people 25-64 years had at least a bachelor’s degree and 10.9% held a graduate degree. Disaggregation of the numbers indicates that Hispanics had 14.1%, Blacks had 19.9%, Non-Hispanic whites had 34% and Asian-Americans had 50.3% with bachelor’s degrees, and 19.5% graduate degrees. Roughly 30 million American adults (14%) are functional illiterates.
However, among Nigerian immigrants, according to the 2006 American Community Survey conducted by the US Census Bureau, 37% had bachelor’s degrees, 17% had master’s degrees, 4% had a doctorate/PhD. Researchers at Rice University believe the percentages are higher. One study in the Houston area showed that 40% of Nigerian households had higher degrees (Master’s degrees and PhDs). Consequently, it is a lie from the pit of hell to suggest that it is not cool to like your books. Let them call you weird or acting “white” — whatever that means — hang on to your books.
Education can break generational cycles of deprivation and lead to individual fulfillment and social development. Where you find poverty, lack, superstition, and backwardness, education tends to be far from them. Libraries and books are probably rare in such places. In Canada, people who do not complete high school earn only 80% of what those with high school diploma earn; the figure is 65% in the US… It is instructive that the average level of education among persons in Canadian prison is grade 8.
Third, if you desire a successful life, some friends might have to go. The airline allows you certain baggage weight when traveling. From Edmonton to Winnipeg in economy class, for instance, the first checked baggage is sometimes free depending on the type of ticket and must not exceed 158 cm (62 inches) linear dimension and cannot weigh more than 50 pounds or 23 kg. A second bag costs $25. An overweight baggage costs $75. Any additional bag after the second bag costs $100. Excessive baggage is expensive. The moral there is this: If you cannot get away with excess baggage on a two-hour domestic flight, why would you think you could get away with excess baggage while going through life?
Fourth, the police are your friends. There is abundant socio-scientific evidence demonstrating that Euro-American societies associate visibility with deviance. The criminological literature provides incontrovertible evidence of those bearing the brunt of the criminal justice system. In the US, African-Americans and Hispanics; in Canada, Aboriginal peoples; in Australia, Aboriginal peoples; in New Zealand, the Maori people; in Germany, the Turkish people while interestingly in Turkey, the Kurdish people. Varying minority groups are over-represented in each system. This is a cause for concern as it suggests over-policing of some social spaces and differential deployment of appurtenances of surveillance.
Nonetheless, young people, particularly black males must realize that Edmonton is not Ferguson. The Edmonton Police Service is not Ferguson Police Department. The police are your friends. Another way of putting that is that the police are not your enemies. While images from the US are understandably shocking and heart-breaking, it is important to realize that Canadian dynamics are not the direct equivalent of issues in the US…
Finally…You who daily overcome unspeakable obstacles; embracing the solitude that accompanies being away from familiar spaces and faces. You who daily overcome obstacles, overriding low expectations from society and asserting your right to spiritual, academic and professional fulfillment, your joy shall be full. Do not be drowned in fear, doubts or cynicism. The night is almost over; the dawn is near. Thank you; may God bless you and may your dreams take you far.
‘Tope Oriola is assistant professor of criminology at the University of Alberta, Canada. He is author of Criminal Resistance? The Politics of Kidnapping Oil Workers.