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2006 07 18
Imagining Toronto | A Review of T-Dot Griots: An Anthology of Toronto’s Black Storytellers

In Toronto, the mainstream media tend to represent Black as a news category denoting gang membership and including shooting victims, single mothers, hip-hop artists, and basketball stars. Black people -- presumably including shopping-cart pushing single mothers and Hummer-pumping basketball stars alike -- are described as occupying dark and dangerous neighbourhoods at the city's fringes or in threatening pockets near downtown. This is the narrative from the outside.

From the inside, Black is a complex panoply of culture and contradiction narrated through a rich and diverse literature. Award-winning novelists and poets, among them Austin Clarke, Neil Bissoondath, Althea Prince, Nalo Hopkinson, Afua Cooper, and Dionne Brand, write powerfully about the ways black cultures intersect with Toronto's physical spaces and social structures. Indeed, Toronto cannot really be understood without reference to their work.

But these representations -- the media report from the outside and the lyricism of the inside -- do not often meet. It seems that news reporters and cultural editors do not often speak. An exception, however, is found in Karen Richardson and Steven Green's edited anthology, T-Dot Griots: An Anthology of Toronto's Black Storytellers (Trafford, 2004). Describing Toronto's black storytellers as modern griots (traditional West African historians and bards), T-Dot Griots explores the ways Toronto's black wordsmiths reinhabit and reinvent a rich oral tradition in order to serve as their communities' guardians, historians, teachers, and conscience. The storytellers in this collection (which grew out of a regular open-mike performance series called La Parole) occupy a realm midway between the fictional and the factual, elevating personal experiences to the level of archetype and inviting a dialogue about identity, culture, race, racism, and redemption in Toronto.

The anthology is alternately hard-hitting and wry right from the beginning. In Zetta Elliott's opening piece, "Plastique", a woman who moves to New York is castigated for 'passing' -- not just as white but as American. At the same time, the varied racial labels available for her to choose from -- Negro, 'Cullud', Black, and Afro-American (or Canadian) -- do not carry with them any greater liberty to self-define. Rina travels peripatetically between Toronto and New York looking for space to construct her own identity: "She wanted a life somewhere in this world where she wasn't already cast into a mold, cast for a role someone else had scripted." Questions of identity resonate throughout the anthology. In "Male. Black. Age 21-25" Jael Ealey writes about the withering sameness of attending acting auditions seeking young black men to play bodyguards, bouncers, streetwise athletes from the projects, or thugs. In an excerpt from the award-winning play, Da Kink in My Hair, Trey Anthony takes up the difficulties, even among her own community, of being "too dark":
No good hair, no mistaking my baby for white. Her skin is black coffee, black coffee without milk. And I know it's all my fault 'cause I chose to lay down with a man that if he closed his eyes and didn't smile you would have thought he left the room. Midnight you called him, but personally I think he looks more like quarter past.
T-Dot Griots is dominated by both lyrical and slam poetry. Throughout the anthology storytellers' voices ring out from haunts as diverse as Jane & Finch and the Tequila Lounge. Nadia L. Honn writes,
A rhythm bubbled
Under the pavement
Surged through the concrete
And the steel
Buzzed through the highways, suburbs, the inner city
This sexy, creative energy,
I began to feel
And Afua Cooper echoes,
Africa wailin
as Stereo-Prophet trow down
inna downtown
at Tequila.
and 300 sing as one
sing along wd the dj
sing along wid the singers
And in the afterword Karen Richardson writes, "We are Toronto's black storytellers; standing together in hopes that the world might see us, Africans in a foreign land where transplanted roots fight for a foothold in the snow. ... Our words live here and in case you haven't noticed -- so do we."


Imagining Toronto contributes reviews of new, classic, and evocative Toronto works to Reading Toronto every second Tuesday.
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 07/18 at 09:36 AM

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