A Precious Cargo:Culture
African Canadians, like many ethnocultural groups in Canada, haveoften had to fend for themselves; they have been forced to rely ontheir own resources, which they have found to be substantial. WhenMassey Hall in Toronto was filled with symphonies and sonatas in the1920s, African Canadians went to choir recitals in their own churchbasements. While some Canadians enjoyed the ballrooms of fine hotels,people of African descent settled for makeshift dance floors inbroken- down buildings.
African Canadians, like Canadians in general, sometimes wonderwhether they have a distinctive culture. Just as Canadians haveadapted to North American life in ways that sometimes resemble andsometimes contrast with the ways of their American neighhours, soAfrican Canadians have built their own culture within the Canadianmosaic. Churches have been forums for religious, musical, and sociallife. The community and its organizations have further extended thesocial fabric, as African Canadians have worked together and alsobuilt bridges to other individuals and groups. The arts and communitycelebrations have sustained people and provided powerful means ofexpression.
The church has long been the centre of community life. Camaraderieand communal worship made the journey across the rivers that littlebit less forbidding. Members could visit the church basement tosample and buy goods lovingly baked by the women of the community, orto listen attentively to a minister returning from a mission to raisefunds to repair the church roof. The churchyard became a livelysocial space for youth, perhaps watched anxiously by elders full ofproprietary concern for carefully tended flowers and shrubs. Thechoral renditions of Cornwallis Street Church have resounded loud andclear in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Ambitious projects, like the lecturesgiven by Father Francis in Sydney, Nova Scotia, during the 1940s,helped to keep the community afloat on troubled waters.
The women of the Eureka Friendly Club used to meet every otherThursday afternoon in Toronto, while their husbands were away,working on the railways. They would share a meal and after dessertwould turn on the gramophone and comfort each other by listening tomusic - maybe "Some of These Days," written by the African CanadianShelton Brooks. In the process, they forged a solidarity that was tolast a lifetime.
Over the course of the twentieth century, jazz has been regarded asperhaps the ultimate musical art form. The rhythm, power, and freeform of this African-inspired idiom have inspired many great artistsand given joy and solace to millions. Many people regard it as apurely American development. One wonders, though, what Grace Trotman,one of Oscar Peterson's music teachers, would have thought of thathypothesis! Even though Myron Sutton had been strongly influenced byU.S. jazz, he was denied entry into that country in the 1930s when hesought to work there as a professional musician. Instead, he stayedwith his group the Canadian Ambassadors here in Canada and perfectedhis art in the club scene of Quebec and Ontario.
Montreal had a very lively jazz scene. The Rockhead Tavern was amajor meeting place for jazz fans, though white and AfricanCanadianconnoisseurs usually sat apart from each other. During the 1950s,clubs that featured jazz artists were among the first to be closed bythe Drapeau "clean-up" campaign. Toronto benefited: Montrealmusicians went there seeking work and joined an ever-increasingpopulation of African descent.
The yearly Caribana parade in Toronto celebratesAfrican-influenced music, dance, clothing, and design. It has deeproots: it is a successor to the Big Picnic that took place annuallyin Port Dalhousie, Ontario, for over fifty years, until the late1940s. During the 1960s and 1970s, students of African descent at theUniversity of Toronto held their month's-end rent parties, just as anearlier generation, during the Depression of the 1930s, held rentparties in church basements in Toronto: at First Baptist, onUniversity Avenue, and at the British Methodist Episcopal (BME), onChestnut Street.
African Canadians have available today a widerange of cultural opportunities, which were preserved, enhanced, orcreated by their predecessors on earlier crossings. It is possible tolisten to music with African antecedents on the airwaves; few suchprograms existed in Canada before the Second World War. Posters,advertisements, and media coverage announce coming African-Canadiancultural events, which feature talent and material stronglyinfluenced by African culture. Perhaps the repertoire of thepioneering Canadian Jubilee Singers of a century ago paved the wayfor the decibels of contemporary African Canadian artist, LibertySilver! Each African Canadian has been able to draw sustenance andjoy from a culture created over the millennia in Africa. Eachgeneration has added to this precious cargo, which becomes richerwith each river crossed - a living testament to the enduring strengthof African Canadians and their culture.