Decolonized voices: celebrating Canadian Black HERstories

Contributions through academic and artistic performance are celebrated at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology with the Black Canadian Women, a series with poetry, discussion and music for Black History Month (Feb. 6).

“If they are reaching out to shift this paradigm of race and culture in this city, I’d love to be part of that support,” says Nanyamka Lewis, founder and director of BlackArt Gastown, talking about her involvement as co-curator of the event, Decolonizing Voices: A Celebration of Canadian Black HerStory.

Black HerStories

Strong Black women have a long history here in Vancouver. In 1972, feminist and community leader Rosemary Brown was elected into British Columbia’s provincial legislature, becoming the first African-Canadian woman to ever be a part of a parliamentary body in Canada. In 1975, she ran for the NDP leadership race getting all the way to the 4th ballot but lost to Ed Broadbent.

A historical image of Bertha Clark’s relatives. | Photo courtesy of SaltSpring Archives

Further back in 1858, before Confederation, one of the first Black American families to reach the shores of the West Coast were the Starks. Sylvia Stark, a true pioneer, lived on Salt Spring Island before most people inhabited the island community. Later, she became a living legend at 106 years old; many people would often gather to hear her tell stories of her childhood and her journey across the United States to Salt Spring Island.

“It is traditional in the African diaspora to start any ceremony or event with an acknowledgment of those that came before us,” says Lewis, co-curator of the event.

When Lewis was approached to be part of this celebration of black culture and black people, it was an obvious fit. BlackArt Gastown was one of her first major community acts initiated back in 2017.

“It came out of desperation to put Black Art and Culture at the forefront for the upcoming generations,” says Lewis.

Lewis, originally from Toronto, attributes her dedication to community involvement and advocacy to her Trinidadian parents.

“Both my parents’ careers involved acts of service. My father was director of Arts and Culture while my mother was a social worker,” says Lewis.

Evening’s event

The lineup for the evening features Adelene da Soul Poet (aka Bertha Clark), a celebrated local spoken word poet and activist. Her rhythmic words shine a light on the rich history of herself and the Black community of Vancouver in Hogan’s Alley, one of her famous spoken word anthologies.

“My writing reflects the wisdom, humour, positive spirit and the strong will of my mother. As an adult, when I write, I feel a deep spiritual connection coming from a source before my time. I feel the spirit and soul of the people. I write under the name of Adelene in honor of my mother,” says Clark.

Clark hopes the audience will glean an uplifting message from the poetry as she narrates through spoken word on her family’s history. Reflecting back on past family reunions, she recalls how it was always such a joy-filled event.

“There was always laughter. These are the memories I have from my childhood,” says Clark.

Following Adelene da Soul Poet, Chantal Gibson, an artist, award-winning educator and poet, will read from her poetry book, How She Read. This will pre-empt a book signing of this most recent publication.

“The book is a celebration of Black womanhood; it explores our representation across the Canadian cultural imagination. It is the book I wish I had in school,” says Gibson.

To complete the evening, multidisciplinary artist, musician and arts facilitator Tonye Aganaba will perform at Haida House. Aganaba’s debut performance at MOA draws from their new album, Something Comfortable, noted as one of the best R&B recordings to come out of Vancouver.

“Decolonizing Voices is the concept of being in control of our own narrative, which is nothing new. There is such a thing as the Black Canadian experience,” says Lewis.

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