THE index of The Illustrated History of Canada (2002 edition), touted as the first comprehensive, authoritative one-volume history of our nation, contains virtually no references to African-Canadian history. The remarkable Harriet Tubman, who was born in captivity in the United States, escaped to Canada, and from her base in St. Catherine's, Ontario, made at least nineteen dangerous journeys south of the border to help free hundreds of slaves, doesn't merit a mention. Not even a phenomenon as profound in its implications as the Underground Railroad finds a place beside Louis Riel, Mackenzie King, the exploits of French trappers, or the October Crisis.
What these astounding omissions amount to is the veritable invisibility of an entire culture, an example of what poet Dionne Brand has called an absent presence.
The sporting world, however, is one realm where African Canadiansâe"specifically black menâe"do have a modicum of visibility. In Who da Man? Black Masculinities and Sporting Cultures, York University professor Gamal Abdel-Shehid explores athletics as metaphor for Canadian society; both, he writes, are haunted by the reality and complexity of social difference, both demand a high level of conformity.
Abdel-Shehid has poured through thousands of sports-column inches and trundled out an entire range of weapons from postmodernism's somewhat tedious armory to piece together a thorough study, one that argues that the visibility afforded black male athletes is contingent on their living up to some very rigid definitions of what a successful black man should be. To win favour, a black sporting hero needs to be macho (consider the virtual impossibility of a successful black male athlete being openly gay), unquestioningly respectful of authority (i.e. of his usually white coach), and fully committed to commercial success (ready to sign as many endorsements as possible).
Often black sporting heroes have represented the wishes of entire populations who have been marginalized both politically and economically, writes Abdel Shehid, and so these guidelines ripple out into the wider culture, leaving empty spaces where icons should exist for, say, readers or mathematicians or aspiring astronomers. It would seem the role models for an entire culture are tied up into non-threatening packages to be sampled by middle-class Canadians during weekend outings to the local stadium.
Dipping into the archives, Abdel-Shehid sheds light on what happens when a black athlete fails to appropriately grace his spotlight. In the summer of 1988, when sprinter Ben Johnson ran 100 metres in a record-breaking 9.79 seconds at the Summer Olympics in Seoul, he was the most successful track athlete in Canadian history. Then came his precipitous fall.
Two days after he crossed the finish line in front of 70,000 fans, the performance-enhancing drug stanozolol was found in his urine. What was telling in the aftermath was not that Johnson was punishedâe"he was rightly stripped of his medal and his name was crossed out of the record booksâe"but rather the attempt made in Canadian newspapers and on television to disassociate him from the national narrative, to push him outside the country's borders completely. A tongue-in-cheek cartoon in the Globe and Mail captured the process perfectly with three succinct captions: Canadian wins gold medal, Jamaican-Canadian Accused of Steroid Use, and finally, Jamaican Stripped of Gold Medal.
Equally telling are the experiences of sprinter Donovan Bailey, haunted by Johnson's legacy. Among the many newspaper snippets Abdel Shehid has dug up, this, from The Toronto Sun: Bailey, like the disgraced Johnson, was born in Jamaica. Like Johnson, he is big strong, and muscular. But in contrast to the sullen Johnson, Bailey is personable.
What Bailey was fighting against was not just Johnson's stain, argues Abdel-Shehid, but also a long-standing conception faced by black people everywhere, a conception best described by the anti-colonial writer Franz Fanon, that the Negro has one function: that of symbolizing the lower emotions, the baser inclinations, the dark side of the soul.
While some of the academic tools usedâe"Marxist dialectics, colonial studies, queer theory, among othersâe"often smack of the very same rigid definition and preconception he is criticizing (as in subject headings like, Quarterbacking: A Racist Metaphor for Imperialism), the exploration of what makes a black male athlete acceptable resonates far beyond the boundaries of sport. The book is an inversion of Fanon's dark words, a re-articulation of an uncomfortably relevant question: Does Canada's reluctance to fully engage with its black culture point toward a national soul not as unblemished and free of racism as we're often led to believe, not as innocent as a bouncing basketball or a javelin's clean arc?âe"Yohannes Edemariam
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