Historian Cheryl Foggo brings the stories of important African-Canadians to life with her books, films and plays
How much do Canadians know about our country’s black history? How many people would admit to knowing little about Viola Desmond before the campaign to choose a woman to appear on the new banknote? Most of us might say our knowledge stops at the Underground Railroad or Nova Scotia’s Black Loyalists. But this country is rich with stories of African-Canadian experiences on the east coast, west coast and everywhere between. While classrooms play catch-up in diversifying history curriculums, learning the names and stories of African-Canadian men and women is a conscious effort that should no longer be set aside.
Cheryl Foggo is a playwright, historian and author who’s committed to making the names and tales of African-Canadian settlers known. Based in Calgary, Foggo actively combs archives and documents recounting the lives of Alberta’s black settlers. One of her projects is a documentary film about the legendary black cowboy John Ware, who was considered a hero in Alberta’s ranching frontier.
We spoke with Foggo about her latest projects, Alberta’s lesser-known African-Canadians and why celebrating Canada’s black history is important not just in February, but year-round.
When did you first become interested in Canada’s black history?
From a young age I was interested in the stories I heard my mother’s family tell when we visited my grandparent’s home in Winnipeg. Although I wouldn’t have defined it as history at that time—it was just my Mom and her siblings and their parents talking about their lives—I found these stories interesting. As I got older, I gradually became aware of a disconnect between the history I was learning in school and what I was hearing from my family. I began to wonder why our stories were absent from the historical record.
Why do you think Canadians don’t know much about our country’s black history?
I think it’s up to Canadians to ask ourselves this question. Even what Canadians do know about the Black Loyalists and the Underground Railroad is limited to a “happy ending” narrative and skewed away from the realities of the struggles black Canadians faced historically.
Western Canada’s black history isn’t widely known or taught. Share the story of one lesser-known African-Canadian and her contribution?
It’s tough to choose, but I’ll pick a woman from Alberta. Violet King, the first black female lawyer in Canada. She was a trailblazer throughout her life and an accomplished classical pianist. She was also the only woman in her graduating class from the faculty of law at the University of Alberta in 1953, the same class as former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed.
King went on to work for Citizenship and Immigration Canada before becoming the first woman named to a senior management position with the American National YMCA. She also happened to be among the best friends of my mother, Pauline, and her twin sister, Pearl, and a bridesmaid for both.
In your opinion why is knowing more about Canada’s diverse history so important?
A history that is incomplete is damaging. A history that is purposely incomplete is sinister. How can Canadians move into a sustainable future if we can’t acknowledge our past? And how can we acknowledge and reckon with our past if our canonical history is missing pages?
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a documentary film about the legendary black cowboy John Ware and a collection of articles and essays that will anthologize my writings about Alberta’s black history.
Can you recommend some resources for Canadians who want to learn more about Canada’s black history?
There are many ways to gain more knowledge about this subject. Here are a few places to start:
> The Black Lives Canada Syllabus
Featuring Emma Stone, Amy Adams, Meryl Streep and more!
Pair red carpet veterans such as Amy Adams and Emma Stone with fashion’s newest “it girl", Ruth Negga, and you’ve got yourself a highly entertaining awards season. It all culminates with Hollywood’s biggest night, the Academy Awards, and we’re on pins and needles to see which fabulous gown the Oscar-nominated actresses will wear. Here are some recent runway looks that we would love to see have their own red carpet moment.
Although Adams isn’t nominated for her role in the sci-fi box office smash, Arrival, the movie itself earned eight nominations, including best picture.
Adams almost always strikes all the right notes on the red carpet while favouring Veronica Lake waves and body-conscious gowns in a jewel tone hues.
We think the 42-year-old will go for something a little more subdued because of the lack of a nomination. We’re banking on a black staples column gown, similar to this Armani Privé beauty from the spring/summer collection.
We’re keeping a close eye on the Ethiopian-Irish actress who's been nominated for her portrayal of Mildred Loving in Loving. Negga wowed us all at this year’s Golden Globes when she showed up in a fitted silver sequined Louis Vuitton gown, complete with a gold centre zipper.
Although we haven’t seen a lot of her at big fashion events, from the looks of things she’s a risk taker and she adores a good embellishment such as lace, beading or sequins. We’re thinking she’ll show up in something covered in lace with glittering embellishments, like this gown from Givenchy pre-fall 2017.
Nominated for best leading role in LaLa Land, Stone is the favourite to take home the little gold man, along with slaying it on the red carpet.
Not only does she always nail it on the big screen, but her gown and hair and makeup selections are always top notch. But the best thing about Stone’s red carpet style is she’s never boring, always shaking up her gown and designer selections. This award season alone we’ve seen her in Chanel, Valentino and Alexander McQueen. We’re feeling a floral vibe with a wee bit of colour and tons of tulle, like this Zuhair Murad gown.
This year Streep became the actor with the most Academy Award nominations ever—her nom for Florence Foster Jenkins bumps it up to 20! Meaning, she broke her own record.
Though Streep is much more known for her acting chops than her red carpet moments, she’s always true to her own esthetic. She's been spotted wearing Givenchy at the last few red carpet events, but we think she’ll try something else, something dramatic and simple, like this cape-back silky gown from Valentino.
From architectural masterpieces to classic old Hollywood glamour, the Academy Award winner and nominated (this year for Jackie) star has had some stand-out red carpet moments.
At the Golden Globes this year the expectant mom breezed onto the red carpet in a vintage-esque sunny Prada gown. Portman channelled Kennedy Onassis with a modern take on the former first lady’s iconic bouffant, classic makeup and wore a dress similar to a yellow frock that she once wore to the Metropolitan Opera House in 1975.
Although she’ll likely be wearing a custom gown because of how far along she is in her pregnancy, we think it will be less saturated and more glittery, something with an empire waist and a centred slit, like this sequinned-embellished georgette Zuhair Murad gown.
Williams, who is nominated for best-supporting actress for her role in Manchester by the Sea has been owning the red carpet all season long. She’s the current celeb spokesperson for Louis Vuitton so we know she’ll likely be clad in one of the French fashion houses gowns.
Photo courtesy of Davina Choy Image by: Photo courtesy of Davina Choy
In honour of Black History Month, we spoke with Governor General's Award-winning historian and author Karolyn Smardz Frost about fugitive slave Cecelia Reynolds, and her journey to Canada through the Underground Railroad.
Canadian Living: Your book, Steal Away Home: One Woman's Epic Flight to Freedom — and Her Long Road Back to the South, opens at an excavation site in Toronto in 1985, which was the home of 15-year-old Cecelia, a former slave. How important was Toronto — and to a larger degree Ontario and Canada — during this time?
Karolyn Smardz Frost: The largest fugitive slave settlements are in what is now called Ontario. There was a very active community here — more people came and went in Toronto that records won't show. They were active in trying to end slavery and helping people get to Canada and then help them once they came. The community really stepped up.
I had a friend send me a photograph during the excavation process. I could see the foundation which was a whole city block [behind Toronto's City Hall] and knowing the history and heritage of that spot, I said, "that is the most important multicultural site to dig in Toronto!"
CL: When did you know that you wanted to tell the story of Cecelia's life?
KSF: I knew right away. I [came across] these five "friendly" letters…the only documents between a fugitive slave and her former mistress that spanned several years. And clearly Cecelia was writing to Fanny and she was answering. I believe this correspondence continued for 20 years. Fanny's son says there were more letters after his mother died but he didn't get them.
CL: Was Cecelia able to read and write?
KSF: She could read before she left Kentucky — it was one of the few places where it wasn't illegal to teach a slave to read and write. People often taught their slaves to read but not to write. Cecelia learned how to write in Toronto at night classes in the church basement, and there were eventually night-school classes through the Toronto School board.
CL: What did the two women talk about in their letters?
KSF: There was lots of family news because Fanny's father purchased Cecelia's mother.
CL: This is a complex relationship. What have you learned about them?
KSF: Fanny, the mistress and woman who became Cecelia's owner, was four-and-a-half years older than Cecelia and they had grown up together in the house since she was a baby. But it's certainly not an equal relationship.
CL: Was the purpose of the letters and correspondence to get her family back (which didn't happen) or did she want to keep in touch?
KSF: Ceceilia wanted to buy back her mother. Underneath all the affection and religious tone of the letters was the message that we're not selling your mom to you until we get the money. That is all the way through. No matter how affectionate those letters are, the cold hand of slavery is underneath all of it.
CL: What were Fanny's feelings towards slavery?
KSF: A letter around 1855 (six years before the civil war), Fanny wrote to Ceceilia, telling her that she thought slavery was a sin against God and that this evil in society can't continue. She also told her that if she came back to Kentucky, she would never enslave her again and understands why she needs to be free. Fanny kept a scrapbook with clippings of speeches by abolitionists in the Boston papers. She was a gently bred southern belle (she comes from two of the most important families in the southern United States — her mother's family are the Churchills from Churchill Downs, the site of the Kentucky Derby, and her other half is William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition) but she also had a spine of steel. She married the man she wanted (who developed a drinking habit), and she managed money.
CL: Why has researching and writing about Canada's Underground Railroad been such important work for you?
KSF: I started out as an archaeologist, and I wanted to make it socially relevant. My father was a Polish National Holocaust survivor who escaped a concentration camp, my mother taught special education at an inner-city school in Toronto, and my grandmother was one of the people in Toronto who objected to the internment of the Japanese in WW2. So, I grew up in a household where social justice was just what you did. I wanted to bring meaning to history. When I first found the Blackburn site in 1985, that changed my life, and I wrote my previous book about that.
CL: How is writing a book as a historian different?
KSF: Historical nonfiction is a difficult genre to write because you're telling a story but you must be sure that every bit of that story is as true as you can make it. So, you're constrained in a way that other writers are not. It takes a long time to write like this.
CL: It's Black History Month, why do you think this story is so relevant?
KSF: At a time when people are thinking more about African-Canadian history than they might at other times, it brings it to public attention. There's an argument that we should certainly be doing this all year long and not just during this month. Cecelia's story is phenomenal — she chose freedom over slavery, and risked everything to achieve it at the age of 15. And, she organized this with help of Underground Railroad operators in advance of leaving for Niagara when there was no Internet, just letters and word of mouth. To go to another country knowing no one — I think that's remarkable.
CL: What lessons can we learn today from this history?
KSF: Resistance. Stand up and be counted. Choose freedom. I think of Cecelia as a woman who valued freedom above all else. She always chose freedom.