Black History Month has come and gone once again. Such an important time especially in this political climate, yet talked about very little. It’s incredible the transformation that this commemoration has gone through. From being a week long event to remember slavery in the early 1900s to being a month long celebration, it reminds us how important it is to look back. Maybe we went to a gallery opening or an event; maybe we liked a post on Instagram acknowledging the celebration; maybe we even saw Black Panther on opening weekend. While all these methods of remembrance and celebration are valid and embraced, most of us let this month pass without learning anything new. We come out with the same amount of knowledge as we did going in, and have no deeper understanding of the culture’s impact on our society. We wish to change that by showing you the tip of the iceberg of how black culture has affected food, language, art, and what it still has to offer.
At the very top of that iceberg we see what put black culture on the map: the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ movement that spanned from the late 19th to early 20th century.
When someone thinks of art movements, The Renaissance is one of the first that comes to mind. The term Renaissance, it’s loaded and scary. There are hundreds of Italian names that all end in i or o, all the dates are within a nearly twenty year span, and everyone is naked. Artists were valued and the governments invested a lot of money into them, sounds pretty great… But what about the Renaissance In Harlem, New York?
In Harlem, black Americans moved north because of higher wages. Higher wages meant more funds to explore their artistic and intellectual ideals. Ideas that were initially rejected and then altered to be more digestible to the masses.
The motivation for the Italian Renaissance was less about the innate need to create and more about the rebirth of classically beautiful and ideal works of art. Arguably, this couldn’t have been done without the help of government funding. On the other hand, the Harlem Renaissance was basically the opposite. In terms of wages, there was no support for the creation of their art, let alone on the level that the Italian greats had. Despite these hardships, black America during the Harlem Renaissance was more free to share, think, and create. While the effects of slavery and Jim Crow laws were still very real, great art came out of the discomfort.
In fact discomfort is probably the wrong word, because it was a much deeper pain. One that needed an identity. Art was one way of expressing this identity, food was another.
The origins of African American food dates way back to the Spanish Exploration of America. What isn’t often said about the Spanish expeditions is that they brought everything from slaves to maize (corn), beans, chilies, and squash. All of these things were seen as commodities. It’s super difficult to find any positives about this but, these expeditions and the slave trade contributed way more than people think to the North American diet.
From jerk to patties to roti and oxtail, there’s something for everyone. In terms of food choices, Toronto is one of the most diverse cities on the continent. With all that being said, there’s always the question of when does exploration and appreciation become appropriation? Does it ever?
Colonization is no longer the sole reason for cultural adaptation and appropriation. Migrants bring with them their traditions, customs, and food…most of the time, by choice. Some open restaurants and businesses are dedicated entirely to their culture. Appropriation is generally defined as the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission. Basically, customs stolen by the colonizer are moulded to fit their concept of civilization without recognition of their origins.
For example, Janet Zuccarini, a restaurateur made the statement that she “always thought we needed an amazing Jamaican restaurant in Toronto”. Her comment was in reference to the décor “not [matching] the food”.
What she said is a perfect example of exploration and appreciation becoming appropriation. Many perceived her comments as insulting because she’s not from the Caribbean but felt it was a required improvement, despite the numerous successful Caribbean restaurants in the city. Unfortunately, she isn’t the first and probably not the last.
There is an upside to this though. Food, like language, isn’t limited to one particular demographic. It adapts and evolves in a similar way speech does. It connects people, why not share with everyone?
Food is often coupled to specific ethnicities but language is a little more tricky. It is something we take for granted all the time, using it for memes or because it sounds cool, and hearing it in our favourite rap songs. You’re probably thinking – “Oh, you’re talking about swearing or being edgy.” Nope, nice try. I was talking about the way black people talk, or more formally, ‘African American Vernacular English’. This version of the English language was a way for slaves to differentiate themselves from their owners, specifically so that the owners wouldn’t understand. Because of this, every part of the U.S. and Canada has its own AAVE which has been slowly seeping its way into popular culture. That’s the jist of it at least. But why should you care?
Because you use AAVE, no matter who you are. “Yaaaas,” “Yo,” “Fam,” “Bae,” and “Ratchet” to just name a few… and yes, everyone uses these words. The point is to remember where these words come from. The problem with these words being used in pop culture is that the origins are lost completely. People think it’s just slang or invented by memes, use the words, and then when they hear them being used by a black person, they think it’s “ghetto” or uneducated language. It is actually the exact same language from which media borrows some of the most famous and popular words and phrases. It can be compared to different dialects of English, like Australian or Irish, but instead the use of AAVE is often considered inferior.
That said, it makes sense why these terms are used. Take, for example, the word ‘woke,’ often used to describe being socially aware. It’s much shorter to say, you’re using an expression that is current and part of a trend, and your friends might be saying it. No negatives that I can think of… In fact, someone would be very inclined to use that word.
Let’s bring it back to Toronto though. Because of Drake’s god-like status, there has been an explosion of native Torontonian AAVE. All of his albums, more notably More Life and Views, have had Toronto AAVE incorporated into it. Recently there have also been comedians like Jae and Trey Richards on Youtube making popular videos about Toronto and its slang, or even @torontoguycody on Instagram that replaces lyrics from famous songs with Toronto slang.
From all this recent attention, Toronto has gotten a name for itself having a very intricate AAVE based language. You would probably need a class to learn it. Jamaican roots combined with influence from Scarborough and the east end created the rich AAVE that is now known and loved by all of the 6ix.
So let’s recap. Remembering the extreme conditions and challenges that African-American society has gone through and learning from our mistakes is something our society has yet to fully grasp. This article is only the starting point. Hopefully this information acts as a catalyst for more exploration and can be integrated into pop culture, into what we consider cool, and into everyday life — especially for us Torontonians.
Article written by Tommaso Budani, Summer Hyatt, and Sydney Gittens.
For a more personal take on Black History Month, we had the chance to interview black individuals from OCAD and share with you their rich experiences and opinions. Check them out here: