I meant to write about this a month ago, but after the Toronto Raptors’ not-so-surprising Game 6 win against the Milwaukee Bucks to make it to the NBA Finals for the first time, it’s still relevant. Last month made 20 years since the last time I’ve been north of the border (but not in Alaska, as I was in 2001). Last month was also the 28th anniversary of me finishing my bachelor’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh, and the subsequent decision to spend my first post-baccalaureate summer in Pittsburgh working and securing funding for my first year of graduate school. April 20 also marked two decades since Columbine, something that was very much on my mind during that Toronto trip and presentation at OAH there in 1999.
I can say that there are only a handful of times in my life since the end of first grade and being sexually assaulted in the summer of ’76 that I have felt “free.” By that, I mean free from the toxicity that is the US, on race, on gender, on class, on religion, on family, on friendships, on breathing, on eating, on walking, on daydreaming, on talking, on being contemplative, on laughing, on merely being myself. Those five days in Toronto to present my research on multiculturalism, to meet up with a couple of friends, to hang out in different neighborhoods and catch their subway. That was one of those times. Maybe the six months my Mom and my deceased idiot ex-stepfather Maurice spent separated between October 2, 1980 and April 13, 1981 was one of those times. Certainly when I proposed to my wife and then moved to DC and Silver Spring later on in 1999 was another. And, how can I forget the sheer ecstasy of watching my son emerge from my wife’s womb in 2003 at Sibley Hospital?
But while all of those and more experiences brought happiness, even orgasmic joy, I’ve spent more than 40 years of nearly 50 looking over my shoulder. In the back of my mind, the idea that the other shoe’s going to drop is never that far away. Even with the lack of American toxicity during my times in Toronto, I knew that this cosmopolitan city had its own unique edge. This despite the poutine, maple syrup, and Molson’s.
Plus, even with going to vegan restaurants, confirming my 1994 research on public housing policies in Toronto, seeing the diversity and freedom of movement sans the gaze of American Whites, it was still a very White city. And that Canadian Whiteness left room for a different (or really, indifferent) kind of gaze. It meant dealing with questions about Columbine and gun violence as if I could explain the actions of narcissistic White males steeped in patriarchy and entitlement. It meant remembering in subtle ways that while Canadians I met were both far nicer and kinder than most Whites in the US, they were still White. And Whiteness, like Arya Stark’s many-faced god, takes numerous forms.
I was free in ways that I couldn’t have been in the States. I walked in White neighborhoods without police following me around. I noticed how most folks didn’t lock their doors at night. I sensed that no one looked over their shoulders for a mugger. Everything was written in metric-system English, which I was happy to use in real life for the first time. It was just different, as if White Canadians hadn’t spent four centuries sitting around and figuring out even more ways to grind down Black people. I sensed that this wasn’t the case with White Canadians and First Nation tribes, though.
I didn’t feel anywhere near this free when I graduated with Degree #1 in April 1991. The immediate need of reporting to my $5.20 per hour job at Western Psych, three weeks of starvation, and the miracle that Dr. Jack Daniel performed meant that I was pensive and then relieved by May 26. I knew more twists and turns awaited me.
I want to visit again, this time with my son, and hopefully before the Fall Semester begins. I want him to see Caribana there, to breathe freer air, and to get away from the Lower 48, if only for a few days. But that’s not all. I want him to go overseas, to visit South Africa, and Nigeria, and Tanzania, and Ghana, and Mali, to see himself in everyone around him.
As for the Raptors, congrats on drudging your way to the Finals! Your organization is finally free to play for an NBA title. With Kawhi Leonard, I wouldn’t bet against you. But I’m not exactly rooting for you, either. Know that win or lose, I love your city, and the questions about freedom that it generates for me.