At the start of this year my friend and fellow blogger Edith Campbell told me about a CFP she saw on Twitter from Media Diversified, a site dedicated to writers of color. I’d been wanting to write something about Orville Douglas, the Black Canadian man who wrote an op-ed in The Guardian last fall to tell the world how much he hates being a Black man. I wrote a short essay and submitted it to the editor; she asked me to extend it but I had to switch gears and work on my Canada Seminar essay. In the end, the shorter piece became the foundation for my talk at Harvard and the editor allowed me to write a two-part essay for Media Diversified. Part 1 of “When You’re Strange” is up now. Here’s a taste:
Of course, I never truly left Toronto behind. Most of my family members still reside there and so I return once or twice a year. Last semester I was displeased but not surprised when a student raised her hand at the end of class and asked how I felt about my hometown’s crack-smoking mayor. Rob Ford is ridiculous enough to be quickly dismissed, but another controversy emerged from Toronto last fall that was deeply disturbing and much harder to ignore. When I first read Orville Douglas’ controversialonline op-ed, “Why I hate being a Black man” in The Guardian last November, I was immediately embarrassed and enraged. “Of course, he’s from Toronto,” I fumed. “Only Toronto could produce a freak like that.”
I immediately shared the article on Facebook; two Black Canadian women responded and agreed that Douglas was an anomaly who in no way represented Black male Torontonians. A few days later I shared the article with my community college students; we had spent the semester dissecting the stereotypes that surround Black men, and my working-class students of color were amazed that any Black man in 2013 would see his race as “a prison” and publicly ask, “Who would want to have this dark skin, broad nose, large thick lips, and wake up in the morning being despised by the rest of the world?” I asked my Black male students to describe the ways they practice self-love. They struggled with that question but had no problem listing the ways they showed love for other Black men. We concluded that Douglas’ “condition” likely stemmed not only from a lack of self-love, but a lack of community.
Orville Douglas’ public admission of self-loathing earned him a great deal of international attention—a mixture of condemnation and pity. When a friend directed me to his earlier articles inNOW Magazine, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Douglas had once hoped to migrate to the U.S. declaring, “America is a land of opportunity, while Canada is a nobody’s land.” It seemed logical to me that a Black man who felt unwanted, invisible, and unloved in Canada would believe he could build a better life in the U.S. since that’s exactly how I felt back in 1994. Despite (or perhaps because of) my initial reaction to Douglas’ op-ed, I’ve since had to consider the possibility that this troubled Black Canadian man isn’t “a freak like that” but rather “a freak like me.”
Part 2 will be published on Friday and the site always has thought-provoking pieces, so check them out!