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Fight or Flight? Jan Wong meets two black Torontonians with different solutions to troubles in their communities

New books by two black Torontonians propose radically different solutions to troubles in their communities

(Image: Taylor Callery)

It’s a gorgeous summer day in 2003. Imagine you’re 21 and with your extended family and a few friends at a backyard barbecue in Rexdale. Suddenly you hear shots being fired. Your neighbourhood is locked down, everyone is sent inside, and an emergency task force surrounds your home. Guys in flak jackets barge in and make your entire family—including your sister, who was mid-shower, your mom and your four-year-old nephew—walk out of the house with their hands in the air. They fling you and a friend against a neighbour’s door and demand to know what gang you belong to. The whole neighbourhood watches as you’re escorted to the police cruiser. You’re in handcuffs and feel mortified.

The police are looking for two young black men. You’re a young black man, and so is your friend. You sit in the back of the cruiser, trying not to look guilty, or scared, or drug dealer–like, for about an hour, though it feels much longer. The police run your ID through the dashboard computer, and someone curses and mutters something about the wrong address. Then a cop unlocks your handcuffs, saying, “It’s your lucky day, buddy.”

If that’s a lucky day, why stick around for an unlucky day? I certainly wouldn’t, and Joel Powell didn’t. All of that happened to him. Sitting in the back of the police car, he resolved that when he was old enough, and when he had enough money, he’d get the hell out of the neighbourhood. “I figured eventually somebody would kill me. You know, a case of mistaken identity,” he says. “I spent 26 years of my life living in the ghetto. I’ve been robbed twice. I’ve been falsely accused and harassed by the police. I had to get out of there.”

I’m grateful that my own grandparents fled the Chinatown ghetto more than a century ago. But to leave is to assimilate. Inevitably, no matter how much you think you can hang on to your roots, assimilation means you leave behind your culture and your community. To many, the word “assimilation” is a pejorative. I understand the angst. If too many people flee, your community withers away. But personally, I think assimilation equals opportunity.

Today Powell is a 28-year-old DJ, recording artist and owner of his own entertainment company. He remembers that summer day as a turning point. He spent the next five years saving up for a down payment on a house anywhere but the neighbourhood where he grew up. On his first day of house hunting, a real estate agent drove him and his wife, Natasha, all over Toronto. None of the properties they saw felt right. After many hours, the agent said, “I have one more house to show you before I go nuts.” By then it was dark. Powell, who is a slight man with a goatee and tiny braids pulled back in a ponytail, walked up to the front door of a three-bedroom, semi-detached brick house. “I feel the vibe. This is it,” he said, turning to Natasha. She said, “Can’t we look at the rest of the house?” They were in Caledon, of all places. They’d never heard of it; they only knew it was nothing like home. They bought the house.

Powell has just published Black Empowerment and Minority Issues, one of two new books about being black in Toronto. In it, he doesn’t mention the police raid or his move to horse country. Instead, he talks about the problems in the Jamaican-Canadian community: too much negativity, too much low self-esteem, too little education, too many single-parent households, too few male role models. His controversial opinion: the older generation doesn’t want the younger generation to surpass it. “There’s a nasty level of bitterness and anger deep within the black community,” says Powell, whose parents came here in 1976, his father from Jamaica, his mother from Trinidad. “There was no planning for education. All of a sudden, you wake up, you’re 18 and you have to do it yourself.”