Tapestry

"I'm not a black activist": one man's effort to move beyond race

Since he was a teenager, Antonius Clarke has tackled poverty, lack of education, and violence in his Toronto neighbourhood of Jane and Finch. He has spent his life being labelled as black. But in his life and work, Antonius is trying to throw out the question or race and start a new conversation.
Antonius Clarke at the offices of Friends in Toronto.
Listen25:42

Antonius Clarke is a young community organizer in north Toronto. When he was a teenager, he started the organization Friends in Trouble, which later became Friends in Toronto. He has worked to combat poverty, lack of education, and violence in his neighbourhood of Jane and Finch.

The phrase 'black activist' would seem accurate - and innocuous enough. But Antonius Clark wants no part of it.

"I'm not a black activist."

Clarke has spent his whole life being labelled as 'black'. Sometimes it comes in the form of ugly racist encounters. Often, it comes in subtler forms of pigeonholing.

"There's times when well-meaning people have asked for me to emphasize being black when it fits their agenda. It could have been a research paper they're working on or could have conveniently been Black History Month. That's when I'm approached in that manner." 

As Clarke is quick to point out:

"I don't think when I was born that I remember saying I'm a black baby. I was not ever cognizant of that… I think we all have human rights and we share this planet together. Now when you go around blacking and whiting, it's making the thing muddy."

Whenever he is racialized by someone, Clarke redirects the conversation and emphasizes his identity as a human being, first and foremost.

"I'm a person. I'm a happy person. I'm a humble person. And sometimes I'm a frustrated person."

Clarke's philosophy permeates the work he does with his organization, Friends in Toronto. Their focus is collaborative and emphasizes our shared humanity - people helping people.

Though the police have been criticized for using excessive and sometimes lethal force in marginalized communities, and for practices like racial profiling and carding, Clarke includes them in his work.

His current vision for tackling issues of poverty and violence is to create an Inner City Union:

"We would find community champions, local champions, who would be nominated as ambassadors who could be a consulting body for the Toronto Police Services, the City of Toronto, Toronto Community Housing, and any other stakeholders who want to consult community residents."

Clarke says the challenge is to find a way to see people and address social problems, without reinforcing the idea of race.

"I think the question is: how do you clean up the garbage without adding to it?  And that's very very critical. I mean, when you have these kind of discussions, your words are always going to be criticized or misinterpreted by people. So potentially I'm taking the risk of adding to the garbage by just acknowledging the question about my blackness. I am adding to that narrative and I feel very guilty about that. It's hard to clean up the garbage about these these ideologies without adding to it. That's very hard."