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Right to party: 20 years of Black Queer love and resilience

Blockorama celebrated its 19th year this Pride; a hard won right to celebrate. (GerardRichardson.com)

Right to party: 20 years of Black Queer love and resilience

This past Sunday, Blackness Yes celebrated 19 years of Blockorama. “Blocko,” as it is more popularly known, is an event that brings thousands together every year to celebrate Black queer pride.

Though Blocko has grown to become a protected and joyful space, it has been hard won by community activists who had to continuously battle the corporate mission of the Pride committee in order to maintain its stature, physical space and funding.

One of the lesser known demands of Black Lives Matter (BLM-TO) when they stopped the Toronto Pride parade last year was to increase funding and space for Blocko. Black queers and Black people in general have been emboldened by the work of BLM-TO to confront anti-Black racism and violence from police in our communities and in the white queer community. The right to celebrate within a safe space is part of this.

As a Black queer feminist and gender studies scholar, and the former executive director of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, I have both lived and studied feminist and queer movements. I have written extensively on Blockorama in the book We Still Demand as a way to examine Black queer diasporic space, identity, joy and political resistance.

You gotta fight for your right to party

Blockorama has become the place at Pride where you go to eat Caribbean food, to listen and dance to soca, reggae, house, rap and R&B. It is the space where drag queens such as the legendary Michelle Ross delights the crowd with her shimmering and exquisite performances. It is in the space where vogue dancers, spoken word artists, drummers, soca, reggae, DJs like Nik Redd, Black Kat, and DJ Shani create fire.

DJ Nik Redd. (Vinita Srivastava)

Blockorama allows Black diasporic queers, trans and their families to celebrate their love and desire in a space where blackness emanates joy and pleasure through movement, music, art and performance.

This space, forged from desire and passion, is also a political space. Sylvia Wynter reminds us that producing and performing culture is a form of resistance.

Blockorama was started by Black queer activists: Jamea Zuberi, Angela Robertson, Camille Orridge, Junior David Harrison and Douglas Stewart. These individuals were queer activists and feminists and were active in the women’s, anti-racism and wider LGBT movements in Toronto. They were part of a community who had marched against racist police violence, fought racism in the women’s movement and challenged sexism and homophobia in the Black community.

Zuberi, who spearheaded the birth of Blocko, felt that the Pride parade bore a resemblance to Trinidad and Tobago Carnival with its vibrant colours and colourful costumes but it lacked the presence of people of colour. She and her community pitched the idea to Pride Committee in order to get access to funding and Blockorama was born.

As Black diasporic queers, we have always occupied multiple spaces but have often experienced these spaces as restricting, invisibilizing and undermining of our Blackness and queerness.

The Blockorama space was a way to reinsert Black diasporic queerness into Toronto Pride. The history writers of Pride often forget to acknowledge the work of Black queers in the foundation years.

The “Blackness” that defines Blockorama encompasses the Caribbean, Africa and North America. The Blocko space allows room for those whose “Blackness” include Afro-hyphenated, Creole, mixed, or other designations, sexualities already given names, and those unnamed.

Corporate missions take over

When Blockorama began in 1998, it was situated in the parking lot in front of Toronto’s Wellesley subway station. For many Black queers going to Pride that year, the space represented a shift in belonging: knowing there was a space where Blackness and queerness would be embraced. However, between 2007-2010, the Blockorama event was moved to less suitable locations, farther away from the Pride festivities, to make room for corporate sponsored events.

Blockorama has been hard won by activists who had to battle the corporate mission of the Pride committee. (Vinita Srivastava)

Blackness Yes, the organizing committee of Blocko, and many of its allies — myself included — viewed these displacements as a cleansing of the gay village space so as to reflect a predominant white corporate version of pride.

Canadian scholar Katherine McKittrick writes about Canada’s long history of concealing and erasing Blackness from the landscape as a way to preserve the image of Canada as a “white” nation. This practice was at work in the series of removals and displacement of the yearly Blockorama stage.

The racism and homonormativity that informs white queerness in North America was exposed last year after Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLM-TO) brought the Pride parade to a halt for 30 minutes until the Executive Director of Pride agreed to sign onto several demands made by BLM-TO.

The most publicized demand — to remove Toronto Police from floats — has been eloquently discussed in the Conversation this week by my colleague, Rinaldo Walcott.

One of the less known demands was to double the funding for Blockorama and other marginalized queer community events within pride.

The backlash, particularly from white queers in Toronto was swift and furious. Many of the attacks of BLM-TO came through social media like Facebook and Twitter. These social media critics accused BLM-TO of attempting to hold Toronto Pride hostage to a political agenda, as if Pride was not founded on politics. Many critics argued BLM-TO had no right to stop the parade because they were an invited group. The assumption here, of course, was that BLM-TO members were not queer and did not inherently belong to Pride.

Take it Black: Blockorama 19

The Blockorama event has grown tremendously over the past 19 years and throughout those years, Blackness Yes continued to host several events that traced Black diasporic queer and trans histories that affirmed and celebrated our visibility and activism.

There was a heightened sense of exhilaration and joy at this year’s event. It was truly a celebration to mark the fierceness and boldness of Black queers and trans in pride.

While Black queers and Black people in general have experienced the increasing sting of anti-Blackness over the last year, we have been fortified by the work of BLM-TO to confront anti-Black racism and violence.

Blocko’s theme this year was “Take it Black” — a statement that asks us to remember the struggles it took to get here but it is also a declaration of Black queer fearlessness, resilience, desire and power.