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Black History Month: An Interview with Amanda Parris

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Amanda Parris was born in London, England and raised in Toronto, Ontario. She is the host of CBC television’s Exhibitionists, a 30-minute series that focuses on emerging and established Canadian artists. She is also an accomplished actor and playwright as well as an artist, educator, and scholar. Ms. Parris has been involved in many projects over the years, including educational work like her alternative education organization Lost Lyrics and artistic work such as The Ride or Die Project, which produces and shares creative work inspired by women who support loved ones who are incarcerated. Ms. Parris recently completed her M.A. in Sociology of Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Ms. Parris was kind enough to talk with me about Black History Month and the connections between her work, racial inclusion and human rights.

Amanda Parris is sitting on a stool in the centre of a white room with a concrete floor. Three walls are visible with four framed pictures hanging on them. Amanda is smiling at the photographer and wearing a dark brown dress.
Amanda Parris. Photo courtesy of Amanda Parris

 

Is Black History Month important to you?

I have a complicated relationship with Black History Month. On the one hand, I am grateful for its existence because through it I have been able to experience the work of incredible artists, educators and scholars who are invited to share what they do and what they know because it is February. Black History Month provided the platform where I first attempted to write for the theatre. It was for my high school’s Black History Month assembly and I attempted to create an adaptation of the slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (the slave narrative is incredible but my adaptation was pretty terrible). It was the first of many invitations to create, to share and to build that I began to receive during this month of 28 (sometimes 29) days. However my high school yearbook committee did not see my play or any part of the assembly as something that was worthy of inclusion amongst the documentation of spring recitals, Christmas concerts and sports tournaments. This was the first but not the last lesson I have received on the way February becomes separated and perceived differently from the rest of the year. The invitations inevitably lessen after Black History Month (and International Women’s Day). This recurring pattern leaves me often feeling like my work, my art and my experiences were used to check a box that once filled does not have to be returned to until the requirements of next year’s quota. So yeah, Black History Month is definitely important to me but it’s also very complicated.

What kind of challenges have you faced as a Black artist and performer?

The greatest challenges that I have faced as an artist and performer all relate to access. When I say access, I don’t only mean spaces to produce and share my work but also access to knowledge and skills on how to navigate systems, communities and industries. I think this is a challenge faced by many artists regardless of race and the Internet has definitely helped to level the playing field for many of us who lack the social and cultural capital some are born into. But as a Black artist trying to enter spaces and institutions populated and governed predominantly by non-racialized people and cultures that have little similarity to my own, it can feel particularly insurmountable.  

How do issues of racial inclusion and human rights inform your artistic work?  Do you think the arts can help promote racial inclusion and human rights?

The issues and topics that often inspire me to create relate to themes along these lines. Other Side of the Game is a play that I am currently working on. It explores the stories of women who support loved ones that are incarcerated. I believe that art has the power to not only entertain but also to affirm experiences and invite people to witness, connect and understand beyond one’s own limited worldview. The most powerful thing that art can do is to transform a person’s perspective. Through this power it has the capacity to promote racial inclusion and human rights.