by Stephen Hunt
Wordfest presents: Pourin’ Down Rain: A Black Woman Claims Her Place In The Canadian West 30th anniversary re-release party, 1 pm, Memorial Library, Sat. Feb. 8, 1221 2nd St SW, Calgary
Cheryl Foggo had to write a memoir about four generations of African-Canadians growing up on the western Canadian prairies for a very good reason: because she grew up a black person in Calgary with no stories that reflected her life and experience — and that wasn’t very helpful.
That memoir, Pourin’ Down Rain: A Black Woman Claims Her Place in the Canadian West has been re-released to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Foggo will be at Memorial Library Saturday afternoon to do an interview and celebrate with Wordfest the publication of a memoir that told the stories of Foggo’s family’s migration to the Canadian west, an incredible, amazing journey of human perseverance that starts with slavery, continues with Oklahoma, and takes root on the Canadian prairies.
Similarly, it will offer a chance to celebrate Foggo, who started out a bookish girl growing up in Bowness in the 1960’s, who thought it would be kind of cool to be a writer, but had no idea how to do that, because after all, it didn’t take very much investigation at the local library to determine two things: no one was interested in the stories of black people growing up in Bowness, and in fact, no one was particularly interested in the stories of any Canadians at all.
“I never read a book written by a black person until I was in my early 20’s, and I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X ,” Foggo says.
“There simply wasn’t a menu of books written by black people for me to read,” she adds. “Now I’m not saying they didn’t exist in the world, but they didn’t exist in my world in Bowness. They weren’t available at the library, certainly not available in school — and I also had very little access to books written by Canadians.
“So,” she says, “I read Anne of Green Gables but Canadian literature being available to us as students at the time wasn’t a thing.”
Flash forward to the 1980’s. Foggo is pitching story ideas to Penny Williams, the editor of Calgary Magazine, when one of them, like the piece of proverbial spaghetti, stuck to the editorial wall.
“Of all the ideas I presented, she said well this is amazing — an article about black Calgary — because readers of Calgary Magazine don’t know you’re there. People have this notion that every black person they saw on the street was a very recent immigrant.
“That was kind of the genesis of wanting to write the book,” she says.
That, and the thousand-and-one micro-aggressions that were a daily experience when you were a young, black teenage girl growing up in southern Alberta in the 1960’s — and a young woman in the 1970’s and 80’s.
“I had been asked the question, “where are you from?” all the time,” she says. “From a very young age.” She pauses. “I still get asked it today — and it (writing the book) was my way of having an answer to that question.”
And what an answer!
The question Foggo had to answer first was how to tell the story of a large group of people who came from all over the world without losing the narrative thread.
That’s when someone suggested the best way to tell a big, epic story is to narrow down the focus to a family.
So Foggo bought a bunch of blank cassette tapes and took her tape recorder to visit the relatives, in Winnipeg, in Regina, in Saskatoon, in Calgary, and in Vancouver, to chronicle the stories of her relatives and their amazing journey.
Among those interviews was one with Daisy Williams, her great-aunt, who was the storyteller and keeper of the family history.
“She had written her own 150 or so — maybe more — pages of our family’s history,” Foggo says, “which is a really incredible story: out of enslavement and into that sort of migration into Oklahoma before it became a state as people for seeking freedom and safety — she was the keeper of that.
“And she loved that I was interested. Just loved it.”
She was in her 80’s, and as soon as Foggo hit the record button on the tape recorder, Daisy would transform.
“She said well, ‘My name is Daisy Williams and the day I left — I got on the train in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and it was pouring down rain, and then we pulled into the station in Dalmeny, Saskatchewan, and it was pouring down rain there too!”
Foggo may not have known it at the time, but she had found the title to her memoir.
“I thought it was an appropriate title because I thought it was a homage to her and I thought a kind of metaphor for their lives.”
Pourin’ Down Rain didn’t just change Foggo’s life, leading to a rich and varied writing career, which includes stints as a TV writer on the staff of North of 60, a playwright, screenwriter, teacher and now a film director, most recently of a documentary of John Ware.
It changed the lives of a new generation of black Albertans, looking for a story that reflected their own.
Karina Vernon’s family emigrated from Honduras to Alberta in 1981 and she grew up in Olds and Calgary.
“I grew up not even knowing my experience and history had a name,” Vernon says, in an email detailing the impact Pourin’ Down Rain had on her.
“When I found Pourin’ Down Rain‘ it was a revelation,” she adds. “Here was a writer who was telling the story of four generations of her family history on the prairies and in so doing, utterly transforming our inherited conceptions of the prairies as a historically non-black space.
“Pourin’ Down Rain is a treasure trove of stories, family history, photographs, memories, voices and perspective that push back on dominant histories of the prairies. Importantly to me, Pourin’ Down Rain also pushes back against the dominant *ways* of telling history:
“Pourin’ Down Rain unfolds in a sequence of vignettes from the perspective of a young black girl – a perspective which we do not get in dominant accounts of prairie history. So we hear stories about the ritual of “hair day” in her home in Bowness; about black children’s’ adventures up in the hills and along the railway tracks; about family love, friendship, teenage political awakenings, and heartache.
“These vignettes give us access to “moments of being” in the life of a young black girl. These stories jumped off the page and spoke directly to me as a young black woman who had grown up, a generation later, under similar circumstances in Calgary and Olds but who had never once encountered any representation of life that came close to naming or representing my experience.”
Vernon is now a professor at the University of Toronto, where she’s teaching Pourin’ Down Rain’s 30th-anniversary edition to her class.
Karen Robinson grew up in Drumheller, and discovered Pourin’ Down Rain, which opened a window onto her own experience as a young, black woman growing up in Alberta with no real sense of her own history.
Now, Robinson is an actor on the critically-acclaimed TV series Schitt’s Creek, and also just voiced the audiobook of Pourin’ Down Rain for ECW Books.
Not only did Pourin’ Down Rain, add to the history of Alberta, and the prairies by telling the stories of its Afro-Canadian community, but it did something else: it changed it.
The new edition has added photos, a new cover and footnotes, to provide additional context.
And it offered Foggo something else every writer can relate to.
“It also has been super fun to revisit it because I got to correct typos,” she says.
For Vernon, Pourin’ Down Rain might focus on a family but it also tells the story of an underserved community that has had as long, and as deep, of an Alberta history as the Stampede.
“Reading the 30th Anniversary edition again today I’m struck by Foggo’s incredible generosity as an author and as a prairie knowledge-keeper,” she says. “In this edition, she offers the reader not only her warm and inviting storytelling voice, but also many new family and community photographs.
“Essentially, she offers her reader an archive that has been missing from the pages of prairie history,” she says, “and that is a gift to us all, and especially so for all those whose stories have been for so long untold.”