Celebrating Black History Month: An Interview with Mireille Norris
Mireille Norris is an Internist and Geriatrician at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto and Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Toronto. She is the Medical Education Black Health Theme Lead for the Temerty Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto and has a passion for the arts and humanities.
In conversation with Sarah Kim, Temerty Medicine’s Medical Education Health Humanities Theme Lead, Mireille shared some of her reflections and recommendations for Black History Month 2024. This includes events happening around Toronto and art, film, and reading we can enjoy from wherever we are.
Sarah: As we enter Black History Month 2024, what are some thoughts that are bubbling to the surface for you?
Mireille: This month I [want] to humanize the experience of Black people, which is very diverse. And, full disclosure, I’m obviously mixed and so it creates a more varied approach because my experience of black racism is different than for example, my partner, who will tell you, “I’m full black and pro-Black,” which is something I think is a reality for all of us to thoughtfully navigate.
Sarah: How are you spending your Black History Month? Are there works in the arts and humanities relevant to Black History that you would recommend?
Mireille: I’d love to. I just finished watching the film Origin (written and directed by Ava DuVernay) this week and I really recommend it because it takes a bird’s eye view, not just on racism, but the whole caste system. It universalizes broader themes, the rules of engagement that sustain oppression. And, at this time where people tend to be radicalized and moved into little cubbyholes, this film gives a greater appreciation for how oppression is sustained. It explores the pillars and the common ground, the “connective tissue” is the word that’s used in the movie, of humanity. It really humanizes the experience of oppression as opposed to ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ the narrative of where you get into the ‘Olympics of oppression,’ the ‘who got it worse narrative’ which divides and does not unite us.
Sarah: That’s a beautiful and profoundly thought-provoking way to begin this Black History Month. Are there any arts events that you’ll be attending?
Mireille: Well, I’m attending a play on January 22nd at the Théâtre français de Toronto called L’Amour telle une cathédrale ensevelie. It’s a beautiful piece that includes musical theatre and opera depicting the experience of translocated Haitian people, so I think it’s going to be quite allegorical. As I was born in Haiti, and there’s such tragedy associated with Haiti, I expect it’s going to be very moving. The director is a Black woman as well. What I like as well is that, while it is French theatre, they offer English subtitles. So, if you’re Anglophone and feel intimidated by seeing theatre in French, it is still accessible because of the subtitles. I think we’re so fortunate in Toronto to have such diversity of culture. It really opens your mind, your heart, to the lived experience of people who are different from you.
For English language offerings, since I am particularly moved by music and dance, this is just how I’m wired, I know that Kuumba at the Harbourfront Centre has lovely offerings for Black History Month that combines music and dance.
In the past I have also attended the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, who come from New York and presented at the Bluma Appel Theater. I have found those pieces really to stir my heart. What I’m trying to communicate is: by enjoying these activities . . . you see black people in another way, in a beautiful way, in a moving way. You know, look at all that comes from black culture and how it enriches our experience.
I’ll also share that I am a foodie. I love food. I find that going to different restaurants is a way to experience the world while staying in your town. One of the restaurants that I have enjoyed is a Haitian restaurant called Boukan. On one evening they even had music and dance. I love when that happens. Together, within the restaurant, it’s a way to enjoy food, enjoy, dance, socialize. We can be transported outside of Toronto — while staying in Toronto — which is a really accessible way to experience another culture.
Sarah: In a recent conversation you also mentioned you recently explored the Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1960s – Now exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).
Mireille: Yes! So, I was born in 1963 but I lived much of my life in Quebec, so in French. And my father passes for White, and he is a psychiatrist, so I grew up in an environment kind of detached, out of sync with the Black experience. It’s just a fact. So, when I saw the AGO exhibition on Britain and the Caribbean with my fiancé, who is from Trinidad and who actually was in London during those race riots, it really brought an awareness to me of something that I did not experience. This was something that was completely opaque to me.
And it really brought an awareness to me of things that I was not aware of before . . . when I experienced racism as a mixed person, who was in what environment? I did not recognize it was racism. I thought I just needed to work harder and be a better person and perform at a higher level. Whereas my partner — who has lived experience of a difficult time in London, England — has a much different recognition of what racism is.
What is really moving about the AGO exhibit is that it validates that experience. It documents that experience through photography. And, as someone who was born in ‘63, you know, there’s even a little exhibit of what would be a typical looking middle-class living room. And when I saw that I said, “This is exactly like the house in Queens where my aunt lives!” so you get a kind feel for how the middle-class Caribbean person has navigated [life] outside of the Caribbean. Many of the Anglophones that are currently in Canada or the United States have travelled through the United Kingdom where they experience something different, so the AGO exhibit demonstrates that quite well.
And, to speak to the fact that the Caribbean journey is different from the African journey and to be mindful that there have been waves of immigration of different Black histories: In the ‘60s and ‘70s there was a predominance of Caribbean immigration. This was an era when the United Kingdom invited people from the Caribbean to help build England. After the Second World War, many of those Caribbean immigrants coalesced in healthcare. More recently Black immigration, particularly in Canada, has been from Africa, and that is a different journey and a different experience that we need to recognize and appreciate.
Sarah: You’ve spoken about how music and dance are a part of who you are. Are you attending any dance or music events this month?
Mireille: There’s a fantastic place for salsa dancing in the west end of Toronto called Lula Lounge. What I like about Lula Lounge is that they have Cuban bands that are beautifully orchestrated. The singing and the music are so rich and sometimes they even accompany a salsa dancer on stage. It’s very accessible with their food offerings and they usually have a little salsa class. It’s a welcoming crowd. For me who’s 60, but still moving like I’m 40, I find it very accessible, very welcoming, very inclusive. So, while these evenings have an Afro-Caribbean theme, they really welcome everyone to participate.
I have also personally enjoyed dancing at AfroLatino Dance Company. It’s a very friendly environment and accessible at only $15 – 20 dollars and again, the sharing of food, music, and dance is very welcoming.
The other place that I love, and where I even take my mom who’s 83, is Toronto Dance Fridays. Another place that is again very welcoming, accessible and inclusive. While the music is Afro-Caribbean, it really welcomes all people who just love to dance.
Sarah: You’ve shared many ways to explore and immerse yourself in Black cultures and histories. Any poets or writers that you happen to be reading?
Mireille: There’s a book called Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington that I want to read. It documents how medicine has played a role in experimentation on Black bodies. There are two books that I have read cover-to-cover that I really recommend: Under the Skin by Linda Villa Rosa and The Skin We’re In by Desmond Cole. And one book that I haven’t read yet, but recently bought, is What Matters Most: Photographs of Black Life edited by Zun Lee and Sophie Hackett.
In terms of poetry, I recommend anything by Tony Morrison, Maya Angelou or Bell Hooks.
Sarah: Thank you Mirelle. All these recommendations will make for a solid launch into broadening perspectives and deepening reflection on the Black experience over the month of February. We’re grateful to you for taking the time to share how you’ll spend your time this Black History Month.
Learn more about Dr. Mireille Norris and her work as the Medical Education Black Health Theme Lead for the Temerty Faculty of Medicine in this Department of Medicine announcement and MD Program spotlight.