Ayanna Black was a vibrant and elegant woman with innovative ideas. A great fan of avant-garde jazz, Ayanna always had music in her life. Along with colleague Harold Head, she changed the face of jazz performance in Toronto, bringing in such artists as Cecil Taylor, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Randy Weston.
Ayanna was the only child of Olga Powell, a teacher, and a father she never knew. Her childhood was spent in Jamaica but she lived most of her adult life in Toronto. During the last 15 years of her life, she divided her time between Toronto and Berlin, where her partner Eckehard Dolinski lived. The quest for her father culminated in her last book of poetry, Invoking the Spirits.
Ayanna had a heart of gold. At 18, her sense of compassion and adventure took her to England where she helped her uncle raise his children. She moved to Toronto at 25, and for the next 40 years she worked as a psychiatric nurse. The plight of women patients sparked her lifelong interest in feminism.
Ann Wallace of Canada's pioneering black publisher Williams-Wallace published Ayanna's first book of poetry. With Zanana Akande, Gloria Fallick and Wallace, Ayanna co-founded Tiger Lily, a literary journal devoted to women of colour. Ayanna edited three anthologies of Canadian writers of African descent, including Fiery Spirits & Voices. Novelist Austin Clarke says it was her combination of resolve and selflessness that allowed her to play an integral role in the elevation of black and West Indian writing in Toronto. In 1994, Ayanna received a recognition of service award from the City of Toronto.
Working constantly on behalf of writers and artists, and devoted to multiculturalism, Ayanna was an enthusiastic committee and board member of many arts organizations including Harbourfront Centre, A Space and Women's Art Resource Centre (WARC). She was a member of the League of Canadian Poets, the Women's Writing Collective and a founding member of Canadian Artists Network: Black Artists in Action, which promoted black writers and artists nationally and internationally. As chair of the programming committee of Toronto Arts Against Apartheid, she enlisted help from Harry Belafonte to bring Bishop Desmond Tutu to Toronto. She was instrumental in organizing a visit by civil-rights activist Rosa Parks for an exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum.
Ayanna's raucous laughter, creativity, ability to multitask and positive spirit leave a legacy for generations to come. She leaves behind her partner of 15 years, her extended family in Toronto and England, and a host of friends who will always remember and love her.
Gay Allison is Ayanna's friend.