Skip to main content

In suburban Toronto of the 1950s and 60s, racism followed us wherever we went. Then as now, music helped me to find joy in the present – and strength for the injustices of the future

Open this photo in gallery:

Dr. Daniel G. Hill, left, and his wife, Donna, tend to their children Dan, Lawrence and Karen. Dr. Hill was a sociologist and academic who became the first commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.Courtesy of Lawrence Hill

Dan Hill is a singer-songwriter and author of the book I Am My Father’s Son: A Memoir Of Love And Forgiveness. He was recently inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.

My first encounter with racism happened mere hours before I was born.

In 1954, my 26-year-old mother went into intense labour with me, a full month early. My dad – a confident Black man of imposing stature – almost carried her into Emergency. My mom, wracked with pain, was tiny, waiflike and ghostly white, appearing many years younger than her age.

Despite the waiting area being empty, my parents sat there, ignored, for half an hour. Then an hour. Then 90 minutes. By the time the doctor finally appeared to take my mother to the examining room, she was too buckled over in agony to catch the look in his eyes. That look.

But Dad couldn’t miss it. It was the same subtle prejudice he would describe in a letter to his American parents: “People [are] not so aggressively racist here, but rather [Toronto] practices discrimination of a more subtle, insidious nature. … It exists in the snide remarks of a potential employer or the sly but highly polite way in which you are refused a room.” He knew that, from this doctor’s skewed perspective, a mixed-race couple bordered on blasphemous.

Two more doctors appeared. “Maybe it was the hospital’s idea of a security measure,” my mom reflected. “I mean, from no doctors anywhere in sight for hours to suddenly three doctors once word spread of this pregnant white woman with a Black husband.”

The three doctors started prodding my mother – here, there and everywhere – and asking her questions. Finally, one of the younger doctors placed his hand on her belly and said, “That feels like a real labour pain to me.”

My mom’s attending doctor, furious and indignant at such insubordination, immediately pronounced that she was not in labour – she was having an appendicitis attack. The doctors told my dad to go home. Then they promptly anesthetized my mother.

Mom had her appendix removed. Afterward, left alone in the surgical recovery room, she woke up to searing pain, wailing to anyone within earshot that she was still in labour. The nurses gave her a sedative, hoping that this would shut her up.

Too exhausted to scream any more, whimpering from the pain of being cut open and stitched back together again, my mom wondered if there would ever be an end to her torture. When her water broke, one of the nurses scolded her for deliberately urinating.

It took two more hours before a doctor finally came to examine her. After looking around to ensure that no one could overhear, the doctor admitted that my mom’s appendix had been perfectly fine. She was whisked into the delivery room in the obstetrical ward upstairs.

Shortly thereafter I was released into the world, weighing five pounds.

Looking back, I marvel at my mom’s preternatural resolve, her courage. Indeed, even before I was born, she loved me utterly and completely, and endured so much for my birth.

Mom waited years to tell me this story. My first reaction was to wonder how anyone could be so unremittingly cruel.

Mom side-stepped the question by saying, “This is why you’re so extraordinarily sensitive, Danny. You could hear me screaming out – you could feel my pain. And my pain was your pain.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Dan Hill, left, is shown with his parents and siblings in 1976, a year after the release of his first album began a decades-long career in pop music.Courtesy of Lawrence Hill

Now that we were three, we needed a bigger apartment. But whenever my parents tried to rent a place, the landlord always said the apartment was unavailable, despite the vacancy sign on the lawn. So my parents devised an ingenious solution. The next time, Mom dragged along a Caucasian friend to pose as her husband. Quelle surprise! The first apartment she and her white surrogate husband scouted was vacant, and my mom immediately moved in. Dad and I furtively joined her hours later. When the truth came to light, the landlord had no choice but to rent it – that “polite” Canadian racism again.

In 1955, the three of us moved to Newmarket, which was then a filthy, rat-infested backwater town overflowing with bullies and perverts. The trouble began even before we arrived. The neighbours, upon hearing that a Black man with a Caucasian wife and a bi-racial child had just bought a house there, began a petition to prevent us from moving in. The petition was enthusiastically taken up. Despite the petition, we moved in.

Almost every day, another racist event was visited upon us. Sometimes I wasn’t aware of them until years later. I’m thinking now of my kindergarten class – how every morning my teacher would produce a nail file to scrape the dirt beneath my fingernails, explaining, “I’m scooping out the dirty niggers.” It was a word I didn’t yet know.

But it wasn’t the only time that word was used casually in our presence. The deep inner reflex of racism of our neighbours manifested in shocking ways. When mom asked our next-door neighbour what colour she should paint our kitchen, she responded “nigger brown.”

Another incident, right after I turned five, left me deeply traumatized. My father, working on his doctorate in sociology, went to a local jail to interview some Black prisoners. Dad happened to be on good terms with the warden – that is, until shift change. When my dad, upon completing his interviews, started to leave, the new warden refused to let him exit, insisting that my dad was a prisoner posing as a student. I overheard Mom freaking out on the phone as she received this news. I felt a phantom punch to my gut, thinking, Dad will never be released from jail. I was certain that Dad would die there. That night I lay wide awake, my entire body shaking. Dad was not able to return home until the next morning.

The unremitting sting of prejudice remained as our family grew, with the arrival of my siblings, Larry and Karen. Our parents distracted us the only way they knew how: with round-the-clock music. Over and over, the soulful thrum of jazz rocked our Newmarket home. What incredible dancers our parents were! Swaying rhythmically, locked in embrace, they would suddenly turn on a dime and transition into swing dancing. I was entranced. The music that burst from their hi-fi stereo uplifted and enlivened me. Looking back, I realize my parents escaped into music just as Black slaves did 400 years ago. In song, they found something beautiful. Something comforting and soothing to hold on to. Something no one could take away.

Open this photo in gallery:

The main street of Newmarket, Ont., shown in 1952. The Hills moved here in 1955; Dan Hill remembers it as a 'filthy, rat-infested backwater town' where prejudice was omnipresent.

Open this photo in gallery:

Don Mills, shown in 1960, was designed as a model suburb in Toronto's postwar boom. It was here that the Hill family would make their home next.Harold Robinson/The Globe and Mail

In 1961, Dad moved us to Don Mills, believing that this WASPy Toronto suburb offered his children superior schools and high-achieving peers, which would naturally rub off on Karen, Larry and me. Dad, who had now officially earned his PhD in sociology, was highly influenced by the groundbreaking Black sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois and was particularly taken with a term that Du Bois had popularized in 1903: the “Talented Tenth,” meaning the top 10 per cent of Black movers and shakers, the so-called cream of the crop. Dad bombarded Larry and me from an early age with the idea that we had an “ancestral obligation” to carry on in the Talented Tenth tradition, given we’d inherited this brilliant Hill family DNA. Throughout Dad’s lectures he had a curious habit of inserting the word “first” before each triumphant example: “Boys, the first Black female psychiatrist in New Jersey was your great-aunt Lena. Lena’s daughter, Marie, was the first Black female OB/GYN in New Jersey. Your great-grandfather Dr. Edwards was the first Black dentist in all of Washington, D.C. And never forget that your grandfather Daniel Hill II was both a Black officer fighting in the trenches of World War I and a PhD professor at Howard University, the best daggum university in America, and a minister who frequently corresponded with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” But it was Dad’s summation that frightened me the most. “Larry and Danny,” he’d warn ominously, “if you are Black, uneducated and unskilled, you are doomed.”

Dad’s incitements left me fraught with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. How could I possibly live up to the preternaturally high standards that were expected of all Hills? But Dad’s demands were not uncommon. Parents in middle- and upper-middle class Black families frequently push their children to be uber-successful, becoming doctors, dentists, or lawyers, or PhD educated at the least. Many see it as their only chance to transcend the scourge of racism. To be sure, this mindset also exists in other immigrant communities that came to North America. The defining, unspoken difference? Almost no one outside the Black community – be they journalists, newscasters, authors, or so-called scholars – ever writes about the crushing pressure to succeed that has been heaped upon the shoulders of Black children since they were freed from the shackles of slavery.

Open this photo in gallery:

Dr. Hill, shown in 1962 with Ontario's then-premier John Robarts, left, would later become commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.The Globe and Mail

In 1965, Dad became the first commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, a tiny government body that he built up from scratch. Dad was fiercely committed to carrying out the OHRC’s mandate: to prosecute landlords, employers, elite athletic clubs (read: no Jews, no Blacks), and others, for discrimination. Dad’s dogged fight for civil liberties sparked a massive media backlash. I still have vivid memories of him storming through our house, fuming over Toronto’s condescending newspaper editorials. His fight also found him confronted by neighbours on countless occasions who claimed that he had no right to tell people whom to hire or employ. Dad’s reply was matter of fact: “I don’t tell you how to run your business, so don’t tell me how to run mine.”

But the deepest cut of all began with a phone ringing in our Don Mills home in the mid-sixties. My seven-year-old sister, Karen, answered, only to hear a man threaten to “bomb the Hill family to smithereens.” The man’s name was Getler (I recall it so clearly because it reminds me of Hitler). Enraged by Dad’s prosecution of racists, Getler repeatedly phoned our house, threatening to blow us apart. To this day it smashes my heart when I recall how Karen fled, sobbing, to her bedroom. Thereafter, Dad ordered that the three of us “never, under any circumstances, answer the phone.”

Getler, like many other Caucasians in the 1960s, argued that government prosecution of those refusing equal access to employment and housing to Blacks violated their own inalienable civil rights. Today, this eerily reflects the position of some of the 74 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump last November. Spurred on by the president’s white-supremacist “stand back and stand by” exhortations, along with his disingenuous COVID-19-denying delusions, his most ardent supporters protested – sometimes violently, sometimes murderously – that government-ordered shutdowns and restrictions, such as mask-wearing and physical distancing, violate their civil liberties.

I realize that we are all, regardless of race, facing a moment of great reckoning. The rise of Black Lives Matter and the defeat of Mr. Trump point to a future that envisions an end to the indignities and pain that have confronted Black people since their enslavement right up to the present day. How redemptive it is that bi-racial couples today are no longer regarded as immoral or criminal. And how thrilling that now, unlike when I first shot to fame in 1975, Black music is dominating the airwaves, with a staggering number of Canadian Black artists, songwriters and producers achieving international success. While this success is still tempered by persistent racism, no longer are these inequities going unremarked. People are standing up for change, and the media has made an abrupt turn, citing daily examples of the systemic racism that has for so long bedevilled us all, regardless of our race.

Amid this reckoning, I knew I had to confront how I felt not just about George Floyd’s killing but also about the 400 years of murder, lynching, brutalization and demonization of my brothers and sisters. As a singer/songwriter all my life, how else could I respond than by turning to my greatest gift? My new single What About Black Lives? deliberately starts with a chorus, and the chorus starts with that question. I stay clear of lecturing in my song, I simply tell the story, leaving the listeners to draw their own conclusions.

It was only after I had written and recorded What About Black Lives? that I realized that this song was my way of reaching out, my way of wrestling with my racial inheritance while trying to connect with others who may share a similar need to find connection amid the frightening, ever-rising spectre of COVID-19 as well as the chaos and turmoil that is currently bedevilling all of us.

Like my enslaved ancestors so many generations ago, like my parents dancing to jazz in our suburban living room, I still find my solace in music. Will the pain of hundreds upon hundreds of years of racism ever start to subside? Still, like my dad, granddad and great-granddad before me, I continue to hold out hope for a more humane and compassionate world. Lastly, I am forever heartened and encouraged whenever I think of my grandfather’s quote to members of his parish when they were suffering. “I will prop you up on every leaning side.”

In his new single What About Black Lives?, Dan Hill confronts his feelings about the police killing of George Floyd and the long history of anti-Black racism.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Interact with The Globe