A triptych of family photos.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet

November 21, 2023
Various family photos, Howe Family Collection, Gary Weekes.

Poems and History: Thandiwe McCarthy Reflects on Being Black in New Brunswick

November 21, 2023

“My grandmother raised us brave.”


It was during the COVID-19 pandemic that Thandiwe McCarthy found his true calling.

After graduating with a degree in recreation and community wellness, Thandiwe wanted to help others achieve good health. But when social distancing put his career plans on hold, he turned to exploring his own wellness.

“I had time on my hands,” he explains. “I started digging into my own identity, my Black masculinity as a Black man in Canada.”

An avid fan of journalling, Thandiwe used the written word to capture his thoughts along the way. From those came Thandiwe’s first book, a memoir of his life from birth to age 20 entitled Social Oblivion: Raised Black in Canada, funded by Arts New Brunswick.

And now, Thandiwe is pulling together everything he’s learned about Black New Brunswick and creating an anthology that he hopes it will be a lasting legacy. His project is funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, with a grant from the Research and Creation component of the Council’s Explore and Create program. It’s part history book, part photo album and part poetry collection.

Three people sit together looking at documents.
Behind the scenes scanning historical family documents from the Rose-Marie Sewart gathering. Photographer(s): Jeannie Rediker

“Using poetry instead of essays, with the rhyme scheme and alliteration and metaphor to make the stories more engaging and emotional, paired with photos of individuals, will collide in the reader’s head to form something that will stick even after they put the book down.”

Poetry has become Thandiwe’s medium. He had always written essays and journalled as a therapeutic exercise, but after getting positive encouragement at an emerging writers’ course, he discovered a passion for writing poems. In three short years, Thandiwe has made a name for himself in the arts scene as a writer and spoken word poet.

Through his poetry, Thandiwe strives to reach those who are struggling. “I know there is a light inside of every person that is surrounded by their darkness. I’m aiming for that light, to reach through that filter of nonsense and impostor syndrome and hope the vibration of my words reaches that deep light part of them so it can wake up and say, ‘Hey, I’m here, too’.”

Thandiwe reflects on what it was like growing up as the only Black child in his elementary school in Woodstock, New Brunswick.

A large family poses for a photo on a jungle gym.
Untitled, From Halfkenny - Cooke family. Photographer(s): Gary Weekes

“I had never really looked at my Blackness as a part of my identity—or a detriment, either, honestly,” he says. “My grandmother raised us brave, not Black. She always said, ‘You have two feet and a heartbeat. Use them.’” Still, he began to discover how his childhood experiences in a predominantly white community had affected and shaped him.

As Thandiwe’s self-awareness grew, so did his interest in his family’s history. He recalls his grandmother telling him he was a 7th generation Black Canadian, but admits he never knew what that meant.

Thandiwe began to explore the history of the Black population in New Brunswick and soon discovered there was little information available. Undaunted, Thandiwe reached out to historians and visited public archives and local libraries. Even now, he is still discovering a rich and complex history that is largely unknown, lost in what he calls “a gap of forgetfulness.”  

A family of eleven poses for a black-and-white photo.
From the Nash/Tyler Family Collection

“Many people don’t know that family slavery started here in New Brunswick, and the most northern point of the Underground Railroad is here, too. There is no Black history in Canada without Black history in New Brunswick.”

Thandiwe explains: “I can go into a room, listen to people talk, and then write a poem that speaks to the people in the room and perform it right there. People ask me how I do that, and I honestly don’t know. When the muse speaks to me, I actually hear the poem. It’s not me writing it.”

And, he says, his inspiration comes from people and their stories. “If I wasn’t an active member of the community, I don’t think any ink would ever leave my pen.”

A woman poses next to a building with a cat.
Untitled, From Drummond- Leslie family. Photographer(s): Gary Weekes

Thandiwe McCarthy is a writer and spoken word poet. His poetry has been published in AfriCANthology: Perspectives of Black Canadian Poets. As a community advocate, he has co-founded the New Brunswick Black Artists Alliance and helped republish a 1972 history book titled The Blacks in New Brunswick.