Black creators have been an industry-defining community that is continuously originating, trailblazing and trendsetting. Black creators inspire mainstream culture and continue to define what’s next—from creating viral moments and pioneering new spaces in fashion and music, to advocating for others and organizing for a better future, they have always been at the forefront of innovation. Fayola Benjamin is a Toronto lawyer and local creator who has utilized TikTok to start important conversations about the forgotten parts of Canadian Black history, not only shining a light on the glorified version of Canadian history, but sharing interesting facts, stories and contributions of Black Canadians. Read our interview with her below. —Vita Daily
Please tell us a bit about yourself to start.
I’m a Personal Injury lawyer in Toronto. I’ve practiced at Benjamin Law, my family’s Black-owned law firm in the GTA for going on 3 years. I have always been passionate about advocacy which is why a legal career was a perfect fit. I’m also passionate about sharing my experiences regarding mental health on Instagram which is also very taboo and recently as a black person in Canada. I’m definitely not your conventional lawyer, which I love because I get to take my love for advocacy outside of the legal field and create spaces for conversation around other things that are important to me.
As we celebrate the continuous contributions of Black communities and Black creatives during Black History Month, how have you utilized TikTok to start important conversations about the forgotten parts of Canadian Black history?
Last year during Black History Month, I took a step outside of my comfort zone and decided to do the research and share the beautiful, sad, amazing and uncomfortable pieces of Black History on TikTok, that I’ve always known was missing from Canadian History. I also saw that the information shared, usually only during Black History Month, was limited, one sided and largely distorted the reality that the black experience and history in Canada, for centuries, was not easy or better than in the United States. My goal by creating content on TikTok has always been to share information without making people feel guilty, that I know many, like myself, were not taught or exposed to. I wanted to present information in an easily digestible way and simply educate and get people thinking about Canada’s hidden Black History. TikTok allowed me to be creative, make short digestible videos and reach a lot of people. After posting my first video, most of the comments were from surprised viewers who literally commented that they had no clue Black people were enslaved in this country for over 200 years. The conversations in the comment section (the best part lol) involve people who are genuinely interested, wanting to learn more, educating each other, sharing their own experiences or literally saying thank you for sharing new information they’ve never considered or had access to. I think this is amazing because it does go to show that Canadians care, see the importance in Black contributions and experiences and actually do want to learn more.
What are some stories of Canada’s hidden Black History that you think Canadians would be surprised to learn about? Have you uncovered any stories that have surprised you?!
As a whole I think Canadians would be shocked and disturbed to learn that the enslavement of Black people took place in Canada on a way larger scale that it seems. Also, that the lack experience is and was not very different in Canada than in the U.S, contrary to popular belief. Recently I learned about Chloe Cooley, who was an enslaved Black woman sold by her enslaver. She was kidnapped by her enslaver and forced onto a boat, across the Niagara River, to New York State where she was sold. This incident was said to be extremely violent. This incident led to the passing of the 1793 Act to Limit Slavery which granted freedom to enslaved people arriving in Canada from other countries and provided that children born after 1793 to enslaved mothers, would be free when they turned 25.
Tell us, if you can, about Black hair maps, and Toronto’s first taxi cab service, which was a Black-owned business?
Black hair is the most controversial topic I’ve discussed on TikTok. Black hair, the most versatile out there, was used for passing messages along during enslavement. Some enslaved women used their hair as a way to communicate with those who were going to make the journey to freedom. Specific braid styles were a way that they communicated. A braid pattern would signify a route to the Underground Railroad or the path to freedom. Using a hairstyle to communicate prevented captors or plantation owners from knowing whether there was a plan to escape. Toronto’s first taxicab service called ‘The City’ was a black owned business started by a married couple Thornton and Lucie Blackburn. They were American refugees who fled enslavement in the U.S. Upon arrival in 1833, they first landed in Windsor, Ontario, then moved to Toronto. It’s said that Thornton worked at Osgoode Hall and would have to walk to work because this was his only means of transportation. He and his wife were inspired by the designs of the English cab’s at the time which led them to create ‘The City’. It was a horse drawn carriage that was red and yellow and carried 4 passengers. The taxi stand was located at Church Street. They owned one taxi and their business was very successful. They used the funds from their business to build houses that they rented, at a low cost, to formerly enslaved people arriving from the U.S.
What have some of your most popular/viral stories on TikTok been?
My most viral videos have been about black hair being used as a map to freedom, Sunday’s being hair days on some plantations and how Elvis’ Presley made more money off of his rendition of ‘Hound Dog’ than Big Mama Thornton did. It seems the most controversial topics and the topics not commonly discussed have been my most popular on TikTok.
In terms of Canada’s Black communities and creatives, what are you most proud of and what are you excited to see from them in terms of content?
I’m proud of all the black creatives and contributions of black people (both now and then) because I understand the battles we face and the barriers to showing up and creating space for black voices and experiences. In terms of content, I am excited to actually see more of it and for the content to reach more people.
What are you working on next? What can we look forward to seeing from you on TikTok and beyond?
I started a new series on Tiktok called ‘Black Stories’ that’ll be focused on the experiences, stories, facts about black people whose names we don’t hear as well as their experiences and the connection to history. Think true crime and story times meets Black history.