Beloved storyteller honoured by York University

By Neil Armstrong

Itah Sadu

When Itah Sadu sang the popular gospel song, “This Little Light of Mine,” as she approached the lectern to address the over 300 graduands at York University’s Fall Convocation, the anticipation was high that there was more “Itahisms” to come.

Just minutes earlier, her alma mater conferred on the beloved storyteller an honorary Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

Sadu said when she called her brother, Winston, in Barbados and told him that she was receiving an honorary doctorate from York University he was ecstatic. Her speech was infused with references to Canadian and Barbadian personalities and songs such as “96 Degrees in the Shade” by the Jamaican reggae band, Third World, and Rihanna’s “Diamonds.”
She said the late Jamaica-born Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in British Columbia, Rosemary Brown, who was the first African Canadian woman to become a member of a provincial legislature once said: “We must open the doors and we must see to it they remain open, so that others can pass through.” And she urged them to follow Brown’s example and be “be door jambers so that others can pass through.”  

 Reflecting on how she arrived at this milestone, Sadu thanked her mother, Gloria Walcott, 91, who was sitting in the front row to witness the celebration of her daughter.

“My mother was among the group of twenty-five young women who were the first to arrive in Canada in 1955 through the Domestic Program as Canada opened up immigration from the Caribbean. My mother came from 96 degrees in the shade, real hot, to the dead of winter in Ottawa. These young women, like many of you seated here, were daughters, mothers, partners, teachers, nurses, secretaries. They came with skills, and they came to work in the homes of families thereby freeing Canadian women to enter the workplace.”

Left to right Chancellor Kathleen Taylor, Itah Sadu and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton

Emphasizing that these women were modelling the principle of giving back, an everyday activity, she urged the graduands to demonstrate it every day.

Sadu is the great granddaughter of Amanda Rawlins, who was born in Barbados in the 1800s and owned a bakery, and of Amanda Phillips who owned three rum shops and a car in the early 1900s.

“Her stories taught me to be bold, daring and imaginative. And I am the granddaughter of entrepreneurs Fitz and Edna Walcott; my grandfather was a master builder in his time and my grandmother sold ice, plants, oil, and land. She was a woman who seized opportunities. Their home was a hub and a place of excitement.”

Sadu underscored that the work that she has done and continues to do was planted many years ago in her DNA.I am the daughter of independence movements and civil rights movements, a daughter of jazz, of reggae, of calypso and hip hop, therefore as someone who benefited from change it left no choice but to become an agent of change.”

Born in Scarborough, Ontario, and schooled in her early years in Barbados, she began writing stories because she wanted to see more of herself, and her community reflected in the books that were available to them.

For more than two decades, Sadu and her husband, Miguel San Vicente, have owned A Different Booklist, a bookstore in Toronto that specializes in titles from African and Caribbean diasporas and the global south.

In addition to being an international bestselling author, she is the managing director of Blackhurst Cultural Centre – The People’s Residence, a community space that celebrates the rich cultures of Black-identified Canadians. “She is also a dynamic entrepreneur, an educator and community builder, and she utilizes leadership, creativity and teamwork to empower individuals and groups to effect real change — a perfect candidate for an honorary degree from York University,” said JJ McMutry, Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies.

He noted that Sadu has created vital spaces and infrastructure for community development, adding that while she reflects on the importance of Black histories, she is equally focused on the future. “Her innovative annual Walk with Excellence lets graduating students from Jane and Finch neighbourhood share their achievements in a parade that ends here at York University. She is also behind the Emancipation Day Underground Freedom Train Ride in a nod to the legacy of American abolitionist and activist Harriet Tubman and the famed Underground Railroad.”

Dean McMurty said in a time of great division and strife, Itah Sadu remains steadfast in her commitment to nurturing her community and by extension demonstrating what a culture of care can look like.

Oscar Wailoo, a friend of Sadu who attended the convocation, said he was exhilarated because he has always called her the youngest of his six sisters. “I know for a fact that this bestowal of a doctorate on Itah was perfectly right because of what she has done through her work and the effect that her work has had on people in general — her writing, storytelling, the extraordinary things that she has done for this society — it was a slam dunk in my estimation that she had to have this. And it is a genuine doctorate.”

In concluding her address to the over three hundred graduates, she thanked the storytelling, publishing, steelpan and Blackhurst communities, and people with whom she worked on various projects.