This lady's got soul - blues singer makes life on PEI
For the past two decades Tamara Steele has watched Prince Edward Island’s black community grow.
The 37-year-old, originally from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, moved to PEI at age 17 to get a UPEI music degree. When she graduated in 2004, she decided to stay.
Wrapped in a worn crocheted shawl handmade by her mother, Tamara talks with her hands, flashing a yellow sapphire engagement band her husband, woodworker Mark Steele had designed for her by local artist Jeanette Walker. She sports a peace tattoo on her forearm.
Today, by day, she works as an administrative assistant at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery and by night she’s a blues singer in a band called Lady Soul. She’s lived longer in PEI than she lived with her parents – a nurse and a courier driver – in NS; she’s seen many changes in the diversity of the island.
Tamara says when she first moved to Charlottetown, she felt like a novelty.
“In my 19 years here I have seen such a difference in the people you see on the street. When I was new here I felt somewhat novel and that was really weird.
"Most of my friends were white. After a year or two I was able to weed out the people who were just excited to have a black friend. I just wanted to be their friend, not their ‘black friend’.”
With UPEI and Holland College working to recruit international students Steele says she meets people from Africa and the Caribbean more regularly now.
“There is a large, young, black community now and they want to stay here, but they need places to live and to work,” she said. “It can make for a lively future. This community is going to keep growing.”
Tamara recently became a member of the Black Cultural Society of PEI because she wants to help make the community more accessible to new Islanders. She says she hasn’t experienced overt racism here, using the example of the way she has worn her hair natural, since deciding years ago to stop straightening it.
“This is the way my hair grows naturally; I have never been told I look unprofessional and I know that happens to black women in other places.”
But a couple of interactions stand out in her mind, things she would like to make people aware of during Black History Month. Tamara said one time she was getting into a cab in the dead of winter and the cab driver commented on how cold it was, then quickly followed up with 'but you wouldn’t be used to the cold.'
“I said ‘I’m from Halifax, we get the same weather as PEI does,’ then he responded with ‘Ya, but still.’
“I truly believe that man thought I felt cold differently than him because my skin is dark. That is true ignorance, not racism.”
Steele also says she wishes people would stop asking twice where she is from.
“When I tell them I am from Halifax and they ask ‘no, where are you really from?’ It implies we don’t belong here, it’s very rude. As the community grows I think this might stop happening. I think so. I hope so.”
In her spare time Tamara likes to crochet and read, and is an actor. Her next gig will be as Juror #5 in ACT’s production of Twelve Angry Women, opening in late April.
She performs with Lady Soul on Friday, February 15, 2019 at Upstreet Craft Brewing.