Currently there are 54 countries in Africa. I have met people (and have had enough of a conversation to say I know a little about them) from Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Morocco, South Africa, Tunisia, and Uganda. The man from Uganda was a Hindu living there, and under Idi Amin’s regime had to flee with just the clothes on his back. I can’t even imagine. Naturally I know black Montrealers, some have roots back to the Underground Railroad, most not so dramatic. For those who do not know, in Canada there is a historic black population in Nova Scotia dating back to the Black Loyalists just after the American Revolution. I have met some transplanted Nova Scotians here. I would say the majority of black Canadians live from Toronto eastwards to Nova Scotia.
Most of the English countries in the Caribbean are Commonwealth countries, and so historically have a relationship with Canada. In the 1970s there was a lot of immigration here from the Islands, primarily to fill domestic jobs (maids, nannys). I know people from Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and quite a few from Trinidad and Tobago. When I studied Special Education at Collège Marie Victorin, the student body was multicoloured.
I have met a few African Americans here in Montréal, but not very many. Several of the black Montrealers I know have family around New York City.
There were no black kids in my elementary school. The black guy in high school was so singular everybody knew his full name. By graduating year I remember a second black guy named Dennis.
Moving downtown to attend Concordia, I began meeting all sorts of people outside my own background. It was great. I now find the suburb I grew up in too homogeneous, too homophilial for me – although at the same time, since I moved to the city, the suburbs are a lot more mixed.
Peter Gabriel introduced apartheid to me in a real way performing “Biko” in concert. Opened my eyes (I was young) and yes it was a British white rock star, an entertainer, that pointed me there. The first artist I engaged with on the political level as well as the music. He regularly had African musicians as opening acts. Saw Paul Simon with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Hugh Masekela, and Miriam Makeba (in a leg cast, if I recall correctly). African rhythms infuse most modern music.
Around my fortieth birthday I was searching for community. The United Church of Canada is not heavy duty religious (a person once told me, “Oh, you’re United, you have one rule: God.” I said, “yeah, that’s pretty much it.”) so I looked up the nearest United Church, and it was within walking distance.
I didn’t know that it was “the black church” of Montréal. The part of St. Henri called Little Burgundy is a traditionally black neighbourhood. Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones grew up there. Oscar’s sister Daisy Peterson Sweeney was THE piano teacher. Historically, back in the day, a good job for a black man was as a train porter, and Burgundy is fairly near the main train stations. It’s a good neighbourhood, full of people with a sense of community, and a real effort to make it better for their kids.
By memory, Union United Church on Delisle, next to Lionel Groulx Métro Station, was founded in 1907 as a Congregationalist church. A story I heard, and know is true, is of an original member worshipping at a mainly white church, when the minister mentioned a “fly in the milk” in the pews. Not long after, the original 25-30 members started Union Church. Around 1925-1930 many Congregationalist, Methodist, and Presbyterian (not all) denominations merged into the United Church of Canada. A church I happen to love. It’s currently gay friendly, and has been ordaining women since the 1930s.
So, Union United, Easter Sunday 2002: It’s packed to the rafters. Not just scattered old ladies. All ages. Lots of men. Lots of kids. Teens! MUSIC! The organ AND the piano are in the middle of the altar. The podium for the minister is to the side. FOUR choirs!!! Not six old women singing the best they can. A regular traditional choir, a gospel choir, a children’s choir, and a men’s choir (that was maybe my favourite – sometimes 30 or 40 men singing – so beautifully!).
Two years later, my mom drops dead just before Easter Sunday. I was teaching the Pioneer Club (the seniors) how to paint, and suddenly I had twenty new ‘moms’ just being there for me. So warm, so comforting, they will never know how much they did for me.
Never was I made unwelcome, never was I unloved in that congregation. Oh there were characters too! Remember – I knew all the grandmothers, from the super classy ones, to the ones who would let me in on all the gossip. Maybe, a few overlapping categories, exactly like any group of grandmothers you would know anywhere.
I have met some shitty black people (shitty in the same ways shitty white people are shitty) and oh! along the way I learned how each island in the Caribbean stereotypes the other islands, sometimes quite hilariously. I would remind them lightheartedly that my people also come from an island in the Atlantic, that was a British colony, that loved its salt cod and dark rum!!!! and so Newfoundland is not so far off from the West Indies. (The history of trade would go up the coast of North America across the bottom of Newfoundland where there be pirates!! and then off to England. It is no secret that Newfie Screech is overproof dark Barbados rum.)
In a Malcolm Gladwell book, I read of an experiment where people would see black and white faces and have to instantaneously rate them. The only time the ratings for black people would always go up was during the Olympics.
So for all the exposure I have to black people, I have to see them as, umm, people. I have known way too many to stereotype. But do I know the black experience? Not at all. I sat in on the most phenomenal Martin Luther King Sunday service with a visiting black minister (residing in Toronto at the time) who grew up in apartheid South Africa – real stories of his own childhood – not some abstract news documentary. And, eventually (not at first meeting) some of my black friends will tell me of shit they have endured, just because people can, just because they are expected to endure slights and insults that I will never have to endure just because…
I hope, I really hope, that we are at the point where we are just people. (As my sociology prof pointed out about race, if you breed a person with a person- you get a person.) But I will never know the friendships from their point of view. One gentle woman, so intelligent and insightful, after years of friendship told me that she has to approach every friendship with a white person with a kind of wait-and-see, and yes, now, she has told me of ‘friends’ that basically call her the ‘good black person’ not like ‘those other ones’ and not think they are being insulting. I try to understand but I cannot live it. Because of Union United I know at least one hundred (because I like numbers, so, at least 100) black people that are better than me, I mean better in their community, more involved, more giving, more centered, more present than I am. People you look at, and go, woah, maybe, one day after I get it together… But there they are, already doing it. It’s so easy, when you don’t have to, when you can think, yeah, one day, I’ll do that, help out that way, yeah, soon…
But no matter all my sins and faults, and they are many, a lot of people will put me ahead of ALL these people in any line, in any job interview, in any police statement. I was born with a pass that I don’t understand. I didn’t earn it. I don’t have to prove it.
I could name people that should go ahead of me in any line because oh my god they have qualifications, and drive, and integrity. I see grandmothers that can get their teenage grandsons to go to church! Union has been meeting in Notre-Dame-de-Grace in Montréal for while as the building in St. Henri is addressing severe and necessary repairs, and as such, for me the congregation is no longer in walking distance. So, I am not currently worshipping at any United Church – but – wherever two or more people gather in His name, that IS church. So now and then, I do have church. (And I never really knew church that way until black church. And also: Women dressing up, with hats. Multi-generational families. The kind of COMMUNITY that church always was, even outside of the religion. Ways to connect, and keep track, and take care of each other.) A saint is just a sinner who fell down, and got back up again.
I was on the bus coming back from the suburbs one Friday night, drinking my Popper (a kind of alco-pop drink, probably meant for teen girls) and two young men, about 20, were heading into town. Their conversation was animated and bright, one was black and one was white. I interjected something about downtown, and then the young black man sitting next to me said in hushed tones: “There are cameras on the bus, you shouldn’t be drinking!” So I replied, “Don’t worry, they can’t see me, I’m invisible.” He looked at me quizzically. “Oh, they can see YOU” I said, humorously. We did continue talking, the three of us, and I gave my (not categorically true, but metaphorically true) summary of being a middle aged white woman: I’m not young enough to be seen as a rape victim, or old enough to be seen as a mugging victim, so as a middle aged white woman I am invisible. From knowing black people only on television, to one black person, to meeting assorted people at university, to the varied workplaces (some of which had the black people in the factory, the white people in the office), to Union United Church. I can’t stereotype black people anymore than I can stereotype white people. The more you know…
My main sin in judging is usually against people with money and power who use that money and power totally selfishly. Christianity is hard if you want to do it right. Love thy enemy. If a man sues you for your shirt, give him your coat as well. Turn the other cheek. None of it it easy, but it’s worth trying. I want to leave this world as a better person than I started out.
But every black person I meet doesn’t know me. I can be an asshole sometimes, just in general, not because of your race, but you will never know if that plays a part. And as much as I think I am enlightened and non-racist, I WAS born in the front of the line, I DO get seen as an individual with individual problems, not a part of a stereotype (middle aged working-poor white English female artist? cat lady?).
Some new people may be in my future that will make me smack myself on my forehead yet again realizing I just wasn’t as understanding and embracing as I always thought I was. And that’s good too. What’s the point if you don’t keep learning and growing? I don’t need to feel ‘white guilt’, I need to feel human sensitivity.
When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.
So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.