Learning what it is to be Black in Quebec. (Part 1: the early years)
My personal sense of Blackness is very much a self-defined one. It has not always been so. When my father’s parents emigrated here from Barbados, they bought into the Canadian narrative of inclusion, and threw themselves into the acculturation process, believing that one day their children would truly belong. Rather than settle down in Montreal or the South Shore, where “safe” Black enclaves could be found, my Grandpa chose Duvernay, Laval to call home.
Family lore has it that my first sentence was uttered in French- I apparently told my Aunt she was a pig when she needled my shy self to speak to her in French. There is also a story about how, when I was 2, my Grandmother put me down for my daily nap, and went to nap herself. She awoke to the police at the door. I apparently had taken off on my tricycle and got lost. Though I did not know my address or phone number, the police were pretty confident where I belonged- the only house with brown faces found in a 5 mile radius (yeah, it was miles then).
My first awareness of my Blackness comes at age 5 – the summer before I started school. My best friend at the time was Annik, who came with the bonus of having a pool. We had been friends since toddling, when her grandmother approached mine in the desire to have her learn to speak English.
That summer, a new family moved onto the block, our first vocally separatist family. They had a child our age, Monique, who naturally was welcomed into the neighborhood gaggle. We did not get along –not everybody likes everybody, right? No big deal, or so I thought. On the first day hot enough to go swimming, I headed over to Annik’s house as usual. When I arrived, Monique lost her shit, “ Je veux pas nager avec un noiro! Elle va sale la piscine et nous teinter. » This led the other children present to chant the name that would follow me down the street for the next few years, Noiro. Needless to say I left in tears and most of my childhood friendships ended that day. I also committed my first act of self-hate when I went home took a bath and covered myself from head to toe in baby powder. (Note: While Monique was a hateful little bitch, and I do believe she behaved that way because of the things she heard around her kitchen table, I also know her parents would have been ashamed of her behavior that day. Kids don’t always take away the meaning you want them to when they eavesdrop on adult conversations. Her parents were fighting for systemic change, but they never treated my family or any other Anglophone like the enemy)
As with almost every bad experience, I can also look back and see how it served me: I am fluently bilingual – Annik never learned English- I learned to love the pleasure of my own company, and I developed a highly creative inner world.
The winter of my 7th year, my mother took me to live in Jamaica. Here I discover that privilege and hate that can be directed at people with lighter skin. After years of being ridiculed/pitied by my father’s family for being too dark and African looking (Bajuns?) here was my Jamaican fam glorying in their so called light skinned, Canadian kin. The hierarchy of shades would eventually get upended in Jamaica but this was the early 70s.
It is also not surprising when you find out my Jewish great-grandmother admonished her granddaughters to never bring home anyone darker than themselves –try not to judge, she went through some shit; bigotry is always wrong but often complex. She also paid the karmic price of having my mom grow up and choose the darkest partners she could find.
As such, the rose and gold skin tones in my father’s Maroon Indian, Scottish, and Black heritage, coupled with those pretty curls, tickled my grandmother, and due to genetic inheritance, she favored me.
My time in Jamaica turned sour, when in school a teacher, who was hostile towards me in a way that I did not understand then, decided to beat me. Now here is the thing, I grew up in a family that very much believes in the need for a good spanking as a part up their discipline tool bag – I am not talking child abuse, though I know some believe that any spanking is too much. My point here is that, although I was a classic good girl at that time, I knew what spanking as discipline was. This teacher used a thin excuse to bring me before the class in order to shame me and get satisfaction from inflicting pain. She had me hold out my palms. Usually they would aim the strap at the palm. This woman hit the area between my elbow and fingertips with what felt like the all force she could muster.
Usually the teacher is God in the islands and is never to be questioned. In this case, two things worked against her: a) My skin is very delicate and the welts she left behind looked criminal and b) my mother had had a similar experience when she was a child in school –bigots come is all shapes and colours – so my grandmother was not having any excuses from the teacher.
Even though the teacher backed off, this coupled with a few other experiences soured me on the Jamaican experience. My wily (Bajun) grandmother discovered my unhappiness and got me back to Canada on the pretense of having me spend my summer holidays with her, only to never send me back. Upon returning, I find out I have a baby sister and my Jamaican experiences will be locked away in a box until much later.
For the next 4 years, I will spend most of the year in Duvernay, and summers in Connecticut with my father, sister, stepmother and extended family by marriage. The American Black experience is a whole new world to me. Here I am exposed to real wealth – the kind that insulates – the kind that will one day have me say to my father,”You know dad, if your weren’t a Black man, you’d be a republican.”
As a kid, I just understood they were different from West Indians and Canadian Blacks – I would later discover these differences resulted from what boat our ancestors were packed into when stolen.
This source of Blackness was however is fortifying for me. My stepmother teaches me about Black pride, how to take proper care of my skin and hair, how to pick cloths that are right for my body, and how to use my voice effectively. She introduces me to Jet, Essence and Ms. magazines, here I fall in love with the Stylistics, the Chi-Lites, The Four Tops, George Benson and my still favorite Nancy Wilson -no not the one from Heart, though I do love them too. It would take another ten years before Black American music enters the mainstream in Canada.
My next big Black defining moment comes at 12, when I move in with my mother. Having returned to Canada shortly after it became clear I was not going back to Jamaica, she lived in the heart of Cote-Des-Nieges, so I attended Coronation Elementary School.
Until then, my sense of the Montreal Black community came from our church, the Westmount 7th Day Adventist Church – interestingly we lost that connection when our family moved to the St. Laurent Church to help get it going. Imagine going to church one Saturday and seeing only folks who look like you, and the next, the only folks that look like you, came with you – ok, my Uncle’s family came too; my auntie even started a school there.
Anyway, as much as I longed to live in Montreal – I’ve had an ongoing love affair with this city since I was 5- CDN was a culture shock. Suddenly I did not speak Black enough, look Black enough or dance Black enough – ok, they had me on the dancing, you don’t learn to shake dat ass as a church kid.
Here is there first time I was to hear the words, “ you speak like a white person” muttered as an insult. This is when I’m told that I am, “a browning with good hair” – read not Black enough. Here is also where I stand up for the first time to a bully in a fist fight – I also shocked my poor aunt with how much sailor talk I knew. I also got to have Mr. Spicy for lunch, and had my first (Canadian) Black teachers. Unfortunately, I got the uptight Mr. Foster, rather than the ultra-cool Mr. George. (lesson later understood: The universe gives you what you need, not necessarily what you want.)
This is also where I first develop the attitude that results from the words, “You know, as a Black person you should . . .” regardless of who they are spoken by. Even at a tender age I intuitively knew these words were a demonstration of bias and a cultural trap. I chaffed at these attempts to force me in to conforming to the ideals of others’, whether well-meaning or down right racist.
Mom quickly decided that CDN was no place to raise a teen and my soon to be baby sister, so when I turned 13, we moved to Catrierville and a year later, St. Laurent. While at the time, my PSBGM school was predominantly Greek and Jewish, the neighborhood was rich in its diversity. Like CDN, new immigrants were being directed into the area.
Here, for the first time, I would confront and recognize bigotry aimed at me by a fellow West Indian; a girl from Trinidad. I had never been taught that there was a hierarchy amongst people of colour – shades yes, but this island vs that or islanders vs Africans no- The first time I referred to her as a person of colour she let me know that a) she was not Black she was Indian and b) being Black was akin to being untouchable. My reaction? The same one I have now when someone tells me they are “mulato”; incredulity. Then I cussed her stank, now I shake my head, step away and try to remind myself of everyone’s right to the journey of self-identity.
This is also where I discover that I do have internal limits that if pushed past, flip my switch to crazy – as in batshit out of control. This happens when two sisters, the popular girls- read first ones to grow breast, and thus are perceived as easy- who happened to be White, decide that the new kid needs a beat down. When the first one started beating on me, with the prerequisite circle of sycophants chanting, egging her on, I quickly rolled into a ball and took it. I was taught not to fight, and particularly not to fight with girls, as I grew up rough housing with boys. I also feared the crowd getting involved if I fought back. She eventually gave up because I was offering her no fun.
I figured it was over and was prepared to slink away in shame. Then her sister stepped up and declared it was her turn. To say I lost it is an understatement. Even looking back now, it still scares me and is the reason I do not raise my fists in anger. I attacked, and while I do not remember most of it, I do remember coming back into myself when an adult neighbour pulled me off the girl and she was raw and bloodied. I also remember one of the kids telling the man that he should call the cops because, “that nigger bitch is crazy.” Thankfully, that (White) man had been watching from his window, having caught the end of the first fight. He chose to be an ally that day, shaming those who would use me as prey, staying with me while forcing the crowd to disburse, and watching to see that I got safely home. Interesting twist in this tale, I would later go on to become friends with the sisters, Lori and Karen, when slut shaming and gossip mongering hit them hard –did I mention I love an underdog?
Grade 7, which I did in Morrison Elementary School, marked the end of my childhood. It was the year I grew breast, had my first period, had my first real crush, and welcomed my second baby sister.
Join tomorrow me for Part 2: high school and the discovery of sex, drugs and rock and roll.