Learning what it is to be Black in Quebec
Part 2: Individuating
By high school, I was well into what they describe as an at-risk personality. My body ripened into a shape considered vulgar by some, exotic by others, and became sexualized in the eyes of some even before I got with the game.
The first high school I attended was predominately Greek and Armenian – who, for some reason liked to fight amongst themselves. Amongst this these groups, it was all about who drove the hottest Trans Ams, who could tease their hair up the highest and wear the most eyeliner, and who flashed around enough gold to cover Fort Knox.
I spent my childhood watching/helping boys rebuild real muscle cars-Chevelles, GTOs, Mustangs, Chargers and even the ’69 Camaro – and race them on the flat stretch of the 440 at night. The factory built Trans Ams with the wings on the hood were just posers –yeah! I said it! As for the hair game, the last thing I needed was to add to my 5’11” height. I am also a silver girl. I do have to thank the Rulas, Toulas, Voulas and Zoes for helping me get my eyeliner game on point.
Also at this school, was a small and tightly knit Black student body. One problem; the price of admission is disassociation from anything they perceive as white. I was into theater –white- I liked rock music – white- used big words – white- and worst sin of all, I was into cute boys and could care less what colour they were. I was therefore out of the Black club. The Armenian and Greek clubs were mostly closed clubs too. Once again I was the square peg in the round hole, then, lamenting she couldn’t be round. As a result, I started gravitating towards the other outsiders. Such was life at Malcolm Campbell High School.
By 14, my poor mom was lost when it came to me. She did not get me, I did not particularly like her. Her Jamaican ways and my Canadian ones clashed hard. To make a long story short, this led to, first a quick return to my grandparents’ home, and then a short stint in foster care, and a return to Laval, while I attended Chomedy Polyvalent High School.
I realised at this point that the bigotry and racism one encounters depends greatly of just how large a minority you are. In a student body of over 1000, were there are maybe 10 people of colour, you are not perceived as a threat, and thus are largely ignored as long as you don’t call attention to yourself. Since most of the Blacks who lived in Laval at that time were all about assimilating, Blacks students did not gravitate towards each other there. Instead it was all about what clique you belonged to.
By this time, realising I would never gain mass acceptance, I adopted a no fucks to give posture. As opposed to seeking to belong, I started to revel in the freedom of my outsider status. I cultivated one best girl friend, my eventual foster-sister Lise, and we hung out mostly in the breezeway –stoner alley- or with the boys in woodshop and auto-mechanics- those classes were in the back of the building where we went to skip class and sneak smokes. I would eventually make friends with the girls in Cosmetology, many of whom dated the boys in auto-mechanics. I fostered these friendships when the rumor mill started suggesting that Lise and I were sleeping with the boys. While I could care less about the rumor mill, it was important to me that the girlfriends know I was not that kind of girl. That, while I had no problem with casual sex, I did not do OPP.
Ironically, our refusal to play the popularity game, coupled with our reputation of standing up to bullies and authority figures who were in the wrong, and defending/protecting the special needs kids, eventually made us two of the most popular/notorious girls in school.
For the most part, my sense of being Black goes unattended at this time. The political climate has heated up, and folks checking identity only want to know one thing: are you English or French? This tension based on language would blind me to much of the systemic racism I would come to fight later in life.
My most interesting experience as a person of colour at this time, happens when Ville Marie rejects the foster-home I chose on the grounds that the head of household was White. The system had just woken up to the idea that Black children need to be nurtured in homes that understood their needs. At the time, this was strictly defined as a Black home. They tried to stick me in a Black home, but it did not work. I wanted out so bad I ran off, and they wanted me gone, as they caught me petting with their eldest son – “That Jezebel is a bad influence”. No one noted he was 4 years older than me. I guess I just had good game. (Note: There was no force or coercion involved – he was just a dumb ass, so stuck under his mother’s thumb that the first girl who came along who was not family, and was willing to give him the time of day, was irresistible to him )
Thankfully the foster mother I had chosen knew the system and was able to get us a meeting with then head of the department, Vaughn Dowey. I think I shocked him at first, as he hadn’t heard my perspective articulated before. Thankfully, he was not a rigid man. Another new rule had just come into effect at that time, which said a child of 14 had the right to an opinion about placement. So, instead of being dogmatic about the system and a very hard won rule relating to culture, and much to my mother’s chagrin, he chose to put my needs/desires first and approved my placement. (Note: My mother did not care that she was White, she just wanted the system to force me back home and make me comply with her rules- she was also deeply embarrassed by the whole thing)
Returning to my grandparents proved impossible as I had changed too much while living in the city. Where once I was a silent and obedient child, I was now argumentative and did things like skipped school. One day the phone rang. It was my 8th grade math teacher. The man was a grade A asshole, a misogynist and bully, and I was so over math. I skipped his class often, and when I was present, was considered disruptive because I would not take his shit. I think what really got his goat is that my grades were high- math, the great equalizer.
Now my Grandfather would have been upset about any problems at school, but he really lost his shit because the teacher happened to be a Bajun – I believe I mentioned the teacher was God in the Caribbean. Grandpa did not want to hear any explanations or defenses. He actually tried to spank me. It was kind of funny – my grandma always did the spanking. He got one swat in and I was out the door, refusing to return.
So I spent 18 months in foster care instead, when the day I ran out of my grandparents’ home, my friend Lise and her mother welcomed me into theirs. During this time had experiences that would make most parents cringe. I embraced a freedom I never had, had a sexually awakening that most teen boys dream of, and discovered a me that others had been trying hard to supress. Living with a White family also confirmed something else – whiteness is not superior nor is it always right.
Moreover, having gotten to know me, and my pension for avoiding or running away from my problems, my foster mother hug a sign on the fridge; words that would change my life forever. They said
You are the only problem you will ever have, and baby, YOU are the only solution.
I left this home at age 15, when I moved to live with my father in Conneticut. Where the Caribbean community at home kind of recognised me as one of their own- if a flawed one- the Blacks I meet in American high school have no idea what to make of me. They are friendly at first, but when they see me hop into a car with a White girl, I become suspect – what can I say, she was a senior to my freshman, had good weed, and was intrigued that I was a Canadian. She was also a truly kind person. That did not matter, all they saw was her whiteness and us accepting each other, which they took as a rejection of them.
I eventually make a Black girl friend and she even pens me a friendship letter. I show the letter to my stepmother who questions it. I am oblivious. The girl gets me invited to a retreat with her and some other some upper level students. One of the other students who attends is a boy I am crushing on. During one of the breaks, he and I step out onto the gallery to chat- read flirt. She comes out and I wave her away. Storm clouds gather in her eyes, and I assume it is the Black/White thing again and dismiss it for later discussion.
We return to the group session, and she quickly initiates a confrontation with me, wherein she eviscerates me emotionally in front of the group, revealing things I have confided in her. For the next two weeks at school I put up with bullying and learn the meaning of the words, hell hath no fury like a woman who feels scorned.
While I am telling this story, let me divert for a moment: to all LGBTQ people, who when in your youth trying to figure your own shit out, got hurt by clueless hetros like me, who in our naiveté sent confusing signals, I apologise. Had I known she was a lesbian, better yet, had I known what a lesbian was, I’d like to believe I would have acted with more sensitivity. Regardless of the pain she caused me that day, I regret the pain she felt thinking I was playing her.
What is interesting about this story was that I discovered that I did have a certain allegiance to the values of the Black community. I could have easily turned the tables on her that day or any day after, but as we were the only two people of colour in the room I chose not to.
Moreover, when my stepmother explained what she understood had happened, I couldn’t help but feel for the girl – unrequited love is a bitch. So I allowed her to bring back her version of the story to the school unchecked – one that kept her firmly in the closet, and allowed myself to become a pariah among most of my fellow Blacks. It was not all bad though. I was embraced by a segment of the outsider population and learned the joys of keg parties, country-rock and bon fires in the woods.
Thankfully, at the end of that school year I was shipped back to my mom in Montreal, and returned to visiting Connecticut in the summer and for holidays.
I returned to Chomedy High, and accidentally fell into activism, while I continued to party and live a second life under the name I assumed when I started at CPHS –Lynn, my middle name. While I did not have the words to describe it then, for most of my teens I was fighting a battle to individuate from the identity that was being forced on me. I made choices that would let me be me, while hiding who that was from my family.
To give you one concrete example, I’ll tell the tale of the night that would put the death nail into my adolescence. As I mentioned, my mom was very traditional West Indian. Doing something as common as sleeping over at a friend’s house was pretty well verboten. After my stint in foster care, my mom tried to lighten up. On this particular evening, I got her to agree to let me stay with my friend Joy, who lived next door with her boyfriend.
Now, I freely admit that the point of staying at Joy’s that night was not just to sleep over, but so that I could run the street with her. We went off to our favorite watering hole, a brasserie called The Post, where they did not card – which was not something I really worried about, because at 16 I was all woman, at least physically. Anyway, Joy met a guy that evening and decided to spend the night with him. As I was staying at Joy’s, and her boyfriend would wonder where she was if I went back without her, and I could not go home, less my mother take away my privileges, I wound up spending the night with Joy, the guy she met, and his best friend, I guy I knew vaguely from the club. Copious amounts of alcohol fueled some risky behaviour, which seeded the little miracle that would change my life forever.
The birth of my son at age 17, put an end to my adolescence, and started my journey from rudderless to purposeful.
Join me tomorrow for the third and final installment: Playing grownup