Entry 12: February 12, 2019

Hairstory

Just after my 50th birthday, I shaved my head as a political act.

As a Black woman, hair is a big deal. For most of my adult life, others have remarked on my hair, usually with some variation on, “you got that good hair”. This is ironic, given that as a child, I was ridiculed because my hair did not favor my father’s soft Indian curls.

Straitening was introduced to me young, when it was decided I was too tender headed for proper upkeep. My step mother cured me of my tender-headedness; she was not easily deterred by tears. She then taught me how to take care of it myself, so I could get rid of the rollers and hood dryers.

I’ve spent a lot of good money colouring and straitening my hair, and way too much of my life maintaining it – 1.5 hours to wash, blow dry and style and 20 minutes each morning with my curling iron. After all that work, 1 minute spent outside in humid weather, and I looked like Sideshow Bob. Clearly too much of my self-worth was connected to my hair, and relied on mimicking western aesthetics.

My first foray away from western styles came with cornrows. I did not like this, as it always made my hair look shorter than it was – length is a big deal for a coloured girl. When I got older, I was introduced to extensions. What a blessing, a whole month of low maintenance hair. Still, I recognised that my choices were all about being socially acceptable.

So in an act of self-reclamation and thumbing my nose to convention, I had my husband shave my head. Talk about your wild experiences. Every woman should try this at least once!

First was the feel. My driveway lays between two buildings. The first time I went out there after shaving, I got a lesson in aerodynamics.  I could actually feel the air go over and around my head and swoop down my neck and back – cool beans!

Then was the freedom: wash and go hair? Well I never!

Best was the reaction. My husband loved it, not only aesthetically, but that it freed me from the work and products. My mother’s partner told me that if I was his woman, he would leave me. Mom tried to like it, but accepted it best when I explained the politics of it – “that is so you” – Young women admired my “courage”, and older women admired my spunk. The middle had mixed reviews.

It was such a big deal, that I kept my hair at ⅛ inch for over a year. Not so much because of the reaction, but because of how little I cared what they thought. My choice became a challenge to others – accept it or be dismissed.

 I discovered however, winter and a bald head do not make a good match.

The following winter I decided to let it grow back for the season. This is where I made my next big discovery.  It turns out I do have my dad’s curls; I just have very thick hair.

As my hair started to grow, the styling battle began anew. I know it has become vogue to walk around looking unkempt, but to me, bed head just signals nasty.  The next few months would be a lesson in care for real Black hair – as opposed to chemically treated – and culminate with me shaving again.

While I embraced the comfort again, I also felt like I had given up. I hate to give up on anything –both strength of character and flaw. Moreover, I started to feel something else gnawing at me.

It took a stroll through a photo album for me to clue in. While I was feeling strong in my Blackness, my bald head was undermining my sense of femininity. My favorite earings no linger looked right, certain neck lines were a problem, and frankly, I like having bangs to feel hidden behind.

I know that gender is more than just my window dressing, and I am comfortable with myself au natural. Yet when it comes to feeling well put together and girly, I need two things; my eyeliner and hair.

Thankfully styling products have changed a lot, and my crone hair is coming in silver rather than grey. Now instead of getting caught in a battle with my hair, I recognise the blessed flexibility nature gave me. When it is hot and humid, my hair is wash and go curls, and in the winter, a blow dryer and flat iron gives me a layered bob and reduces daily washing. Best of all, a trip to the store and a little Black girl magic, and I am weather proofed.

I may even shave it again, or I may lock it as I originally planned. See while I recognise that my hair has a role in how I perceive myself, now I feel that it is no more important than what nail polish shade I wear.

On an aside: as you may have noted I have a thing for words and their meanings. Many people have chosen to wear their hair in locks. While I firmly believe that not everything is for everybody, I also feel to each their own. I have but one small request; please call them what they are, locks. A Dread is a person; technically one who is Rastafari, which is a religion that proscribes the locking of one’s hair.  So when one says they are wearing dreadlocks, what they are saying is they are wearing the locks of a dread (said that way sounds like appropriation, but not my point.) My point is that when you say you have you have or are wearing “dreads”, you are saying you have or are wearing people.

Entry 11: February 11, 2019

Desperate Thoughts

Around my house, Monday nights belong to my 2 year old nephew.  My sister works late, so my husband picks him up at daycare, and we spend the evening doing the parent routine of dinner, playtime –usually playdoh- bath time, book and bed.

As I lay down with him tonight, I couldn’t help but reflect on this blog, and think about what he will have to deal with.

My nephew is a doe eyed little imp, with the sweetest disposition and a very kind heart.

Yet, I already see perception shifting around him. As an infant White people would stop us on the street to coo at him. Though his looks have not changed much, a haircut just before his second birthday did away with the baby, and let the little boy come forth.  I noticed the change in people right away; they either ignore him, or look at him suspect. A two year old?! What is it they see? And what will we have to make him compromise/sacrifice to keep him safe. His innocence? His belief in a fair world? His freedom of expression?

I was born here, educated here, speak both languages, and am a woman, thus I tend to deal with more systemic problems than in your face racism. For a male however, particularly a darker skinned male, life can be constant harassment and oppression. It seems like whenever someone feels the need to kick someone around to feel good about themselves, the Black male is a favorite target. This seems particularly true of the police, from Anthony Griffen – shot in the back while in hand cuffs -on down. That all of these stories end with blaming the victim means there is no deterrent from using our children as target practice.

How can you raise a child to feel strong and free when this is the reality of their world? No, not everybody is out to get them. But the world makes it so easy for this kind of evil to hide within their ranks that you have to always be prepared for the unexpected.

A Black police officer asked me once why I was so distrustful, even of him. He wanted me to know not all cops are assholes. He did not have to tell me that. My grandfather was a police office in Barbados, and an “uncle” was Chief of Police in Las Vegas.  I explained that I had no idea who the good ones are and who the bad ones are. Moreover, the officers within the ranks know very well, yet they never speak up. That makes them all at least suspect, at worst culpable, my books. After my years in community development I now know some officers I would go so far as to say I trust, but even still, I wouldn’t risk my nephew’s life on them.

I would love to tell my nephew the fairy-tale other parents get to tell their children; keep your nose clean and you will never have to worry. Those children will never know what it is to be stopped for driving while Black, to have the police called on them for using a bathroom or selling lemonade, or have people assume they stole something because “it’s too good for you”. Instead I get to tell him things like, the more successful he is then more they will want to fuck with him so as to , “keep him in his place”. Worst yet, I will have to teach him how to redirect his rightful indignation so that he can get over, rather than get plowed under.

Then again, maybe global warming will have the side effect of leveling the playing field and making us all band together for survival – how’s that for desperation!

Entry 10: February 10, 2019

Irony

In a lot of ways, life has been a battle, and not one I necessarily chose. Yet, when it comes right down to it, if the choice was mine today, I would be in this battle none the less. I would choose to be a woman, I would choose to be Black, and I would not go back to change most of my significant experiences. So what does that say about me?

Entry 9: February 9 2019

The Performance of Life

One of the ways I maintain good mental health is to spend as much time as possible in places where I can just be me; meaning I can just be without thinking about how I am being. The challenge of trying to act as observer while trying to be present in the moment is taxing.

Everybody performs sometime; with our parents, bosses, teachers, whatever. Being an adult often means feeling one way and acting another.

A small example of this is the battle of the Smonday; that moment on Sunday when I realize that the weekend has been too short. Occasionally, I may even contemplate getting out of work the Monday. Yet invariably, Monday morning comes, and the adult in me forces myself out of bed and engages in another week. There is a good chance for the first few hours of that morning I will perform my job and being a good employee, until eventually I will just do my job and go about my day. It’s called earning a living. If you’re lucky like me, you do what you love so that you can find joy in it, even on bad days.

It seems like it has been an eon since I thought about my performance of gender. Truth is, when I rounded 30 I felt like I came into the mantle of woman, in that by that point, I had such a clear sense of my right to be my own woman. As such, I have found it hard to care what others think of me in relation to being a woman.

When it comes to Blackness however, survival requires performative skills. I was speaking to a friend the other day, and in trying to explain to her what it is like to be a visible minority I said, “ I would love to get through just one day without thinking about the fact that I am Black!”

I think the statement shocked her as much as it did me. For me the shock came from the truth of it.  I can’t think of one day since my early 20s where I was not brought to an awareness of being Black.  Some days it is the guy trailing me through the store, some days it is the shock of a colleague when I articulate a good point, some days it’s a young Black gay man being brutalized and having a rope slipped around his neck.

Black history month is particularly challenging. While bringing forward the hidden stories of achievement is uplifting, we also have to look into the shadows of history and reveal the ugliness hidden there, if it is to mean anything. That so much of it goes unattended and unacknowledged, and that we have to continue to fight to be regarded as human, makes it that much harder to put on the masks.

When I was a girl, a mini-series called Roots was on television. It was on too late for me to watch, but my mom, who was not a tv person, stayed up late to watch the entire series. On the Monday morning, as I was dressing for school, I noticed my mom was not going through her regular routine. I was surprised when my mother, who never took time off, who was sitting there fit as a fiddle, told me she was skipping day. “Up too late?” I quipped. “No.” she replied. “I don’t trust what will happen if I have to go in there and look those White people in the eye. I don’t trust what I might say.”

I laughed then; my mom is ever the lady, the idea of her popping off was laughable. Now however, I  soooooo get it, and I am not laughing. While I have never felt the need to avoid all White people, I have to admit, there are some I only see when I have the strength to perform. Moreover, there are entire systems I avoid because the chances of me having a bad day are highly increased if I don’t act “right”. This includes the justice system, the medical system, the academic system, and the banking system.

So you will have to forgive me when I am not out, about and happy go lucky.  Fact is, some days I just feel too Black to act otherwise.

Entry 8: February 8, 2019

The Burdens of Being a “Credit”

Today I saw a clip of Dr. Myrna Lashley doing an interview with CTV News about racial profiling. As a part of the interview, Dr. Lashley spoke about being the first Black Dean at John Abbot Collage, and mentioned being, “… tired of having to carrying that burden from both sides”. This made me mentally promise her a hug when next I see her .

When I say I stepped off the path folks had planned for me, this is the kind of thing they had in mind – the whole be a credit to my “race” thing.

I have to tell you, from my parent’s point of view, and probably that of a significant section of the elder Black Community, I am an underachiever. It is not so much about what I have done, as it is about what they know I might have done. Truth is that at 10 I wanted to be Prime Minister; and I probably could have done it too, if I didn’t have an aversion to lies and lying drilled into me. While the outer world might have missed it, my people saw the spark of fire and intelligence in me early.

Even though I have achieved great things with my life, for the most part, I have kept my light under my bushel within the Black community, and acted up just enough, that I could not be made the poster child of anything. Don’t get it twisted, I am not one to dumb it down or diminish myself; I just tend to be guided more by fate and faith than ambition.

It’s funny, but I never had such qualms when I was made representative for the voice of youth, or when held up as a positive example for my gender, and I have even taken up the mantle of Black activism by choice. Yet it always felt like the leadership within the Black community was a club I was ill fitted to.

Here is the thing, just like I am not representative of the entirety of my community, so too is some of what some of the members of my community do, not representative of me. When I was young, every time someone suggested I had greatness in me, it came with the implicit message that the entrance fee was conformity.

I remember once, early in my career, I got a call, out of the blue, from a Black community leader. He had seen some press stuff I had done and called to berate me, saying that I while I was clearly on the ball, I was a disappointment because I worked for, “a White organization.”

The organization I worked for was an employability project that, at the time, was under the YMCA umbrella. What he had not bothered to find out, was that the project focused on assisting immigrants and visible/ethnic minorities to integrate into the labour market and build sustainable careers. Moreover, he did not know our organization was headed by an ethnic minority, our staff was 90% Black, and the pay was the highest in the industry. Best of all, he was not calling to offer me an option, just his biased opinion.

The subtext of his call is what bothered me most; what he was in effect saying was “you’re one of us, what are you doing with them? It’s beneath you.” Needless to say, this pissed me right off. This was the same bourgeois bullshit I had been fighting all of my life.

In my opinion, the bourgeois Black is more interested in upholding an image of the community, than they are invested in helping members of the community to self-actualize. Every time I have worked with them on community development programs I have come away with a bad taste in my mouth. There was the anti-racism committee I left, when I realised that my son would never be welcomed in their ranks because he was too fair skinned. Then there was the time I worked to help set up a new community organization, only to realise that when it came to hiring practices, they would institute the same ridiculous standards that kept Blacks from getting jobs in other institutions.

What many of these people don’t get, is that they have been indoctrinated into a way of thinking that had them internalizing racism and perpetuating it the name of building community. To understand this, check out the work of Atkins and Sue:

https://1.cdn.edl.io/O112WwDAGkvTSdMwEk6JTjXDoSmEpWywvfRalcXcjsAEnbse.pdf

Moreover, I often found it difficult to come to agreement with these folks because they refused to look at intersectionality and how their way impacted the whole of us. So for instance, I found that as a woman in this slice of the Black community, I was expected to do the grunt work so some man can stand on my shoulders and take the credit. I was also expected to distance myself from anyone who they felt was not up to snuff – to bad these are the same people I’ve committed my life to helping be who they are.

Best of all is the hypocrisy that ran through this crowd; holding people to standards that they themselves do not uphold. Montreal is a small town; just cause no one says anything about your philandering, addictions and double dealing doesn’t mean we don’t see you. As I am not the type to pretend for anyone, it is safer for all that I go my own way.

Thankfully, I found other elders in the Black community who feel the same; who welcomed me and supported me in my need to be a my own proud Black woman and be of service to my community in a way that allowed me to maintain my integrity.

I was reminded of this recently when I attended a function that was also attended by a dignitary of the Black community. As the person came in, there was much fuss. While I appreciated their accomplishments as communicated in their introduction, I held back, waiting for a sense of the person. It did not take long; they looked me over, caught a gander at my candy-apple blue nail polish and gave me the fail. Not long later, they overheard a conversation I was having, and realised that I was not who they thought I was. I fell into conversation with them, but it was not long before my outsider perspective ran up against their bourgeois notions. Yet they could not simply dismiss me, because although I clearly understood their world, I was drawing different conclusions. This confused them, and I could sense them prodding me to try to figure me out. Here however, I got a sense of appreciation rather than fear and disgust. I am not sure what did it; that I showed the courage of my convictions, or that I was no sycophant.

Less you believe that my only challenge comes from within the Black community, the fact is that my refusal of the protection of bourgeois status has cost me dearly in terms of the support one gets in putting up with living in a racist world.

When not out having to make a living, most of this crowd spends its time with each other; they attend the same events, belong to the same clubs, and share the same causes. There is comfort and safety in surrounding yourself in this way.

I on the other hand, often find myself in rooms where I am the only person of colour; which means not only do I confront bigotry, prejudice and all the isms more often, but I do so without back up or validation. In confronting it, I also have to be careful that my reaction is not such that it just feeds into those preconceived ideas.

Needless to say, I spend a lot of time at home, because like Dr. Lashley, I get tired of the bullshit from both sides.

Entry 7: February 7, 2019

Picking Your Battles Wisely

It may surprise some to know that I am not clutching the pearls over what Liam Neeson said. In fact, I am kind of appreciative of him revealing such. Yes, I think he is suffering from old, privileged guy, tone-deafness, but no, I don’t think he is a good candidate to be drawn and quartered in the name of fighting racism.

As far as I am concerned, Neeson is doing what I am asking all people of privilege to do; look inside themselves and name and claim the thoughts and behaviours they have or have had that are bigoted, prejudiced, racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic. I have no use for allies who are not willing to do this work, nor do I trust ANYONE who pretends they have never had even so much as a stray thought. I am not perfect, nor do I expect perfection from those around me. I expect that when you know better you will do better.

From what I heard, Neeson is not Trump. He did not defend or justify his behaviour, if fact, as I understand it, he claimed it as a shameful moment in his life. While I think such disclosures are better suited to intimate settings, where dialogue can foster healing and growth, Neeson’s willingness to declare himself publicly offers an opportunity for people who see themselves in him, to check themselves.

We social justice warriors need to really think about what we are doing when we seek to shame and ostracize a person like this. Would you want your life reduced to your one worst moment? Given some of the foolishness in my youth, I certainly don’t. Moreover, I want leaders who have been there, done that, and learnt some shit, rather than cloistered missionaries who think they know what is best for me.

After all, if we are ever going to understand what drives a person to behave this way and find the keys to changing such behaviour for good, we need to have people, who have been them and seen the light, share their stories.

To demonstrate this from a different context, I think about gangs. My city was once rocked by street gangs. What turned the tide was when youth started to get out of the gangs, tell their stories and seek opportunities to help other youth avoid the trap. Are there still gangs in Montreal? Sure, but nowhere near the presence that it was at its peak.

We need to distinguish between people like Neeson, who is coming clean with contrition, admitting to privilege and having committed a racist act, vs people like Kavanaugh & Trump, who look back with a shrug (The boys will be boys lobby) and/or perform contrition when caught, then go back to the same old same old.

Entry 6: February 6, 2019

Three, Not So Little, Words

Today I want to look at three words and how we (mis)use them: Bigotry, Prejudice, and Racism.

It has become common to group everything under the term racism and I think we do ourselves a disservice, because we make it harder for people to see themselves in it. Sure all three of the above terms are interrelated, but they do not mean the same thing.

Bigotry is an intolerance of those different from one’s self. –“I don’t like/am scared of  Black people”.

Prejudice, when it comes to people, is a judgement born of bigotry. “All Black people are thieves.”

Racism is an act, an abuse of power, born of bigotry, prejudice and privilege, and is often systemic. “Since all Black people are thieves, they clearly can’t help themselves, so you have to take every opportunity lock them up and throw away the key.”

So, to dislike me simply because I am Black is bigotry. To follow me around a store or assume the jacket I have on is stolen, even though you did not see me take it, is prejudice. To call the cops and try to have me locked up, based on your suspicions alone is racist, and the system that holds me to a different standard, and automatically believes your version of events over mine, is systemically racist.

While bigotry and prejudice can get on my nerves; they limit the person that has them more than they do me. They only concern me as they tend to lead to racism, which is intolerable, and is ultimately an act of privilege. Moreover, since most folks are not comfortable with, much less acknowledge their bigotry and prejudices; they tend to support structures that perpetuate discrimination for them.

So, to paraphrase my favorite Prime Minister, P.E.T, if you want to walk down the street pin-wheeling your arms, go ahead and do you. The nanosecond your fists threaten to come in contact with my body however – FIGHT ON!

Entry 5: February 5, 2019

The State of Being Lost

I think now is a good time to explore why I included the word “lost” in the title of my blog.

To start, it is a bit of a nod to Tyler Perry; someone whose personal narrative I admire, and whose work I enjoy. Mr. Perry’s story, in terms of the judgments passed on him, his career and the stories he chooses to tell, is in great part why I appreciate him – I may explore this in another entry, but that is not my focus today.

I switched the Mad to Lost, as a statement on where I’m currently at (intellectually/psychologically/spiritually), but also in relation to questions I want to explore about we are as culture, as women, and as a society and why.

Lately, when someone genuinely asks how I am doing I admit that I am feeling a little lost, and there is a pregnant pause in the conversation. I have come to have no shame about my game when it comes to mental health, but until very recently, social etiquette dictated that you keep it to yourself.

I have had challenges with maintaining good mental health since I was a young adult. I occasionally battle depression – not the jump off a bridge kind, but the curl into a ball, sit in the dark and hide from the world kind. I am also given to occasional panic attacks. Based on the situations that tend to provoke these attacks, the medical term that is currently the norm is agoraphobia.

Given that I firmly believe that my challenges are less biochemically induced than environmental (nurture not nature), I have chosen not to go the pharmaceutical route in dealing with my challenges – after extensive talks with my doctor as well as one-on-one counselling! Instead, I chose to build skills and strategies to help me mitigate the wear and tear of environmental factors I have no control over.

I formally recognised my mental health challenges just before starting studies to become a social counsellor. Needless to say, for me school was part training and part figuring out my own baggage. There I would be introduced to many models of human development, and I would fall in love with the work of Erik Erikson, and his theory of psycho-social human development.  While most theories support the idea that the person is formed in childhood, and that is all there is to it, Erikson theorised that we develop over a lifetime – eight stages in all, and that at each stage there is something we are psychologically negotiating that will set the stage for the next.

At first, counselling drove me up a wall; all that digging into the past for what? Finding Erickson gave purpose to that digging, and empowered me with the understanding that once I figured out where my programming went wrong I could fix it. Moreover, examining my life through this lens, allowed me to see the implications of my environment and how that impacted my sense of self. To get the most out of such exploration, I learned to loosen my grip on my sense of self, so that the discoveries made could be properly integrated into a renewed sense of self.

When I tell people I am feeling lost, it often disturbs them, and they tend to respond with sympathy.  They cannot conceive of the possibility that feeling lost could ultimately be a good thing.

For me, I will be going along and everything is hunky-dory, then one day I wake up, and everything just feel slightly off. Things I used to enjoy no longer hold me, a desire to connect to the outer world diminishes, and I start to feel like I am just spinning my wheels. -I had a workshop leader once, who labeled this feeling as Divine Discontent, and said it was an indication that the universe was inviting you to grow. I have come to believe she was right.

One of two things will then happen: a) I find some project to throw myself into as a distraction from my malaise or b) I fall into depression. Now you might think a is the better deal, but the truth is, for me, allowing b is the faster route to re-balancing.

Here is the thing, I can only indulge myself so long – remember environmental/emotional not bio chemical. If I allow myself to get in touch with my feelings of depression, it does not take long before I get sick of myself and focusing on that which is not in my power to fix, and move into problem solving mode.

So to focus on my current sense of being lost, it started at the end of last year when I a) lost my job and b) sat jury duty.  Now, fundamentally, losing my job was partially my choice, and I won’t go into details because there is no point. What is important is that the situation had me questioning my competency and the integrity of my relationships with others.

Sitting jury duty on the other hand, left me with a serious psychological skid mark, which I can do little about, as I am legally barred from discussing the particulars with anyone. All I can say is that the process undermined what little confidence I had in our judicial system and left me feeling less safe in the world. Having been informed of the loss of my job just after I began jury duty – I knew of the possibility before, it only became official after, my employer did nothing wrong– meant that had a lot of time on my hands to stew in my own thoughts after I was released. Needless to say – hello depression, my old friend.

Now the thing about depression is that no matter how many times I’ve been there, it always seems to sneak up on me. At first it starts with me feeling like I am just in a funk, and then eventually, someone like my husband says something like, “I feel like I haven’t seen you in days.” That will kick start a process of reflection that will make me realize that I haven’t been truly present for a while and start to track my avoidance behaviours.  Instead of just changing my behavior –fake it till you make it- I have learned to question the causes as a way of generating options for change.

The first step was to accept I could do nothing about my feelings as it related to the court experience – this is just something I will carry for the rest of my life. I will have long periods where I don’t think about it, then something will flash me back, and my reaction can be as severe as a full blown panic attack. I breathe through it, have a good cry if necessary and move forward.

Then I had to figure out what exactly I was feeling- feelings of futility, of being untethered, of uncertainty of purpose and impact, feelings that I am not doing enough to foster change and fear that change is not possible, and most devastating of all, the feeling that hope is slipping away – Ford/ Legault /and probably Scheer never mind Trump?! The undermining of the Fourth Estate? Alternate truth? The gleeful and entitled hoarding of resources? Climate change deniers? What would my senior years look like?

That was about the time I got sick of myself and started coming out of the cave of depression. My thought spirals were doing me absolutely no good and it was time to start putting one foot in front of another. I got a job – two in fact- started to invest myself in others, and I decided to battle on my feet rather than from my metaphorical fetal position.

So that is where I am now; living my divine discontent as I try to find my way and shape the next chapter of my life, given that my underpinnings have come loose; LOST.

Interesting note: Doing this blog forced me to review Erickson’s theory, only to realize I am exactly where I am supposed to be at this point in my life, struggling with the things I am supposed to be struggling with – stage 7. For your own edification here is a synopsis of Erikson’s  theory:  

https://www.verywellmind.com/erik-eriksons-stages-of-psychosocial-development-2795740

 

Tomorrow, I will I will probably look at questions related to gender or culture: I don’t know which yet.

(Note: I use the word culture as opposed to race. I identify culturally as Black, West Indian and/or a person of colour, but when it comes my race, I only identify as human.)

Entry 4: February 4, 2019

Learning what it is to be Black in Quebec

Part 3: Playing Adult

As mentioned, pregnancy ushered in the next phase of my life. What I did not mention was that it probably saved my life as well. I was on the path to nowhere, and having my son forced me to get with the program. While there is no question my son could have picked a better mom, I could not have asked for a better son- timing and all. (Note: I will not be including much about my son in my entries. Parents are embarrassing enough without having them tell your business to the world. His childhood is his story to tell)

After the student walk outs and subsequent extended teachers’ strike of ’79, by a quirk of administrative magic, I wound up in grade 11 with no credits for grade 10. This meant that all my friends would graduate that year, and I would be stuck coming back on my own. In a flash of logic that can only be explained by a teen, I decided this was a reason to quit school- without my parents knowing. It only took a couple of weeks for me to see what a dumb ass decision that was.

At that time, they introduced a new teaching model into the school system; the first alternative school, Phoenix High. 4 teachers, 12 students studying in an office building. I had started classes and was two weeks in when I discovered I was pregnant. I went to school that Monday to tell the teachers, expecting they would throw me out. They didn’t even think about it. Instead, they explained I needed to finish school if I was to have any chance of at a decent life. They pointed out that I could always further my education later, but that if I did not get my HSLC, the chance of me going onto higher education was almost nil. When I pointed out that due to my credits situation I would not graduate before I gave birth, they made a deal with me: If I would do the work, they would arrange for me to do both grade 10 & 11 provincial exams, which if I passed, would allow me to graduate.  This is how I completed grade 10&11 in 13 weeks, wrote my exams at 7 months pregnant, and graduated with an A- average.

I have to pause here to point out there are two types of teachers in this world: One type focuses on the students and does all they can to help them make the finish line, and the other, focuses on upholding the system, and can act as blockers to the finish line. My teachers at Phoenix went so far as to pick me up and take me to my exams, stay with me during, and pump me up after each test on the ride home.

At the time, the school board would not allow us to write our exams in our own school – I suspect our marks had them thinking that the teachers were inflating our grades. As far as they were concerned, we kids were losers who would never make good. Instead, we were sent to Western Laval High School to write our exams, where the principal took exception to me, because he felt allowing me into school, much less giving me the opportunity to graduate was a bad example to the rest. To him, I was being allowed to cheat they system. He told me this directly before my first exam, then he went so far as to have invigilators stand over me as I took my tests- I suspect in an effort to intimidate me and cause me to lose focus.  My teachers thwarted that plan by passing the window of the exam room often and flashing me smiles and thumbs up as a reminder that I could do it. I did it indeed. Not one of my tests came back with a lower grade than 90%.

Fact is, I discovered I was not a bad student, just a bored one. Growing up, my grandfather saw to it that we were well educated, with much supplementary teaching at home. As a result, school failed to challenge me, and few ever figured out that the little brown kid was actually smart until Phoenix. Idle hands are the devils workshop, and I was bedeviled for many years.

Moreover, my grandfather felt a good education foresters questions and invites debate. He raised us to believe in things only after we have filtered it though our critical mind and found it passed the litmus test. Needless to say, in a system that is all about indoctrination rather than education, many of my teachers found me a challenge to their authority- some particularly had a hard time with such questioning coming out of brown face. Phoenix changed all of that and taught me to expect/demand better.

I graduated in June and gave birth in August. My parents were downright pissed off about my pregnancy. My father was so mad; he cancelled a planned visit to see him. As far as he was concerned, I had tanked my future with one stupid decision. He was even more pissed when he discovered I was too far along for anyone to do anything about it. My mom was more disappointed; plagued with guilt, blaming herself as moms do and loaded with fears about what would become of me.  Both knew full well how a Black girl, much less single parent, is perceived in our world.

As a result, I spent the end of my pregnancy hidden away at Elizabeth House, in hopes that I would choose adoption. The prevailing thought seemed to be I could give my child up, put the whole thing behind me, and move forward like it never happened. Thankfully, I didn’t get with that plan and coincidentally, putting me in Elizabeth House was what made me see I could do it on my own if I had to. (Note: what a woman does with her body is no ones business but their own. I do not believe that adoption, abortion or keeping a child is inherently wrong or right, but rather each person has to have the right to choose what is best for them because they are the ones who have to live with their decision) 

I need to be clear here is saying that while my parents were pissed about my pregnancy, they adored their grandson  almost from the moment he was born. Actually Dad was the first to capitulate. He wanted to stay mad, but my stepmother was not having it. Instead, his first comments were, “Well, you’ve gone and done it now, but at least you had the decency to have a boy”- casual sexism anyone? He then went on to ask, “What complexion is he?” – I think I mentioned my father’s people has issues with darker shades.  Needless to say, he fell in love with his little “taupe” (the word my son uses to describe himself) grandson.

My mother stayed mad a little longer – “you made your bed, now lie in it”- until a close friend tricked us into the same room when my son was about two months old, and forced her into holding him. She took one look at him and began to coo – “you really are a cute little bastard, aren’t you”. Yeah, it sounds rough, but West Indians take the pain out of words by using them with love – kind of like the African American movement to reclaim and repurpose the word nigger.

That very night my mom contacted me, and laid out a plan that would have me move into her building, were she could be a support to me and my son. Since that day, she has never wavered in her support of both of us.

I tell this story so that I can point out that not once is my sperm donor mentioned after that faithful night. As is still true of society today, girls get penalized for being sexual beings, while boys get to sling their dicks around like a weapon with impunity. Not once during all of this did anyone ask about him or seek him out to hold him accountable.  Instead I was so shamed about it all, that even I did not hold him accountable. In a way, this was a blessing. Watching my friends co-parent with men they had no love for, and who had no love for them seemed much harder than my situation.

Moreover, the legacy of slavery has totally fucked with the ability of the Black community to deal with female sexuality or sex at all. We don’t talk about it, we don’t teach positive self-regard, or explore sex as a natural human function with our children. We still seem to believe that ignoring it will make it go away. We still teach abstinence as the only proper way to be, and anything that results from doing otherwise, you deserve.  A girl on the pill before marriage? Only sluts do that. In fact, any forethought before the act by a female is considered a sign of looseness.  Sex is supposed to be something we capitulate to in order to please a man, not something we actually enjoy and seek out. And if you think this is bad, think about the legacy of slavery on the Black LGBTQ community. SMH- we have to do better! This is the reason I would go on to teach sex ed as a part of my life-skills programs for youth.

For the first five years of my son’s life, I stayed home with him and lived on welfare. At the time, the system did not try to force single mothers of children under 5 into the labour market. Instead, it recognised the stability that comes from having a stay at home parent during these formative years.

For the most part, my personal progress forward was put on hold while I focused on preparing my son for the world. Days were spent with other single moms, playing with our kids, and doing the best to put one foot in front of another. Nights were another story. We pooled together to get babysitters and went out to explore nightlife in Montreal as an adult.

Dating as a single mom proved challenging, and for the most part, I concentrated on occasionally getting my itch scratched discreetly, rather than seeking out a true partner.

I also started to build a surrogate family around me. I could not run the streets like my single friends,  many of whom were for one reason or another alienated from their families. So, as one of the first to have my own apartment, my house became the hang out. I did not realise it at the time, but what I was doing was finding my purpose in taking care of others. For the first time in my life, my friends were predominately Black, but the one thing they all had in common with my early friends, was they had at-risk personalities. I became the neighbourhood mom for these adult children.

By the time my son was 5, I began to tier of always giving- especially when I realised that these folks took freely, but rarely offered anything in return. The day my son went to kindergarten, was the same day I started to move forward with my own life plans.

The next couple of years would see me first get an apprenticeship in construction electricity, where after 3 months in school my teacher would ask, “What are you doing here? You’re a social worker, not a construction worker!” Turns out he was right. As I had a history of dropping out, I forced myself to finish the 18 month course, get apprentice distinction and get my security card, even though I would never work a day in the field.

I finished the program and was stuck, not knowing what to do next. Enter Job Generation, an employability project for visible and ethnic minorities. The concept of employability was so new at the time, that there was no formal training for it. Anna Campangna and Iris Unger (YES Montreal) would pioneer this field in Quebec. Employability training, simply put, teaches you how to choose a career, and how to find and keep a job.

This led me to pursue a career in the helping professions, and when welfare tried to force me to quit school, Anna stepped in to offer me a job in the field, which enabled me to stay in school.

Given the dusty time I had finding my way through life, is it any wonder that I decided to pursue a career that would enable be to help others who were having a hard time finding their way? I think not.

I think this is a good place to hault my biographic recitation. I have included this long winded recount on this blog, because a) it’s a good time for a life review, and b) it will help you to better understand my perspective on the issues to come.  You can also expect shorter entries – this shit takes me hours to write!

Entry 3: February 3, 2019

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