We Go Farther Together

I have neglected to write about the projects I’ve been doing since I was appointed Historian Laureate for the City of Edmonton (including my new history podcast, Let’s Find Out), mostly because I’ve been too busy actually working on them! There’s one I’d like to share with you here though.

For the past couple months, I’ve been writing articles for CBC’s Canada 2017 project. They’re connected to a Murdoch Mysteries web series called Beyond Time, where viewers have to guess the identity of famous Canadians that a Time Bandit has stolen from time. After the Murdoch Mysteries team reveal the correct answer, they link to articles about what history would have been like without that person. So I’m the one writing those articles.

One of the stories I wrote in February was about Viola Desmond.

Viola Desmond smiles at the camera

It was a fascinating article to write and research. By now most of us have heard about her courageous stand against racial segregation at New Glasgow’s Roseland Theatre in 1946. Viola Desmond was a smart, brave, and dignified woman. The risks she took, the lengths she went, to make a successful life in 1940s Nova Scotia are impressive even today.

Before I read Graham Reynolds’ book Viola Desmond’s Canada, I had no idea she actually started out as a teacher before that. And that she was only allowed to teach in segregated black schools.

When she went into the beauty business, Viola personally drove up and down the province to sell her beauty products in a time when it was almost unheard of for a black woman to drive alone. She was inspired by Sarah Breedlove (aka Madam C.J. Walker), the first self-made millionaire in the United States, and Viola pursued an education in New York, as well as in Montreal and Atlantic City.

She was breaking barriers long before she accidentally crossed that colour line in a theatre in an unfamiliar town.

We all owe a debt to Viola Desmond for her bravery fighting her unjust treatment at the theatre (and in court the next day, where they fined her) all the way to Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court. What also struck me researching this piece though, was how she herself had many other people’s hard work behind her.

There was Carrie Best, the publisher of the African-Canadian focused newspaper The Clarion, which covered Viola’s story, and spelled out the injustice for the public. There was Pearleen Oliver, co-founder of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Colored People, whose association paid the lawyer who appealed her fine at the province’s Supreme Court.

And thanks to Bashir Mohamed, I know about Charles Daniels, who fought a very similar case of discrimination at the Sherman Grand Theatre back in 1914, the year Viola Desmond was born. Donald B. Smith’s book Calgary’s Grand Story has a great retelling of the whole case. The short version? Charles was refused entry after buying a ticket to King Lear, on account of his being black. He sued them for discrimination, and the kicker is he actually won. He won $1000. In 1914.

I saw Hidden Figures recently, and it made me pump my fist in the air and cry and cry and cry, thinking of all the brave people who’ve fought against the barriers our society has put up against their full participation in our society. There were those woman at NASA who fought for a place in the room making groundbreaking calculations that got astronauts into space and back. There was Viola Desmond. There are kids in high schools right now fighting for the very basic right to go to the bathroom and change before gym class somewhere they feel safe and comfortable.

We go farther when we all have a chance to contribute.

We all stand on the shoulders of these giants.

One last thought I couldn’t squish into this short CBC article: It’s great that Viola Desmond is going to be on our money, but she should really be on the $20 bill. That’s how much she was fined for allegedly cheating the province out of a penny’s tax, because the theatre wouldn’t take the extra money she tried to pay to sit in the ground floor seats. The court also forced her to pay $6 in expenses to the theatre manager, but we don’t have a $26 bill yet.

6 Thoughts About Speaking Up

A sketch I made at Annie's Share-back.
This sketch of Annie Banks I made at her “share-back” event unintentionally captures her mixture of toughness and gentleness.

What if we speak?

It was a question some of my friends asked last winter, when the Idle No More movement lurched into the public eye: what if we, as people from white settler and immigrant communities, speak up and say we also want justice for Indigenous people in Canada? It became a book of poems and reflections that my friend and radio colleague Annie Banks contributed to, with the same name. More recently, she came to Edmonton to share stories about her efforts to learn when to be noisy, and when to be quiet.

I first met Annie at a documentary launch party that Terra Informa held last spring. She was new in town and eager to leap into a group of people telling stories about how environmental issues affected ordinary people, and what they were doing about it. We were all convinced by her gusto that she’d lived here for ages. She challenged us with new ideas, like her practice of naming the Indigenous territories where each of her stories took place.

Then she left us for San Francisco, on what I know she would want me to acknowledge are Ohlone and Chochenyo territories. She spent the early part of this year in a program called the Anne Braden Anti-Racist Training for White Social Justice Activists, and wrestled with some hard questions about herself and her work that I think are worth sharing.

A linocut of Annie's.
A linocut of Annie’s.

They’re relevant for many contexts, but especially pertinent because we still live in a culture where white people have a disproportionate share of power: where Aboriginal and black people make up more than their fair share of people in prison, Indigenous people all around the country are fighting to maintain control over what happens on their land, and our federal government’s campaign to demonize refugees in need of health care is likely to convince more of us that immigrants and refugees are “enemies at the gate.” These are problems that will need all of our participation to resolve.

Here are some of the things I’ve gleaned from Annie:

1. Lean in. Listen closely, and see where people are at before lecturing.

2. Make your space affirming. If you’re in a group of people organizing something important together, make it a joyful and enjoyable experience. She said this one was hard for her, because she’d always felt like heavy subjects demanded a sombre atmosphere.

3. Be patient. This is something of a rhyme to the title of her blog, Noisy and Quiet. For her, being an ally in a movement led by traditionally marginalized people means giving up some of the assumed power in that environment, and recognizing the pace your allies need to follow. Annie interned with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, and it she said this was most clearly demonstrated when the group sometimes needed to wait for letters to go back and forth to people inside, which could take months.

4. Recognize that self-love makes a strong foundation for your work. I know this one was tough for her too – to hold all the knowledge about racism today in one hand, and still have some grounding and love for her white roots.

5. Don’t step back so far you disappear. Annie told a funny story about overcoming her feelings of anxiety about taking up too much power and space in a movement, as a white person. Someone came up to her, apparently, and reminded her that the group still needed her to be useful and get dirty. To do that, she said, she needed to acknowledge that sometimes she’d make mistakes, and mess up, and that’s okay.

6. Think about how to leverage your privileges for others. Annie spent a long time, even when she arrived in San Francisco, feeling uncomfortable about being able to attend this program all the way in California when others didn’t have her privileges: family members to help her pay for it, US citizenship that allowed her to get a job, and a friend to literally drive her all the way there. But in the end, she was persuaded that she could take her experiences and knowledge from the Anne Braden program, and share it back to people back home.

Which is what brought her to the Edmonton “share-back” that I attended, and which makes me so proud to be her friend and occasional student. Thanks, Annie.