By LENNOX FARRELL
Out walking one winter’s day, I was startled by a cyclist who passed me from behind, whisking just past my elbow.
“Use a bell,” I yelled after him.
“Go back where you come from,” he retorted, giving Heaven the finger.
I am not the first Black person to receive this type of response. One automatic, unrehearsed, from individual unrelated Whites, but who somehow had some collective intuition about the validity of any Black presence in Canada.
I reflected, too, not only on my being here most of my life, but also of other more objective realities. One of these, for example, was on the hemispheric fact that, comparatively speaking, the percentages of Black people versus Whites born in – not migrants to – the Americas are approximately 90 per cent versus 60 per cent. In the United States, 89 per cent of African-Americans are born there.
Furthermore, within Canada, and Ontario, I further recalled a film from the National Film Board (NFB), Speakers for the Dead, made by Jennifer Holness and David Sutherland and readily available on YouTube.
Before commenting further on this film – one that magnifies details systematically buried of others long dead and despised – I thought of our many stories. I thought of details which, because we are held to lesser expectations in everything we are and do, we see ourselves as children of a lesser God.
I thought of how we therefore consider our experiences, victories and defeats as invalid and unworthy of remembrance. I thought of how we allow so much, seen as so little, to slip forever into silence.
That is, if we do not chronicle them; do not chronicle these family threads of personal histories; threads to be woven into communal historic tapestries to be told of those passed on, to those who follow on.
For example, in our family there are individuals recalled during family get-togethers as weddings, funerals, graduations, visitations, etc. but more importantly, told and re-told on every occasion possible because all children just love stories, especially of family.
For example, my spouse Joan has roots in Grenada, in particular, Carriacou. She also has roots in Tobago. One great-great-grand centenarian, TQueenie, to the end of her days, made a point of taking her own pirogue out, catching the fish she cooked.
From Carriacou, the most senior memory is of another matriarch, Titi, a woman and a mountain…all of four feet in height. She, it is recounted, had at least a century before drifted ashore there. Why? Had she fallen overboard, escaped from, was thrown from a ship?
From what we deduce, Titi might have arrived sometime between 1830 and 1834, the period when the Triangular Slave Trade between West Africa, the Americas and Europe had been outlawed by Britain. The Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery would come later.
Therefore, slavers breaking the blockade and trying to outrun pursuing British naval frigates, if unable to, could legally dump their cargo overboard. According to provisions of the blockade, a slave ship could only be confiscated if slaves were found on board. Therefore, except for great losses in revenue, drowning the cargo didn’t count.
On my side, the top contender for historic impact and details is our maternal grandmother, Augusta Wilhelmina DuBique. Born in Roseau, Dominica, she knew her formerly enslaved grandmother, DearDear. DearDear and other slaves had picked limes bound for British merchant marines. The vitamin C in the limes helped fight the scourges of beriberi, or scurvy.
As a girl – probably seven years old – Ma recalled the ringing of church bells when “Lady Smith Release”. This was a British town in South Africa besieged and almost destroyed by the Afrikaaners in their two Anglo-Boer wars against Britain.
She also told us of how she and other women had marched in Roseau, opposing “The Shame of the Congo”. This historic episode had occurred after Belgian colonizers in the Congo, to harvest caoutchouc, used to vulcanize rubber for the budding U.S. auto industry. To “encourage” Congolese “natives” to forage in the forests for this wild latex, the colonizers would chop off fingers, noses, ears, etc. The women in Dominica had demonstrated when the breasts of Congolese women also went under the blade.
Truly, “to remember is the first act of resistance”.Finally, this Black (Personal) History Month 2013, make it one for the children. Have them draw pictures, and scenes of the “old people” as they imagine them from the stories told. Make family storybooks from these records. Make storytellers of our children. And with others, see the film, Speakers for the Dead. It’s more than worth it.
It chronicles the destruction of cemeteries in towns in northern Ontario where slaves and their descendants were buried more than two centuries ago. The cemeteries were ploughed under and silenced by Whites…until, from fragments of tombstones, stories and whisperings, their memories were resurrected by the sterling efforts of Black Canadians who remembered…determined in their time and ours, to “speak for the dead”.