Conversation with Walter Borden
Black Lives Matter’s intervention into the Toronto Pride parade raised issues of exclusion of Black people from the mainstream Pride movement. Much of the reporting around the action treated Blackness and gayness as separate identities, and the queer Black women activists were treated as though they were intruders into a parade and community that they were imagined as “other” to.
As Halifax celebrates the Pride march today, the histories of Black LGBTQ people and the intersections of Black liberation and LGBTQ rights are important to recognize and understand.
I talk to actor, poet, playwright, and activist (and Member of the Order of Canada) Walter Borden. An artist and activist during the rise of both the Black liberation movement in Halifax and the LGBTQ movement, his experiences link together two crucial histories in Halifax that are often not connected. Born in New Glasgow in 1942, Borden discusses growing up gay and Black, the politics of Pride, racism in the LGBTQ movement, the impact of AIDS on the gay community, talking to white friends, and his many philosophies on life. These are excerpts from a long and wide ranging conversation.
Walter Borden discusses LGBTQ identities in New Glasgow growing up and early experiences of racism.
“There was an unwritten agreement that it wouldn’t be talked about. There were here and there little references, little ways of saying things that you knew that people were admitting while not admitting that they knew that the person was gay. Like I say, he [a clearly gay man] was so accepted by everybody. Now there was another thing that was not peculiar, but certainly noticed by other people in the community. And that was how the older folk referred to what we would now call very clear examples that people knew the sexual preferences of people. There were code words. Like, for instance, ‘he’s a bachelor.’ Now this would be applied to someone who probably was over 40. They became a bachelor. Now that was a code word, that was accepted by all the folks because it was deemed by the elders. Then of course for a woman it was ‘she’s a spinster’ or if it was…two men who were living together, or two women, well one was a ‘helper.’ You see, so us growing up we cottoned onto these things.”
Borden talks about being Gay in the early Civil Rights movement in Halifax.
“It wasn’t just a matter of, oh sticks and stones will break my bones. No, It wasn’t that. It was way beyond that. It was I will define who I am. I will do that. And it’s open for discussion if you will discuss it on the level that I want to discuss it, but it is not open to anything else. In other words, you will, you will deal with me on my level or you won’t deal with me at all.”
Borden discusses racism within the LGBTQ movement and Black Lives Matter.
“It makes no difference what movement you’re talking about. You could be talking about the Gay movement. You could be talking about anyone who’s physically challenged, mentally challenged, the feminist movement – when you can have…let’s say you have a Gay person going through whatever, but if they’re Gay and Black, that’s where I come from. If they’re physically challenged and Black. Mentally challenged and Black. Female and Black. And any time you have to use the one word that is common to all those conditions then it’s obvious that that’s the word I have to centre on. And that word is what makes the difference between any one of those grievances from a white point of view or from the Black point of view.”
Borden on Black Canadian identity and dealing with white friends.
“If we’re going to be on any kind of respectful basis, I’m going to tell you, and the thing that will really mean that we’re on the friendship level is this: that when it comes to anything about me and mine, I am correct. Because I am the authority on who we are. It’s as simple as that. Now if you have questions, I will gladly talk with you about it, but don’t challenge me on me and we will get along just fine. Because it will mean to me that you truly, truly want to know. I can be very, and I am very truly sorry that you have to go through a tremendous relearning process. It is not I who taught you. You were taught by people whom you trusted and they broke the trust. Now don’t take that out on me. Don’t do that. I can help you in your relearning, but only if you give me the same respect that you gave your original teachers who taught you shit.”
Walter Borden on living through AIDS and the impact on the arts community.
“The thing that you had to grapple with on a personal level, you saw this happening to your friends, you didn’t know what was going on, this thing, this horrible thing that people were giving all kinds of opinions and information about, suppositions and whatever, and then without knowing you had to make up your mind what you were going to believe, what you were going to allow yourself to believe, all that, and so something as simple – and I know that young people now have no conception whatsoever of what it was like to have to at one moment wrestle with yourself about whether or not you were going to touch your friend’s hand, their face, to hold them while they are in excruciating pain because you might get it by touching them. And making that decision, again, a very personal decision, that in spite of everything that could be, based on what you were told, you transcended all that, and you did what you had to do.”
Walter Borden on advice for youth, and the importance of Afrocentric learning.
“But there is no real place to begin, you just begin wherever you are and everything spirals out from that, and it will all take you back to the same place anyway. That place is where the ancestors sit.”
1. Understanding white people linked to the deaths of Indigenous people and also to Kraft cheese slices
A white person committed a crime somewhere in Canada. That white person has ties to other white people known for recruiting Black people in Africa and forcing them to work as slaves.
White people have lengthy records of giving smallpox blankets to people and banning immigrants to Canada from brown countries which is very important to raise every time we write an unrelated story about a white person.
Few people have heard of white people, so to provide added understanding of who they are and how they operate, El Jones — a reporter with the Halifax Examiner who has covered white people for years — explains.
What can you tell us about gangs of criminal white people.
There are gangs based out of fraternity houses and police stations, for example. Sometimes white people like to get dressed up in hockey jerseys and riot in white communities. This may sound odd to say in 2016, how can we identify a community by race, but some places in Nova Scotia are super white. It’s a unique situation where white people basically stole land 400 years ago and then violently prevented people from other races from living there. I’m only saying this for context because white people are a very closed community. They’ve been keeping other races out for generations by doing things like denying people loans and burning crosses on their lawns.
Can you tell us about white people’s history?
White people, they’re also known to insiders as WP — that’s usually how we refer to them here, they’ve been in operation for a few thousand years really and Black people really exposed their operations way back when our investigators were noticing people on the streets carrying bags from the farmer’s market in one hand and dog poo in the other. So we started investigating that and we traced it back and found some of their leaders were doing things like making documentaries and benefitting from nepotism and that ended up putting them in government.
Why do white people get into whiteness?
White people all live in the apartment from the show Friends or wherever the Sex and the City people live. There’s basically only two places white people live. Also, white people grow up surrounded by sunscreen and mayonnaise so, sadly, they end up getting involved in whiteness.
How do they recruit their members, both men and women?
They’re able to recruit men, and I should say young boys, because it’s really an easy way to make money. When these young boys see their cousins and brothers rolling into their communities with their white privilege and historic economic advantage and ability to blame oppressed people for their circumstances and harass women with impunity, it’s tempting. Other white people see their family wearing confederate flags and making country music videos and they look up to them and become involved in white gangs that way. As for women, there are women in the community who become part of white privilege through affiliation, through family, but it is mostly led by the men.
Wait a minute, why are we talking to you about white people? Are you actually an expert?
I read Stuff White People Like, so I figure my reliance on stereotypes and lazy assumptions about white people is sufficient to be acclaimed an authority on white people.
We just came to our senses and realized there’s all kinds of white reporters to talk about “white issues” like the political news of the province, banking, sports, traffic, weather, what’s going on in Halifax this weekend. We’ll call you if there’s any Black issues like you guys shooting each other or celebrating Kwanzaa, okay?
2. Why we went to CBC
We went to CBC because we are tired of feeling powerless and victimized by racism. Too often, when we experience racism from the media we talk about it among ourselves and feel angry and wounded and nobody bothers or pays attention. We are tired at how dealing with racism takes up our days and intrudes on our time. Going to CBC was symbolic to us that we are going to carry the burden into the space of the people who are actually responsible. If we have to go to bed and wake up dealing with the fallout from racist stories, then the people who cause that should also experience some of that “intrusion.”
CBC as a publicly funded broadcaster has a responsibility to all communities. Our presence in the lobby was intended to simply remind those who write and edit stories about us that we are here, and we are real human beings who are caused real harm by this reporting. These aren’t just words, they affect people’s lives. We are those lives, so we went to show that to CBC.
We went to CBC as a group because Lameia felt that was what she needed to do, and so we joined her. People who report on Black protests, such as the reporting on Black Lives Matter, always seem to want to portray these actions as angry or confrontational. To be clear, being angry at racism and confronting injustice are not things we should apologize for. But this portrayal ignores the solidarity and love Black people have for each other. When one of us calls, we answer.
Almost all of us who participated are Black women. In all the stories about pimping and North Preston, the bodies and voices of women – particularly Black women – who are supposedly being protected never seem to be centred. As Black women, showing support for each other is important in building solutions to sexual violence in our communities in ways that empower us. Too often, white saviours believe they need to protect Black women from Black men. We can reject racism and also stand for solutions to sexual assault and trafficking of Black women that don’t rely on racist stereotyping that ultimately makes it harder for the Black women to live in the world.
We went to CBC because while not everyone who went is from North Preston, we are all affected by racist stories. How many Black Nova Scotians out working in Calgary are now stereotyped and stigmatized by this story? We went together as a show of solidarity between our communities and between people of the Diaspora, in the belief that we need to show unity on issues that affect us all.
We went to CBC because when Taliyah Marsman was killed, the African Nova Scotian community was devastated. Everyone was in mourning. To have our pain disregarded, and a story written instead that blames an entire community instead of the man who allegedly did this act is dehumanizing.
We went to CBC to show that Black people have voices, and we are capable of talking about our communities. Perhaps next time there’s a story on one of our communities, residents can be consulted rather than asking a white reporter with no ties to the community to “explain” us. In 2016, surely we should be past the days of the white anthropologist reporting on the behaviour of the savages.
We didn’t go to CBC in the belief that one story, or one reporter, or one editorial decision is the whole problem. We didn’t go thinking that a couple of hours of action would be enough to address long histories of biased, unfair, and racist reporting. We didn’t even necessarily go for the benefit of CBC or even to react to CBC, we went for ourselves, to build strength and focus for the work we do in our communities every day. We don’t just deal with one day or one morning of complaints about a story, we deal with racism and oppression and with building up our communities. We will continue to fight for representation because when our voices are taken away from us or not acknowledged, the effects go far beyond one story. The way we are represented affects how we live, the jobs we can get, how we are educated, whether we receive justice in court, whether we suffer from violence, if we can find housing, if we die early from preventable disease, if we are seen as human beings or as threats to be contained.
We needed to go to CBC precisely because while news spread of our appearance in the lobby, someone complained. He wanted us removed, and feared we would get violent. Our presence is not violence, and asking people to talk and listen is not a threat. As long as eight Black people cannot go into a building without being seen as a problem, then we need to keep challenging racism in those spaces. Maybe next time we should show up on motorcycles.
We went to CBC, but we could have gone to any media outlet in the city and province. We know one conversation with one producer can’t reverse hundreds of years of misrepresentation of Black lives. We cannot and do not and do not want or claim to represent the entirety of our communities, or the many different perspectives, opinions, and voices of Black people. What we can do is simply be: be in spaces where we have conversations with each other, or with people like the producer who came out to talk with us. We can be with each other, continuing to work towards solutions in our communities. We can be in buildings. We can be on the radar. We can be Black and unapologetic. We can and must and will tell our own stories and histories, even in rap videos with gold chains. Maybe next time a reporter or producer will think “will this cause people to show up in the lobby?” or maybe it won’t. But for us and our communities, we showed that we’re not going to be explained to anybody, we can explain ourselves just fine.