My mother’s stories all had happy endings. “And then I went back years later,” she would conclude triumphantly, “and waved my degree and said who’s the nigger now?” As a young child, this Black version of happily ever after did not strike me as improbable.
Stories of a great uncle, studying medicine in Edinburgh while working at a bakery where the locals refused to eat his brown bread believing it was the Black rubbing off, would feature the coda of him being invited to every New Year’s Party and receiving free food and drinks, it being lucky to have a dark man come to your house at the change of the year.
In general, in my mother’s recountings, the story of suffering some kind of colonial exclusion or racial trauma (my aunt, the first Black girl at the convent school, told to leave the choir as her legs did not match; another aunt integrating another school had a white girl spit in her face and tell her “my parents said I can’t come here anymore now that they let niggers in”) was the mere introduction to the story, detail of being brought low given only to make the climax – usually someone receiving a degree or professional qualification – more satisfying.
In her mind, she did not tell those stories to us as children to make us aware of the severe oppression she and my family lived in under a colonial society, but as motivational tales of resilience, intended to instill in us a belief in the saving powers of education. Education — preferably as a medical doctor – figured in my mother’s stories as revenge and crowning moment, as the conclusion to the heroic journeys of my ancestors and families. The acute shame and scalding pain of colonial racial humiliation dissolved in the possibility of returning to the nuns who removed you from the choir and introducing yourself as Dr. Jones.
It was only as I was older that these stories began to shift in my consciousness. But why, I would think to myself, did the nuns make her go around the back? Why was she asked to scrub the floors of the school? Why was it my mother left home at 15 to seek an education in science denied Black girls, and, unable to afford the journey back, missed the death of her own father?
As I grew up, I began to see these stories not as fairy tales, but as testimonies to the terrible racial trauma inflicted on us for generations. Those details of the neighbours, following my great uncle to rub at his arms, no longer seemed like inconsequential background information setting the stage for the true story of educational achievement, but rather the crucial point. How much my relatives endured. Who inflicted it on them. Who denied them. Why they had to be resilient in the first place.
In one of my mother’s favourite stories, she recounted how her great aunt would remember her own grandmother, as a young girl emancipated from slavery, singing in the streets. “Emancipation day gone past. Poor old bakra [white people] going to eat long grass!” (In other words, since there were no Black people to work the fields anymore, white people would starve.) My mother would shriek with laughter as she told of the white mistress, enraged, running onto the street and shaking the little girl, screaming “No! You will eat long grass! You will eat long grass!”
Writing this story here, it seems more like an account of frightening and violent racial assault (or an instructive example of white fragility, brought to unreasoning rage at the idea that Black people would dare to no longer be slaves) than a humorous anecdote, but I think it speaks to my mother’s philosophy. My great ancestor got her own back, enraged attack by the white woman notwithstanding.
This was more radical than my mother’s usual stories, which tended to focus on respectable attainment rather than open taunting of the oppressor, but it spoke to her strategy of survival — and underneath that focus on keeping your head down and getting through school was the secret promise of one day exalting over bakra humiliatingly eating that long grass while you laughed.
My mother’s stories were not meant to be histories of racism. It was when I located the pain in these stories that I began to come into a consciousness of the legacies of colonialism in my family and of the deep historical injustice we lived with. My mother’s own great aunt, I would think, her grandmother was actually a slave. That’s not that long ago. Certainly not the deep distant, unaccountable past that my white teachers made it sound like, if ever they taught histories of slavery at all. Certainly not nothing to do with us, and get over it already.
I also came to understand my mother’s own pain, and that, in order to cope with it, she needed to believe in these possibilities of triumph. My mother could not make this pain visible. There was no way to articulate it. It could only be shared by being hidden within stories of overcoming, only mitigated by the promise of an ending. Generations of shame literally beaten onto the skin of my ancestors made naming impossible. How could my grandmother or mother articulate what it meant to grow up under colonial occupation?
Once, a few years ago, infuriated by what she saw as my refusal to take completing my degree seriously, my mother, nearly in tears, came abruptly into my room when I was visiting and berated me. We were poor, she told me angrily. You cannot imagine how poor we were. My mother would pawn her wedding ring to feed us. We begged flour. We lived with daily humiliation. My mother shouted at me, we fought to have shoes. Stories poured out of her of deprivation.
This was markedly different from my mother’s usually determinedly rosy depictions that refused to acknowledge oppression, and she told me only as a kind of last resort, to remind me of the deep responsibility we owe to the suffering of our ancestors, our obligation to rise.
How dare I, my mother was letting me know, think I had the right to write or perform or do what I wanted when people starved and died so I can be here. The pain of our ancestors always shadows us. As our mothers tell us as teenagers, white people can do that if they want, but you can’t. White people can explore, live freely, be artists. White people can have joy, or desires, or feelings. You can’t. Think of your ancestors. Think of what they suffered. What are you crying for?
To be Black is to inherit this suffering, to be constantly aware of it, to be obligated to it. The paradox is that, living in a white-dominated society, our pain at once defines us yet remains invisible. Black suffering is at once demanded of us, yet is unseen. We are required to bare it constantly, to provide the proof of our experiences by recounting every humiliation, exclusion or act of violence, and yet at the same time our pain is unrecognizable to the white gaze.
Making Black pain legible, seeable, was the purpose, for example, of the first “cultural assessment” performed by Robert Wright in the case of R. v. X. While to the white experts “X” appeared as a criminal, beyond saving, remorseless, and worthy of an adult sentence, when that youth was able to speak to Wright, a fellow African Nova Scotian man, he was able to speak about his trauma, and that pain became seeable. As Jon Tattrie reported:
Wright had told the court that few families in X’s African Nova Scotian community escaped tragedy. “Almost everyone has a son, a nephew, a cousin who has either been shot or has shot someone,” Wright testified.
X’s father served time for a domestic assault when X was eight. One of his brothers did time. Two years before Y was shot, someone shot up X’s house when he was home. No one was charged.
In a generation and a half, X’s community turned from a “proud, relatively isolated, racially uniform community” to one where “the sons of deacons are going to jail in large numbers.”
Wright explained this drastic collapse as a socio-cultural phenomenon that is like a “future shock” from the fallout of a racialized community. Guns were plentiful and used to settle personal conflicts, not just crimes. Swagger and boasting of crime can be seen as “coping methods” for young people in a criminally affected community, not signs a youth is a sophisticated criminal.
As Judge Anne Derrick acknowledged in the judgement, the report gave her a “lens through which to view ‘X’.” Wright’s report made her able to see outside of the white gaze that had constructed a Black child as a hardened monster. Seeing his pain made her able to see him, and to see him as human. The report went behind the mask he wore to survive, the mask read by the white clinicians as evidence of his pathological state, a predatory Black thing.
But to say that our pain needs to be seen is also to identify us solely with our trauma. R. v. X also demands of us that in order to become human, to have a lens, we must publicly let our wounds drip. Black trauma must be placed up for judgment, Black mothers must recount their worst moments if they are to save their sons. We bargain with our pain for the lives of our children. Imagine going to court to prove you’re human.
How do we represent our pain? How is our pain consumed? How is it witnessed? In Black Bodies, White Cubes: The Problem With Contemporary Art’s Appropriation of Race, Taylor Renee Aldridge tackles what she calls the “lewd voyeurism masquerading as empathy” that accompanies the consumption of Black pain. Observing the “trend” of representations of the suffering Black body, she notes:
But there is a new wave of contemporary work influenced by racial injustices, one that has arisen in the last two years and is decidedly more sensational, predominantly focusing on pain and trauma inflicted upon the black body. Artists have made systemic racism look sexy; galleries have made it desirable for collectors. It has, in other words, gone mainstream. With this paradoxical commercial focus, political art that responds to issues surrounding race is in danger of becoming mere spectacle, a provocation marketed for consumption, rather than a catalyst for social change.
Aldridge considers the re-traumatizing effect of constantly reliving and reflecting our pain. She recognizes that, like our music or slang or fashion, Black pain becomes similarly commodified. damali ayo in How to Rent A Negro satirically observed that Black bodies are no longer being bought and sold, but we are in a rental relationship with white society. She suggests we set a price scale. If you want me to tell you about my experience with the police, here’s the going rate.
The “spectacle” that Black pain becomes to the white gaze renders it also meaningless to dominant society. As Tanzina Vega points out:
An empathy gap also exists in how we view the opioid addiction crisis that has gripped the nation, particularly among white males. I recall growing up in public housing in New York City and seeing heroin and crack ravage our largely poor black and Latino community. Back then, the drug epidemic was considered a crime to be eradicated, rather than a public health issue to be handled with compassion.
To be sure, poor white Americans are facing a serious crisis, but blacks who still lag far behind them in key metrics of economic success, are rarely seen as deserving of such empathy.
“Most Americans believe that racism is in the past and that it’s individual, not structural,” said David R. Williams, a professor of public health, African-American studies and sociology at Harvard University. “They believe that the problems minority Americans have are problems they created themselves.”
White people aren’t supposed to suffer, and therefore white pain is tragic. White feelings matter. Black pain is seen as our usual and deserved state, and to identify it is to be a whiner, to be pulling the race card, and to be causing white people pain by talking about racism. And of course, the discomfort white people experience in hearing race discussed matters while the suffering Black people experience because of racism is in our imagination, or simply something we should suck up and shut up about.
I had a friend who, when people would ask her how she was, she would always respond. “I’m alive. And we’re not supposed to be.”
In an open letter penned following the shooting deaths of a number of young Black men in 2016, Afua Cooper asked the mayor and city council:
The African Haligonian community is now hemorrhaging, and yet it is called upon to solve its own problems. We do not see that happening to other communities when they are hit by a crisis.
Where are the counsellors and psychiatrists that should be called in to counsel the grieving families and children?
Where is the outcry from society at large?
Where is the outrage at the tremendous loss of life and potential?
Is it because the victims and perpetrators of the shooting are black that society has turned a blind eye to this tragedy?
Is it because black people are thought to be of no value and hence disposable?
If these acts were taking place in an affluent part of Halifax and the victims were white boys, would there have been more attention paid to this crisis, and preventative measures put in place?
This brings us to the community meetings on police checks held in Halifax this week. As Julia-Simone Rutgers reported for The Coast:
Tensions ran high. Person after person stood to air their grievances — about police behaviour, yes, but also about the ineffectiveness of these kinds of community conversations in sparking tangible change.
“It’s the community that’s asked over and over to share their pain, and there’s no progress,” said Marcus James, co-creator of 902 Man Up, an organization built to support Black men in Halifax. “We’re asked to express and share our pain when people don’t understand how hard that is.”
Time and time again at the meeting at Cornwallis Street Baptist church, community members addressed this obligation put on us by white society to perform Black pain. Yet, as person after person pointed out, none of this is new. We’ve been saying this a long time. We are asked to say it again, but then we are told that what matters is the numbers. We get the numbers, and further study is needed. Experts are needed. Objectivity is needed. A white man is needed. Rutgers writes:
Countless stories of aggressive interactions between Halifax police and local Black communities have been shared in years past. Those encounters aren’t urban myths that are whispered about but never put to public scrutiny. It’s verified fact, documented again and again.
The street check data published last January by CBC, which found Black residents of HRM were three times more likely to be street checked by police than white Haligonians, was assembled over the last decade because of the racial discrimination case Kirk Johnson brought against the police department in 2003.
So this isn’t a new question, but it keeps getting asked. Black and other racialized peoples are habitually asked to prove their lived experience of racism to white institutions and populations. Time and again, the response they’re met with is aggressive, indifferent or ineffectual to actually produce change.
The question remains: Why is it so difficult to believe us? Why haven’t our voices been enough?
If we refuse to share our pain, then we are inhuman. Our experiences don’t exist. Our swagger is evidence of our guilt. If we do share our pain, it is disregarded, or it marks us as malcontents, bad citizens, ungrateful, deserving therefore of whatever we have coming.
And should we resist Black pain, dare to experience success or joy or money or nice things, then we are discounted as inauthentic. We must have got that job by affirmative action. We are doing well so what are we complaining about? How can racism exist if you got that degree? How dare you not be lower than us. How dare you take what only white people are entitled to. How dare you exist, and you existing there, succeeding, speaking, thriving, that is unfairly taking away from white people who deserve to be in that spot. How dare you stand by the front of the stage. How dare you not be in pain.
When we were enslaved, white people believed we were like beasts. Our bodies didn’t feel the heat. We were like dogs, and when you take our children, it means no more to us than a bitch losing her puppies. Our skins are thicker so we need to be beaten. We don’t feel it in the same way white people would, not whips, not rape, not sorrow. Hear the slaves singing? They must be happy.
And now, our pain become routine. Routine traffic stop. Another song about police violence, or dead bodies, or poverty over a good beat. You can dance to it. You can say the word nigger to it and if Black people try to stop you, they’re racist. It’s just for fun. You can troll Black women for fun, threaten their lives, why are they being so sensitive?
And so white people can go to the show, listen to songs about Black pain, then go home and complain about the injustice of asking white people to make even one inch of room. The police can ask us to meet with them, share our trauma to “start the conversation,” then say they don’t know what systemic racism is, and anyway, it’s just good police practice. Then I suppose they can ask for more money to improve their training, because some white person is always going to get rich off Black pain, whether it’s a police chief or a producer or a pimp or a politician.
And our mothers, our grandmothers, who suffered the “real” pain, the pain we can only imagine, they will continue to pass to us their stories of survival, the fragments of resistance passed to us in the remembered melodies of slavery. You had a great great great great great ancestor once, and she laughed in massa’s face. One day we will get our reward. The fairy tale ending we imagine at the end of our suffering. Dare to imagine Black futures. Emancipation day gone past. Let us march on til victory is won. We gon be alright.
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