“Until you do right by me, everything you think about is gonna crumble.” Voiced by Whoopi Goldberg in her role as Celie in the film adaptation of The Color Purple, the line has recently wafted, repeatedly, through my mind. To be sure, the thought has been prompted by the magnificent production of The Color Purple musical (based, like the movie, on the 1982 Alice Walker novel of the same title) now garnering standing ovations at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax.
But the “curse” (it came to pass) that Celie placed on her abusive and fundamentally self-loathing husband also calls to mind the deliberate harm that Halifax police, Justice Minister Mark Furey, and the white power structure of Nova Scotia continue to exact upon the longest standing Black population in the nation. In doing so, white public officials, in stark contrast to everyday Nova Scotians, spit-shine and polish the province’s ignoble reputation as the epicentre of racism in Canada.
A refresher: With the arrival of Black Loyalists in Birchtown in 1783, Nova Scotia was gifted with an industrious cadre of free Blacks nearly a century before my African-American forebears were emancipated from bondage, in 1865.
Given their head start, African Nova Scotians should have emerged as the model of Black progress and achievement in North America. Indeed, the first Black Barack Obama-style world leader was well-positioned to ascend from Nova Scotia. Instead, the Black Loyalists suffered such soul-murdering prejudice that, in 1792, more than a thousand sailed back to Africa. Halifax poet laureate Afua Cooper recounts their flight in her impassioned poem, 15 Ships:
In short, the Black Loyalists who settled in Birchtown stand as the first large group of former enslaved people to reject “liberty,” as it was proffered in the province. Human bondage remained legal throughout the British Empire until 1834. Hence, in their exodus from Nova Scotia, Blacks effectively rendered themselves vulnerable to being re-enslaved.
Funny how the complete history of African Nova Scotians has gotten lost in the much flaunted, self-congratulatory chatter about Canada and the Underground Railroad.
On the real side, Nova Scotians of every stripe have been tainted by the diminution of Blacks in the province. The frequently touted “friendliness” of its residents notwithstanding, Nova Scotia maintains a growing reputational stigma and stench. The sentiment has been reinforced by the findings of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission report that revealed (among other affronts) that Halifax police street-checked Black males nine times more often than their white counterparts. In added insult to injury, Halifax police have refused to ban the practice (as has been requested, repeatedly, by the Black community) or to apologize for the festering wounds it has caused.
Now comes word that Scot Wortley — the white Toronto criminologist brought in to research and write the report — will return to Halifax tonight, tomorrow and Thursday to “field questions” about his study. Queries about the fee that Wortley was paid to “confirm” previously documented police improprieties have gone unanswered. This, in the wake of news that the Nova Scotia Department of Education has just hired two white University of Ottawa professors to evaluate the province’s inclusive education program. The cost to tax payers? A reported $458,000 over a period of three years.
Given the propensity of white officials in Nova Scotia to seek the counsel of other Caucasians on matters of special consequence to minority groups, Halifax police, Justice Minister Mark Furey, Mayor Mike Savage, Premier Stephen McNeil, and what the hell, incoming police chief Dan Kinsella, might want to take a peek at Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration by the late Harvard University professor Devah Pager.
Hailed as one of the most influential sociologists of her generation, Pager, age 46 at the time of her death after a long illness, launched a study that established her reputation as an undisputed authority in the field. As a doctoral student, she dispatched a group of well-groomed, professional-looking young men with stellar credentials to apply for jobs. The young men, both Black and white, took turns listing a criminal record on their job applications.
The results? Only 5% of the Black applicants with a putative criminal record were called back for an interview, compared with 17% of the white men. Moreover, white applicants with presumed criminal convictions were proved to have better employment opportunities than Black men without a criminal record (17% to 14%).
Pager’s work triggered an international campaign (known as Ban the Box) to persuade employers to remove the check box that asks about criminal records on job applications. “She crafted a call for justice built on a foundation of exceptionally careful and creative work that simply could not be denied,” noted a leading economic policy analyst who was among Pager’s colleagues at Harvard.
As for the next round of already jawed to death discussions on street checks, Wortley’s report revealed that a third of the Black male population in Halifax was charged with at least one criminal offence between 2006 and 2017. By contrast, only 6.8% of white males were charged during that time. So, here’s a new talking point: How about some cash money for Black men in Halifax who have likely suffered disproportionately higher rates of joblessness (and thereby economic disadvantage) than their white peers?
Memo to Nova Scotia class action lawyers: I see coin. Probably a lot more coin than the $600,000 awarded last week to the white, former Halifax transit mechanic whose marriage to an African Nova Scotian woman made him subject to relentless workplace harassment and discrimination.
Set against the backdrop of Nova Scotia’s aspirational march to glory (the Atlantic Schooners hustle), it’s clear that the province’s earned racist profile (“suck me, boy” salutations, etc.) continues to soil the image of Halifax. “A lot of guys think Moncton would have been a better choice for a team,” a seasoned Black, CFL player told me.
Better. On that note, here’s a dab for homegrown actor/activist Ellen Page for her forthcoming documentary on environmental racism.
Ditto for Dalhousie University associate professor Ingrid Waldron whose book, There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities, recently scored an Atlantic Books Award nomination. And here’s a shout-out for Christine Saulnier, federal NDP candidate for the riding of Halifax. “The practice of random street checks is unquestionably a form of systemic racism,” Saulnier said. “We cannot hope to build a more inclusive community without stopping this practice and without an apology from the police force.”
It’s past time for white power-brokers in Nova Scotia to address their long legacy of self-inflicted racial discord (and attendant self-loathing). “Until you do right by me, everything you think about is gonna crumble,” saith Celie.
The author of Alice Walker: A Life, Evelyn C. White is a freelance writer in Halifax.
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