Black in Halifax: El Jones on speaking up, and those who ruthlessly harass her
The Halifax poet and educator, in her own words, on speaking out against the racism she sees, and how it's resulted in threats and family members fearing for her safety.
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Police checks or consumer profiling in stores aren’t really about crime, or the danger of shoplifting or keeping communities “safe.” It’s about Black people walking, and breathing and being.
It’s about Black people still not being seen as fully human.
In one of the most famous pieces from the abolition era, Josiah Wedgwood designed a plate with an image of a kneeling African in chains. “Am I not a man and brother?” he implored.
More than 200 years after the end of slavery, we’re still asking the same thing. Black Lives Matter is just an updated version of that simple question.
Most of the time, being Black in Halifax is the same for me as it is for anyone else. In October, I went to Montreal just to see Ellie Black win the silver medal at the World Gymnastics Championships. That was an amazing day to be from Halifax. You can imagine how proud I felt.
But there are days when I’m not proud of Halifax.
Because I am Black and a woman and I talk about racism, that makes some people angry. When people get angry, the way they want to let me know racism doesn’t exist is by calling me racial slurs or calling me misogynist names or leaving violent comments. That will show me, I guess.
When I talk about racism in Halifax, some people take it personally. People know that racism is bad, so what they hear when I talk about the ways race affects our lives is that they are being called a bad person. And since they are not a bad person, I must be wrong. And since I’m wrong, I deserve to be attacked or followed around or bullied and harassed. I deserve to be silenced or even hurt.
But racism isn’t just something that exists in some other place that you think of as where “real” racism is, like the American South. Racism isn’t some mythical thing like dragons.
The people who leave me hundreds of messages with racial slurs or the people who threaten me or the people who dehumanize me aren’t mythical either. It’s your husbands or your sons or your brothers telling me how they want to shut me up.
When my family warns me not to walk home alone, the people they’re scared might try to harm me are your neighbours or your co-workers.
It might even be you.
When I was asked to write this, I thought about the week of threats and nasty comments and fear that I will experience. I thought about how people don’t really see me as human, because they create a figure that’s the “angry black woman” or the “social justice warrior” and that makes it easy to hate and attack and dismiss me. I thought about how my whole community bears that weight with me and how those threats and comments hurt them, too.
I have people who love me and who I love. I do work that sustains me and communities who care for me and support me back. I feel compassion and pain and joy and, yes, sometimes anger. Wouldn’t you?
Growing up as the only Black kids in the school, my mother repeated “sticks and stones” to us when we were bullied. She knew we’d need to be strong to survive. And I am strong, but sometimes I lie in bed in the morning and I shake knowing what I’ll be facing that day. I’ve learned to cry quickly, in the shower. I’ve learned to give myself five minutes to feel like I can’t keep going, and then move on.
A lot of the time people say, “Things have changed!” As if they changed by themselves and not by women like me standing up and talking about it and being threatened and told they were wrong.
People in Halifax will take the Viola Desmond ferry today and even feel proud knowing that was nine years before Rosa Parks in the United States. And someone might be on that ferry right now writing a comment on this article telling me how they want to hurt me because racism doesn’t exist anymore and I just love pulling the race card.
Find some “real” racism to complain about, people say. Is it real enough when the last two events I attended had to have extra security because of the threats that were called in? One of those was a family-friendly event.
My life is often people’s “but.” People will read this and say: "Nobody should threaten you, but people are so politically correct these days." Or: "But you don’t have the right to tell me what to say." Or: "But it was just a joke."
When you say that “but,” what you mean is that it’s more important to you that people can freely threaten me than Black women being able to walk to our own front doors.
Ask yourselves why is it more important to believe that none of this is real than to listen to me when I tell you about my experiences. Why it’s more important that I be silenced than that we change. Why it’s more important to say “that’s not really racist” and to blame me than to accept that Black people experience racism our whole lives and we know how it feels.
If you want to know why I keep speaking out, maybe it’s because it’s still easier for people to see the white men who tell me they want to rape me as human beings than it is to see a Black woman speaking out against injustice as one.
Is that really the Halifax you want to live in?
El Jones is Halifax’s former poet laureate. She is the current Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University. She lives in Halifax.
This story is part of Metro's ongoing Black in Halifax series. Let us know your thoughts on the series, and share your own stories using the hashtag #HalifaxWhileBlack with tweets, Instagram posts and Facebook comments. We may just share it in a future edition.