A Reflection on Black Resistance
Written by: Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr, author of I Am Because We Are: An African Mother's Fight for the Soul of a Nation
[Content Warning: Racism, racial violence, racial slurs]
I remember the first time I was called a nigger. Born and raised in Nigeria, that word always seemed removed from my reality. Akin to when someone swears at you in a foreign language, it doesn’t quite sting as much as say in one’s own language. There is a distance. A logical separation. With the tough skin that life has granted to me, I wasn’t expecting the affront the word would have on me.
Nigger yelled at me for no apparent reason, other than the fact that I was asking the assailant for directions in a small town.
I wasn’t expecting to hide in the bathroom afterwards and cry.
The theme of this year’s Black History Month is “Black Resistance.”
Over 400 years of enslavement with millions stolen from their homes and taken across the Atlantic, centuries of displacement, torture, murder, discrimination, police brutality, exploitation, segregation, unequal access, persecution, and attempts at erasing the dignity of a people — Black people all over the world have persevered. This is seen and felt not just as a practice of resistance against oppressive forces, but as the joy, dignity, and well-being of a people.
Black Resistance explores how “Black people have resisted historical and ongoing systemic oppression, especially the racial terrorism of lynching and increased gun violence, since their forced arrival in foreign lands. Black people have resisted racial oppression through movements such as the Underground Railroad in Nova Scotia, the Toronto against racism vigils, the Selma to Montgomery March, the Black Lives Matter movement and the most recent protest of the police beating of unarmed Tyre Nichols in Memphis. Black people continue to advocate for a dignified life in a racially-just society”(Calgary.ca).
Black Resistance is not without sacrifices, and many, if not all Black people, bear the scars of this.
This essay is a reflection on some of these sacrifices as well as the journey of resistance.
House of Anansi and Groundwood Books for over fifty years have published stories of people who have resisted. As we celebrate Black History Month, this is a time to take a moment and reflect on the journey that has been, and stories allow us to do just this. To do this, I will be reflecting on select publications including:
Africville written by Shauntay Grant and illustrated by Eva Campbell
Malaika’s Surprise written by Nadia Hohn and illustrated by Irene Luxbacher
Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged written by Jody Nyasha Warner and illustrated by Richard Rudnicki
House of Anansi
Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta
Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling by Esi Edugyan
This Lovely City by Louise Hare
When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks by Austin Clarke
I Am Because We Are: An African Mother's Fight for the Soul of a Nation by Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr
Let’s begin with the very notion of identity and who defines it.
Even here, for something so personal as defining who one is, Black people are denied the right to self-identify.
The “separate but equal” doctrine enshrined this in law with “the so-called One Drop Rule, which classified anyone who had even a single theoretical 'drop' of Black blood as a Black person. If someone appeared white but was designated Black because a grandparent five generations earlier had been Black, no distinctions were made for these subtleties of inheritance” (Edugyan, 86). As long as one had one drop of Black blood, they were considered Black. This had led to stories of men and women who made the decision to “pass” (a case where a mixed-race Black person, for reasons of upward mobility, chooses the sole identity of "white", denying and/or hiding any link to being Black). This is a choice filled with a lifetime of fear and trepidation at the thought of getting caught.
Within the arbitration of what it means to be Black, and within navigating one’s own Blackness, the external gaze of the other often captures the historically uneven power dynamics.
In Out of the Sun, Esi Edugyan captures how, not unlike my jarring experience in being labelled as a nigger, the power of the external gaze had its impacts on her own experience: “it had never occurred to me that the uneasiness others might feel about my race should be something I myself carried. Imitation of Life clarified how the pressure of that outer gaze could dismantle one’s own way of seeing” (Edugyan, 84).
So, what happens once one checks the “Black” box, complete with all its implications?
In my case, being from a country where we are all Black and are notoriously confident, I thought that I was free from the cloak of history’s contempt.
“To have a full sense of what’s possible for your future, you must have a sense of the past, a reality that was and remains difficult or even impossible for many people of African descent in the shadow of slavery and colonialism. So many ancestral customs have been lost, so many family bonds, rituals, languages, names. Beyond the breaking of the Black body were subtler but less devastating attacks – deliberate, systematic efforts to destroy the binding memory of culture” (Edugyan, 148).
Stories help to bridge this gap. The story of resistance begins with the stories we tell our children.
Stories like those of Viola Desmond, whose efforts to fight against segregation in Canada were enshrined into law by the late 1950s. It all started when she was asked to move to the back of the theatre. She was willing to pay full price but, as a Black woman, the expectation was for her to sit in the cheap seats upstairs.
Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged highlights Canada’s fraught history with Black people, explaining that although racial segregation was not federally legislated, it was nevertheless widely practised. “It was commonplace for African Canadians not to be allowed to attend the same schools, play on the same sports teams, join the same unions and, in some cases, be in the same public spaces as white Canadians. It is in this context that Viola Desmond, in refusing to move to the Black section of a movie theatre, challenged segregation in Canada” (Warner, end notes).
Discrimination extended to immigration:
“From 1912 to 1950, the government actively discouraged Black immigration because the white population protested the growing presence of Blacks in Canada” (Warner, end notes).
These stories show that the road of resistance is paved with loss and pain, including of ones home.
In Africville, Shauntay Grant celebrates “Black Resistance” in sharing the story of the magical place that was Africville, “where home smells like sweet apple pie and blueberry duff…
“Where the pavement ends and family begins, where my great-grandmother’s name is marked in stone...
“Where memories turn to dreams, and dreams turn to hope, and hope never ends” (Grant, end notes).
“Africville was a Black community located on the shores of the Bedford Basin in Halifax, Nova Scotia … For more than 150 years, Africville was a vibrant, self-sustaining community that thrived in the face of opposition” (Grant, end notes).
All of this ended when, “as the city of Halifax grew, instead of providing for the community, Halifax city officials decided to demolish Africville in the 1960s. Residents were moved out in city dump trunks, and their homes were destroyed” (Grant, end notes).
Today, Black Resistance is in its full display in Africville. In 1983, the residents of Africville returned to host the first of many Africville reunion which has since become an annual festival. In 2002, Africville was declared a National Historic Site of Canada, culminating in the city of Halifax building a replica of the old community church which now stands as a museum.
Through it all, there is an invitation to hope and trust in the dream "that all men are created equal” (King, "I Have a Dream").
Black Resistance shines in Nadia L. Hohn’s Malaika’s Surprise which paints a picture of a more integrated society, exemplified by a mixed-race family whom Malaika refers to as her “brown and pink family.” It shows how over time there have been changes in mindset and intolerance captured by the changes in the racial makeup of the country that is no longer simply Black and/or white.
But the journey to racial integration and healing is fraught with the struggles of the individuals who make up our society.
Zalika Reid-Benta’s Frying Plantain follows the life of Kara Davis, a young, first-generation Canadian girl navigating her Jamaican roots and Canadian identities. The environment in which she lives is exposed in the first pages of the book when, during a minor altercation in a store, an aggrieved white male walks away saying, “Always something with you fucking people” (Reid-Benta, 12).
The pressure on Kara to navigate both cultures sometimes feels so great that she seems physically incapable of fully processing it: “I wished for a panic attack. Hyperventilation. Tears. Anything to show the weight of what I’d done. But my body didn’t allow me any messy relief; I sat on the train dry-eyed and numbed” (Reid-Benta, 216).
Austin Clarke, in When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks, chronicles the experiences of people of the Caribbean diaspora. The loneliness of life away from everything they know in search of a better life. The loneliness of those they left behind. The self-hate that comes from the endless struggle to belong and being denied: “he didn’t want to see any more black people.” (Clarke 63). The unforeseen and the expected struggles — the run-ins with the police fitting both bills. On the latter, adding: “The hate that grew in his heart because the police presumed he was a burglar, that he could be burgling the house of his dreams” (Clarke, 63).
This Lovely City by Louise Hare expounds on the contentious relationship Black people have with police. The setting this time is London, and the focus is on the story of Jamaican immigrants to the UK in the aftermath of the 2nd World War.
A Black baby’s death is central to the story, bringing unwelcome attention to immigrants and the then rare Black British–born citizens, both trying to belong in an environment that makes it clear that they were unwelcome: “He’d been a fool to think things were looking up. Sonny was right; they weren’t and never would be welcome here. It didn’t matter what his passport said. A man with black skin could never be considered British” (Hare, 199).
Esi Edugyan writes that “the longest-running battle in the history of the world conflicts is the one waged over the supremacy of stories. The dominant narrative tilts the axis of memory — its triumph is the triumph of being seen” (Edugyan, 164).
In spite of years of erasure, persecution, and all forms of oppression, Black people everywhere have persevered, rejecting stories of who they are meant to be. Rewriting their stories.
Without stories, we begin the journey of forgetting. In I Am Because We Are, I reflect on the impact of colonization on the psyche of the Igbo people of Nigeria whose stories I tell via the story of my mother, Dora Akunyili: “Both sides had wisdom, but one side claimed this only for themselves and in so doing robbed Igbos of their own share. And because we hadn’t written down those things we knew to be true, and because the colonizers’ knowledge was written, we ignored our own wisdom and began the journey of forgetting. We lost sight of why we had thrived for centuries, and wondered why in the last decades we flailed” (Akunyili- Parr, 175).
Black Resistance is to reclaim all that was lost, and to celebrate the strength it takes to do this.