Feminist American writer Audrey Lorde, self-defined as a “woman, Black, Lesbian, warrior, poet,” sought in her work to make an important distinction between seeking understanding and determining relevant action primarily through the intellect, or striving to achieve that through a focus on feeling.
In Poetry is Not a Luxury, which appeared in her collection Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Lorde describes poetry as “a revelatory distillation of experience” as opposed to poetry being masqueraded as “sterile wordplay” covering “a desperate wish for imagination without insight.” Lorde challenges us, like poetry, to aim towards change; “possibility made real…what we feel within and dare make real.”
In the words of Lorde, who died in 1992 at aged 58, viewing difference as a source of power and creativity was originally addressed to variations of personal status within women; poor, comparatively better off, Black, “Third World”, White, old, young, heterosexual, Lesbian. Her scope of difference however can be interpreted much more broadly whilst still underpinned by her focus on the necessity and power of self –definition, mutuality between those who “stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable,” exhibiting an “interdependency of differing strengths, ‘acknowledged and equal’, allowing the emergence of new ways of seeing oneself, and acting, ‘as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters…Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged’.”
I was reminded of this focus on feeling, belief, dredged from within, painfully etched, occasioned by the circumstances of our lives that leave an imprint on us, during the death ritual of George Floyd over eight minutes and 46 seconds. A Black man of African descent, with the knee of a White police officer pressed down on his neck, on May 25, in Minneapolis, U.S.A. in the full piercing glare of social media, that triggered a global awakening of generational differential treatment and injustice based on the colour of one’s skin. Such state sanctioned and complicit systemic racism is not confined to the United States and is evident explicitly in Canada. What marked the murder of George Floyd from many other acts of mistreatment based on Black skin of African descent was that this was carried out in public. It was akin to a lynching where White people could come and watch in person the suffering of Black bodies with their children and have picnics whilst being entertained. Only this time the viewer was watching a screen.
The global uproar has led to a tsunami of self-reflection on the part of those who are not Black of African descent and who wish to understand how such acts could occur and how they could take part in addressing such injustice and inhumanity. It has led to calls of examining the relationships generally between Black and White people to explore what it feels like to live in Black bodies and how the colour of your skin can significantly affect wellbeing. It has also raised questions of what role non-Black people play in supporting the structures in society that allow such acts to occur without any accountability, sometimes without realising they are.
Closer to home, Metepenagiag First Nation Chief Bill Ward is demanding answers after a member of the community in New Brunswick, 48-year-old Rodney Levi, was killed by the RCMP. About a week earlier on June 4, a 26-year-old Indigenous woman from British Columbia, Chantel Moore, was shot and killed in her apartment by the police in Edmundston. The police were visiting her on a so-called wellness check. Chantel had moved to the community three months earlier to be near her mother and six-year-old daughter.
Similar concerns are raised about the relationship between the Indigenous communities in Canada and the dominant White populations to those raised by the Black populations of African descent.
Ways Forward: Silent Witnesses Awakened
There needs to be the further opening up of conversations about such reflections in ways that lead to authentic openness, the wish to understand and learn, to lend one another empathy, feel for each other’s circumstances, share sorrow, and move towards identifying actions that may help to move us forward in our relationships. That means in practice that each of us must reach out to each other to seek connection, acknowledgement of each other’s presence, and, because we are interdependent, try to understand one another’s context. Not necessarily trying to walk in each other’s shoes but at least making an effort to understand the other. Being a silent witness to injustice, indifference and hate is unacceptable. Not viewing you, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., as sharing my garment of destiny, demeans us all.
The time has now been reached for that transformative change with support of such allies. The magnitude of that support is new. The passion of that support is new. The will of that support is new. We have an opportunity at this time to make profound changes and have the conversations that previously were perceived as too difficult to have.
At the invitation of MLA Barbara Adams in July, I was privileged to make a virtual presentation to community members of Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage in Nova Scotia. Members wished to explore how, amidst the diversity of their communities, they could learn from the murder of George Floyd and review how they connected with one another. According to Statistics Canada, more than one fifth of Canadians are people of colour: 22.3% of the total population in 2016. By 2036, people of colour are projected to be about a third (31%-36%) of the population. Diversity within Canada is a growing phenomenon and it is vital that we are willing and equipped to enter into and sustain conversations with one another where we leave our vulnerabilities at the door.
When seeking to connect with others on sensitive areas relating to ourselves, our bodies, our thoughts, how we were brought up, what areas of our past influenced how we think, act, how we change, and do we want to change; there is risk. This act of attempted connection, sharing ourselves with others, opens us up to outside inspection and interpretation that may not be to our liking. Therefore, to maximise the prospects of connection there needs to be ground rules in terms of creating safe spaces to talk within. Such spaces allow us to have a chance to expose our thinking and actions, vulnerabilities, areas where our knowledge and experience is limited, areas where we wish to seek further knowledge and experience. In such spaces there is a commitment from each of the participants to acknowledge each other’s contribution without critical judgement because that leads to a shut down in connection. The object of the safe spaces is to hear each other and learn from one another and potentially change each other through respectful exchanges.
Living in our bodies can be challenging in society, especially if our bodies look or feel different to what bodies “should” look and feel like. We receive such judgements from other people through social media, upbringing, newspapers, books, television or films and the like. When bodies have a different colour and a negative value is placed on that colour and there are other alleged differences attributed to such bodies, it has a profound impact on the individuals who inhabit such bodies.
Talking about such impacts, differences, how it feels to navigate through life in such bodies, is a necessary activity as is discussions about those shared powerful views held by others who feel they do not have such bodies.
Learning and sharing is not confined to White people. We as Black people and others of colour have to learn too and it is equally painful and difficult. From the initial conversations come increased knowledge and responsibility, followed by appropriate action tailored to your own context.