The article is specifically centred on Nova Scotia, Canada, but the themes explored have an echo throughout the country and the diaspora. What price can we afford to pay as Black individuals of African descent for acceptance by others on their terms? What sacrifices are made in terms of our authentic selves to accommodate, work with, resist and seek to change the oppressive and damaging perceptions and actions of others in a systemically racist environment that we seek belonging to? What energies are needed from an already diminishing source to withstand such pressures and reimagine ourselves as arbiters of our own worth and creators of the knowledge, experience, skills and drive to move forward on our own pathway on our own terms?
In 2015, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave a speech in London, U.K. titled Diversity is Our Strength, stating that “Canada has learned to be strong not in spite of our differences but because of them, and going forward, that capacity will be at the heart of both our success, and of what we offer the world,” he said.
Diversity is our strength, culturally, politically and economically. Pathways to such an aspirational goal are fraught with difficulties to overcome and our history is littered with such examples. Our Indigenous peoples illustrate our past and still current inequities in the provision and defence of basic human rights.
The prime minister continued: “We need to acknowledge that our history includes darker moments: the Chinese head tax, the internment of Ukrainian, Japanese, Italian Canadians during the First and Second World war, our turning away boats of Jewish or Punjabi refugees, our own history of slavery.”
That series of lapses in our intention must also be contrasted with those successes where our aspirations have—and still do—bear fruit.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a formidable Black American intellectual and commentator on the lived experience of Black people of African descent, in a foreword to Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others in 2017, talks about the wish to belong. The book itself is about themes of race, borders, vast movements of people, what motivates people to construct others, and the use of terms, such as racial divide, racial chasm, racial profiling, racial diversity, “as though each of these ideas is grounded in something beyond our own making.”
We created such categories of race then underpinned our labels with layers of declared knowledge, facts, theories, that were designed to confirm the humanity and worth of the creators of such alleged knowledge at the expense of those allocated to the labels. The invention of differences between ourselves, and the imposition of values placed upon such variance, has a purpose argues Coates and is developed further by Morrison.
What is generally accepted as the meaning of being part of a cultural group and there being a cultural gap between yours and another is not as clear as one may think. Culture is one of many groupings we may align ourselves to voluntarily or be assigned to by others.
In Our Search For Belonging: How our Need to Connect is Tearing Us Apart by Howard Ross with Jon Robert Tartaglione, Ross seeks to explore the “inherently social” qualities of human beings and why we want to bond deeply with some people and not others. He addresses the question of why we feel more comfortable with people in groups to which we belong and answers it by saying that “it creates a kind of bond that has us feeling safer and knowing what to expect, what is considered normal, and how to relate.” Ross attempts to find out why human beings are so intent to live in and be shaped by the groups they identify with. This concerted introspection results in us living in differing realities, drawing us further and further into a group web and this forces us away from contact with, resultant understanding of, and identification with, individuals voluntarily associated or assigned to other groups.
Ross argues that the reasons why we are so willing to be sucked into this group web revolves around a “need for belonging.” It is a need so strong that it is embedded in our DNA and drives us towards this goal of belonging, even at the risk of intentional separation from others viewed as different. This demands a further question of how you create bridges across such bonded groups that are biologically wired. Is it even worth the effort? One can begin to see how difficult it is to create bridges across such social and cultural groupings. In addition to being biologically wired to be drawn to those who look like us and make us feel safe, there is the added element—that some would argue is the most influential—of the dominant sector societal packaging of such social groups that select one over the other and provide and sustain the infrastructure for its continuing hegemony.
Ross does concede that there are certain pathways to belonging that rest upon the belief that it is possible to create breakthroughs in human understanding that can increase our chances of belonging to others. This relies upon the acceptance of the reality of human behaviour, the biological and societal pressures and the desire to work with it and alter the damaging impact. That does not mean we accept the biological and societal pressures as a given, a permanent presence, but that we recognise them as a starting point and then work out how they can be addressed.
Essentially, what is needed foremost is a clear vision incorporating what we wish to aspire to, and to whom we wish to belong to, together with reasoned understanding of why we are together.
How do those individuals and communities caught up in the race categories imposed upon them by more dominant others seek to navigate through this cultural group web to claim some sense of belonging? In the Nova Scotia context, those of Black African descent over generations of residence there and more recent new immigrants of Black African descent have developed ways of claiming such belonging but by differing pathways. Those of generational lineage entitlement to belonging largely see it in the sense interpreted by Bell Hooks in her 2009 book Belonging: A Culture of Place, where ownership, settlement, stability, sustainability, endurance and creating generational links to an identifiable space (not necessarily geographic, but in this instance it is) feature.
In contrast, newer Black immigrants of African descent seek acceptance and belonging mainly through a quiet demand coupled with tools to strengthen that demand by accessing formal education and the acquisition of required skills in the workplace. The newer Black arrivals of African descent are taking a different, observable route shared by some of the generational lineage cohorts that clearly states separation, segregation and parallel existence is no longer acceptable and will not be tolerated. True belonging in a diverse, equitable and inclusive society—the Dream of Canada as espoused by Justin Trudeau outlined earlier—means being treated as equal to anybody else. Having similar opportunities to aspire and achieve what you set out to claim. Having no imposed restrictions that fetter development based on spurious notions of origins and perceptions of difference. Acknowledging that due to societal constraints those with imposed restrictions to acquire the tools necessary to achieve identified goals, are given the opportunity and the resources to possess them.
Declarations of Intent
Martin Luther King Jr. in his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail stated that “all men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
This connection, this co-dependency, is difficult for some thought leaders and decision makers to understand and accept, let alone work to deliver on. Novelist, playwright and activist James Baldwin understood this by advising us that as Black people of African descent, “Our energies should be devoted to understanding the way that a country and its society works. How to find my way around it, not get lost in it, and not feel rejected by it.” This demands that we have an awareness of our context-identity, the social location within which we are currently and the impact it has upon us. The next step is to work out how we can forge some sort of approach to deal with it. Our sense of belonging is conditional, reliant on how we play our cards. We decide, we choose, weighing up the pros and cons of how to play this, at times, lethal game.
This valuable lesson was conveyed to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ teenage son in a letter to him in the form of the 2015 book Between the World and Me. The father is trying to convey to his son what it means to inhabit a Black male body in a society that does not recognize your dignity and is determined to undermine you and destroy you.
“There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in the moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this… Racism is a visceral experience…it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscles, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this… And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream…but this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.”