I’m not one of those saying I can’t believe this day would ever come – a black man sworn in as President of the United States of America. Truth be told, my dream was a female head of the United States. My reality however, is unbridled joy. Canada’s four mainstream politicians combined cannot offer a cupful of hope compared to the ocean of abundance envisioned by Barack Obama.
Mercifully I don’t recall feeling the lashes of racism inflicted on me, but witnessed an incident that marked me for life.
One of my childhood neighbours was black, the only black family I knew. This was when all most white suburbanites knew of the African-American experience was what we saw on Good Times, Sanford & Son, or The Jeffersons. The drama and struggle satirised, written, and produced by whites. To put it mildly, those shows were in serious need of some chitlins. Rootsthe epic novel/TV series by Alex Haley, not the clothing chain) came along and changed how I viewed things. Seeing Ralph Waite, kind and gentle patriarch of TV’s Waltons as a lash wielding slave trader opened my eyes – things were not as they seemed. Up till then, we’d joke around with the neighbours, uttering the N word meant nothing. To us kids, it was a word, just a word like millions of others. It carried neither malice not malais.
Later that summer my family drove to Florida – I hated every minute of being in that smoky car but it stands as the most important journey of my life. Aside from trips to Kensington Market, it was the first time I was surrounded by coloured people. There was one boy at the resort, he was the son of one of the workers. Being close in age, and my being a tomboy we often played together. One muggy swamp-land afternoon, some passerby hollered out “Leave that girl alone, nigger.” I swear to God I saw that boy’s soul evaporate through his eyes in a flood of tears. The word that had no meaning a few weeks earlier gave meaning to my life. In that instant, that moment of pain and shame for an innocent little boy showed me the power of language. That one word, one phrase could affect a human being to the extent it affected that child opened my eyes. From that incident stemmed my love for language. I had seen that there is no such thing as just a word, just an ordinary word. A bundle of vowels and consonants equalled far more than the sum of its parts. It instilled a passion that no matter how powerful my words, I vowed to never hurt anyone with them, that I would never come up with anything to create such pain in human lives.