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Growing up in Black Montreal

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I don’t remember the knives but the smells are still sharp, and part of the memories. Growing up Black in Little Burgundy: did I grow up Black, or did I grow up and become Black? Where did it all begin? My experiences of being Black-are entwined with my sense of belonging, of community.

It was a multi-ethnic community, with Chinese families sharing my street with French families. And right around my corner was a whole new world: Italian neighbours who lived in their own enclave with smells of wine, spices and other herbs I still don’t have words for.

Did I grow to be Black on summer streets so hot we tried to fry eggs on them? Or was it when the taunting, biting sounds of “Negre” or Nigger” rang out? Was it Black to jump on my secondhand bike, holding onto the walls until I could pedal two yards without falling? Was it Black to lug a bottle to the dispensary with a quarter, to bring back enough oil to pour into the oil tank? (Didn’t everyone heat with oil?) Maybe it was playing neighbourhood hide-and-seek with my friends, regardless of their colour. Every backyard and laneway had a possible nook or cranny to hide in. Or, was it instinctively, tacitly, knowing whose houses or yards to avoid because they wouldn’t like our kind?

Even with forbidden areas, the district of Little Burgundy was “home.” Playing, we protected it from imagined foes. And sometimes on the streets we protected it from real ones. Perhaps that was why we all rallied with brooms, sticks and fists on one side of the Lachine Canal to stop a “gang” of Pointe St. Charles kids from coming across the bridge. We protected each other playing in the streets, knowing full well that at the first cry or fracas many adult heads would emerge from opened windows and door stoops. Even when we wanted to get into mischief, we couldn’t wander far from someone’s eyes.

This shared feeling of community had its burdens, too. Respect and acknowledgement was expected by our elders. They might know your mother, or your grandparents or uncles: “You didn’t say hello to Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So. They told me how rude you were, walking right by them, not even saying hello. Don’t do that again.”

Growing up Black was different at school, too. The teachers sometimes made you feel that it was all a waste of time-their time. It was the same with substitute teachers or student teachers from university. More than once we’d hear how they’d been given “the assignment from hell” because their field work had brought them into our school. Maybe they were afraid? But I don’t remember any knives.

Now I know what our school was to them. It’s no longer a mystery. They did not see me. I was Negro. I was Black, assuredly “a problem.” I was an aberration on the learning curve perhaps, because how could I possibly understand Orwell’s 1984 in Grade 5? After all, were we not just cultural aberrations on I.Q. tests? Their text books said we were.

Our classes were sometimes 50-percent Black. Why did I notice that only when they took the annual class picture? Recess at elementary school was not always a racial battlefield. Yes there was an occasional spat but, wasn’t it because those kids came from other parts of “home,” from below the tracks, or on the west side of our neighbourhood? They lived two blocks away and yet, I was sure that they weren’t like us. “They don’t understand...” This was the familiar refrain of my memory. Was all the conflict necessary simply because I was growing up Black?

Yet growing up a Black girl, I knew I had power. Many strengths buttressed me. I was not a child lost to low expectations. My mother believed in me and encouraged me. I was the oldest girl. Would it not be natural that she would depend upon me? The responsibility for the house in my mother’s absence was heavy but it also character-building. Believe me, having younger brothers builds character.

Church did that, too--build character, I mean. As long as our tight braids stretched our scalps, and the ribbons or pastel clips adorned them symmetrically, church attendance was permitted. Any church. Growing up Black. That could mean maybe attending Anglican, Catholic, Gospel Hall, United or the non-denominational missions. Alternating was allowed if you weren’t too conspicuous or loud. Some didn’t always like our kind, you know.

It was this sense of difference and the need to truly belong that filled the halls of the Negro Community Centre up the street. We filled our after-school time and even our Saturdays in that building with cooking classes, woodworking, crafts, sports, games, piano, ballet, majorettes, tap-dancing and marching band. No one said these activities were only for Blacks and so our community expanded with local neighbourhood kids and weekend friends, Black kids brought in from Verdun, St. Henri, Mile-End, Chateauguay, NDG or Côte-des-Neiges. With the guidance of the Centre staff and the elders around us, we were often challenged to be the best we could and to face life’s obstacles head-on. But we were not fooled-our dreams had their limits or so we thought.

I grew up at a time when Blacks in Montreal looked south and also dared to dream that real and substantial change was imminent, imminent, but when? For the impatient few the waiting was intolerable and they either gave up or dropped out. For the rest, many were content to quietly live their lives. For a small minority the goal was to climb up ever higher, to push the boundaries, to be the first to get a BA and to move beyond becoming first in their family to ever get a Masters. We were the lucky generation as we no longer had to leave the city to get our education like some of our parents had had to. We were a blessed generation because as graduates we did not expect to work simply as maids or porters.

On our parents’ shoulders my generation marched on knowing change was coming and we witnessed “Montreal firsts”: our first Black police officer, our first Black judge, our first Black MP, our first Black MNA, our first Black at Rideau Hall and now, to the south, the first African-American at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.