Chadwick Williams On Why Change Is Coming
A telling of Africville, Preston and the embrace of Erik Killmonger
Chadwick Williams photographed at Applehead Studio, Halifax, August 2020 | Photograph: Denis Duquette
Thus far, 2020 has been nothing short of fascinating. From atrocious political scandal to the crippling viral pandemic, this year has been humbling and frightful. This environment coupled with increased awareness of racial injustice has led to a civil-rights maelstrom. The televised murder of George Floyd was a catalyst to the consciousness of the world. And so we all find ourselves in an awakening, a reckoning. Black folks have been in this place for much, much longer though — maybe forever. I remember feeling this way with the killings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Philando Castile too. I remember thinking of how I would not want to have to raise a Black son and teach him the lessons that my parents taught me about getting along in this world and interacting with folks who look different from me.
Since the Ahmaud Arbery murder, my social-media pages, once filled with the mundane, have been flush with views and opinions on institutional racism and sexism. And now all of the sudden I am a mini-activist! I did not plan it, but I soon realized that being Black today leaves little choice other than activism. We are not afforded the luxury of sitting this one out. James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” I have been sad, angry and afraid. The necessary discussions sparked by these
events have been exhausting and draining. Some loved ones have told me that I may be a little obsessed and that I am not as present. They are correct, of course, but few things will affect me and my family (and you and your family) more than what is happening right now. This is not an American phenomenon. While we Canadians often consider ourselves more reserved and perhaps more civil than our southern neighbours, Canada has its own racial inequalities to grapple with and manage. North America’s first race riot was in 1784 right here in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, when a white mob razed a Black community to the ground. And who could forget the story of Africville? Every single time I cross the MacKay bridge I am reminded of the community that once existed on that Halifax shoreline. Beginning in 1964 Africville’s church and homes were bulldozed by the city of Halifax. Its citizens were removed like garbage: they literally were moved out on dump trucks. Survivors still live — this is not ancient history.
I am a proud son of Preston, another historic Black Nova Scotian community. Preston is not one place: once known as Preston Township, it is comprised of many related but distinct communities, including North Preston, East Preston, Cherry Brook and Lake Loon. It once included an even larger territory: Lake Echo, Porters Lake and swaths of the Eastern Shore down to Lawrencetown, but these now predominantly white communities have no real link to modern-day Preston. Known as the largest indigenous Black community in Canada, it was founded in the late 18th century. Comprised of previously enslaved Blacks, descendants of the Jamaican Maroons and the Black Loyalists, it is rich with culture and history. While the rugged land was granted to the Black Loyalists by the British Crown, even now many Prestoners lack legal title to their lands, and there is litigation pending to remedy this. My hometown is filled with hearty, happy and friendly people. Unfortunately, the community is all too often vilified. I tell everyone with misconceptions or questions about Preston to go to one of the community churches on Sunday morning (once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, of course). The church has always been the heart of the community. I promise that you will be welcomed as brothers and sisters and you will love it regardless of your religious stripe. Church in Preston is about Jesus, for sure, but it is also about joy, laughter and love. It is beautiful.
I recall being at a business dinner a few years ago and meeting a colleague who was somewhat familiar with Nova Scotia. He was surprised that I was from Preston and said something like, “You’ve done really well to get where you are, having grown up in Preston.” Based on the dynamic of our meeting, I knew that he meant this as a compliment, but it angered me. You see, I am who I am because of Preston not in spite of it. It has taught me about faith, family and hard work. These are the attributes that make me. He was not alone in his perception of my hometown though. People can fear and demonize things that they do not understand, and for whatever reasons the negative stories get amplified over the overwhelming positivity that is Preston. While Preston is a mere 20 kilometres from the city of Dartmouth, it is also a world away. It is a place where everyone waves as they drive by, whether they know you or not. Pre-COVID-19 , nearly the entire community would go to church on Sunday, dressed to kill with shiny shoes and hats that would put Kentucky Derby attendees to shame. Love is expressed through food and hugs and laughter. Everyone who knows Preston loves Preston.
Black Nova Scotians have been an integral part of the Nova Scotia tapestry for centuries, but they are still subject to long-standing, entrenched social and institutional inequities that are only now being recognized by the larger society. The provincial government has recognized racialized policing, with the Wortley report outlining the extent of racial profiling by law enforcement in Halifax. Black Nova Scotians can produce a laundry list of experiences when they were discriminated against as Black customers despite only a few “shopping while Black” stories making the news. Our education system fails to reflect the diversity of the community at the levels of student, instructor and administrator, and it is abundantly clear to me that this is not due to a lack of talented and interested racialized people.
As a practising physician, I can tell you that racism is alive and well in medicine. With my stethoscope around my neck and my name tag pinned to my chest, I seldom experience blatant acts of discrimination. A patient may comment on how well I speak, or they might ask, “Where are you from?” When I answer, “I am from here,” they ask, “Yes, but where are you from originally?” They are often quite surprised and amused that my family has been here even longer than theirs in most cases. Right or wrong, I have come to view these incidents as innocent, irrelevant nothings. More common in medicine, though, is a subtle, polite form of racism: the lack of representation at decision-making tables, the absence of racial considerations in our curricula, and racially biased recruitment and advancement processes. At times when I have had issues with my opinions or ideas being heard or valued, it has helped tremendously to enlist a white colleague to simply recite my views verbatim. In my experience they have been heard. This is the workaround that many Black folks have mastered: acting differently than others may do, doing something extra to meet a goal.
I watched Black Panther again recently, and for the first time since this revitalization of the Black Lives Matter movement. It was like watching it with new eyes. The film was a blockbuster obviously, but to the African diaspora it was and is so much more. Black Panther is a story of Black excellence. During this recent viewing though, I saw Erik Killmonger in a different light. Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger was terrifyingly fantastic. My first thought was, “What do I need to eat and what do I need to lift to get that ripped?” On a deeper level, I recognized that I used to see him as the villain. I did not hate him, but I did not love him either, at least not at first. There was something about Killmonger that didn’t sit well with me, and watching the film again helped me to see it. It was not his arrogance or his anger at Wakanda and the world. It was that he was loud, he was entitled, and he was unapologetic. (Okay, yes, he was also a murderer, but stay with me here.) He recognized that he and his people deserved more, and he was not ashamed to voice it. Killmonger did not come for the workaround. He came for what was his, for what was deserved. The guy is a freaking tragic hero, perhaps not in the classic Greek sense, with more than one tragic flaw (again the murders and all), but still. So where am I going with this? What does Killmonger have to do with social injustice, with Black Lives Matter? Black Lives Matter need not be ashamed, it should not apologize for itself, and it should not be here for the workaround or to make people comfortable. It is here for what is long overdue, for what is right and deserved — equality across our societal institutions.
How can the Maritimes as a whole learn and benefit from the Black Lives Matter movement? Well, for starters, we need to recognize just how significantly Black people have contributed to where we are, and these lessons should be taught. For example, we learned of the great Halifax Citadel military fortress in grade school, but how many of us know how integral the Maroons were to its construction?
Abraham Beverley Walker, a New Brunswick–born lawyer and journalist, was the first Black lawyer in that province and the first Black magazine publisher in Canada when he founded Neith magazine. Born in 1851, he grew up a farmer’s son on the Kingston Peninsula and later started a law practise in Saint John. In 2019, Walker was successfully nominated to receive the Order of New Brunswick “for his inspiring achievements as Canada’s first Black lawyer admitted to the bar and for his commitment to civil rights in New Brunswick and across North America.” But why are our children not being taught about him in school? And while some may feign fatigue at hearing it, we need to recognize what Black people have sacrificed: they have suffered cultural and financial loss and continue to do so. Yes, many of the egregious events happened years ago, but they have shaped the trajectory of Black communities for centuries, limiting generational wealth and growth. We need to take an honest look at our institutions and identify where and why racial inequities exist; and then we need to take action to improve. There are challenging discussions ahead, but they must be had.
If we can do this, will we finally see that, through Black Lives Matter, truly all lives may matter? What better place to start than right here in the Maritimes? I feel that this place, despite some of its history and current struggles, is a place to nurture such change. I am not just being whimsical here. Trust me, I don’t do whimsical. I am a pessimistic realist at best.
Consider what has already occurred in the last three months: Saint John, New Brunswick, has recently made racial discrimination a crime, a feat not replicated anywhere else in Canada. Racial discrimination is not a crime where I live and work in Halifax. It is not punishable as a crime by law. It still blows my mind.
On June 14, more than two thousand people attended the Saint John Black Lives Matter march. On July 23, Matthew Martin of the Saint John Black Lives Matter Movement (which is now officially a registered nonprofit organization) met with Dominic Cardy, minister of education. They discussed the inclusion of New Brunswick Black history in the provincial school curriculum, and this work is now under way. Incredible achievements by this local hero who almost single-handedly mobilized an entire city to recognize the systemic racism plaguing society and to bring about change.
Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The flame is lit, and I hope it rages the land. Are we going to let little Saint John do all of the hard work alone?
So while I may brood over the latest revelation of social injustice or racism, more often I find myself encouraged by examples of champions of all colours and creeds who stand with and stand up for racialized people, realizing that it is the way that someday all of our lives will be equally valued. Now let’s get into some good trouble.
Dr. Chadwick Williams donated his fee for writing this feature to the Black Cultural Centre in Nova Scotia.