Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Conversation at York University Focuses on Activism and Resistance

By Neil Armstrong

Photo contributed.   From left, Dionne Brand, Robyn Maynard and Angela Robertson in conversation about activism and resistance at a Black History Month event organized by the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora at York University in Toronto.

Two well-known black Canadian feminists recently met to reflect on the ways in which their activism and people of African descent resist the daily acts of gendered, classed and sexual racialization in Canadian society.

“Everyday Activism, Critical Resistance”  - a conversation with Toronto social activist Angela Robertson and Montreal community organizer Robyn Maynard facilitated by award-wining poet and documentarian Dionne Brand was held at York University in Toronto on February 15.

Organized by Dr. Carl James, the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora in partnership with the trade union, Unifor, James said he is trying to make the Chair as vibrant as it is supposed to be.

In introductory remarks after reading an excerpt of her book, “A Map to the Door of No Return,” Brand said it occurred to her while preparing for the panel “how crucial every act of speaking is in the lives of black people, how crucial every public forum is, what is at stake and what is always at stake in these acts of speech.”

“What is always at stake are the grounds of our survival and our liberation,” she said.

Brand noted that black people in Canada find themselves each day in a state of hyper-vigilance of having to organize against the ongoing attacks on their existence.

Robertson, who was conferred with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from York University in October 2017, and Maynard, author of the book, “Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present,” were invited to give their analysis of this particular moment and their own activism.

“I believe that just by being here in this conversation is part of that everyday activism and that it is an act of critical resistance to be in this space in a community of black folks and allies naming the presence and the prevalence of racism in our lives,” said Robertson.

She said it was important to acknowledge that the history of European settlement in Canada is marred by the genocide and exploitation of indigenous peoples, the theft of their land, and the continuing violence of their marginalization.

Robertson said immigrants who came under the promise of multiculturalism must recognize that it held in it the erasure of indigenous peoples.

“I must also underscore that through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade African peoples were forcefully brought here as stolen people on stolen land. Hence the need for all of us who came after who seek to work for social justice in this country to be in solidarity and in alliance with indigenous peoples’ fight for land and social change.”

Robertson said she believes activism and critical resistance are necessary for “our survival, our sanity, our joy, under what bell hooks calls ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.’”

She said the manifestation of this is seen in the rise and the rates of poverty of racialized communities, in the disparities of income for racialized workers, the widening educational achievement gap for black youth in high schools, the high rates of incarceration of black and indigenous children in the child welfare system, among other things.

“We don’t talk about class but we need to talk about class,” said Robertson.

She described this contemporary moment with a quote from scholar Rinaldo Walcott’s book, “Black Like Who,” in which he says: “Blackness is now everywhere in the city of Toronto but black people are nowhere.”

Robertson said she does not mean nowhere in terms of place, position and geography but instead that “we are nowhere being thought of by the system as valued in any meaningful way.”

Despite this, Robertson believes in the great promises contained in individual and collective activism and resistance “to vision and create the society we want.”

“Doing and visioning of something other than this is critical resistance and activism,” she said.

Robertson said activism and critical resistance is not just about responding to injustice, it is also about critical reflection “before we make the next move and after we have acted because our movement and our organizing can become fragmented.”

She cautioned that people could become arrogant and then create vulnerabilities in movements which will be exploited by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

She said her approach to everyday activism and critical resistance is that “your struggle for justice must be my struggle for justice.”

Angela Robertson, Jean Augustine and Robyn Maynard at a reception before the conversation "Everyday Activism, Critical Resistance" at York University in Toronto.

Maynard said there is a real value to Black History Month which is also to her Black Future Month which is something that could be used “even as we do this everyday activism critical resistance as a way of grounding ourselves both in our shared histories and in the ways that we are geared towards the future.”

Maynard said so much of what she has learned about where the community came from emanated from her discussions with elders, from combing through the archives of books, newspapers and masters’ theses.

“This means that it actually takes enormous amounts of dedication to find our stories despite the growing inroads of black scholars who have lovingly recorded our histories and left traces and left their mark,” she said, given the broader climate of ongoing erasure of black lives in this country.

Maynard said that as a young black woman living in Canada her learning has been facilitated by women like Brand and Robertson.

She continually re-reads the pages of “Our Lives,” Canada’s first black women’s newspaper and “We’re Rooted Here and They Can’t Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women’s History” in which Brand is a contributor, which brought the everyday activism of black women into her purview.

These, she said, in many ways grounded “the moment that we find ourselves today in what I really believe is a black feminist resurgence.”

Maynard said it was a gift to discover a black feminism that preceded her own “that was once unapologetic, queer, deeply critical of multiple systems of oppression that we as black women face – policing, immigration policy, and capitalism that is once racial and gendered.”

“I think as writers more broadly, as black writers in particular, leaving a mark is quite political in a place that is deliberately trying to erase and distort any trace of blackness.”

Maynard presented examples of what she described as fake news directed against black people in past media reports about Jamaican gangs in the 1980s, the welfare crisis in the 90s about Somali single mothers, the undermining of black activism, and what ended up justifying the deportation of five hundred Jamaicans in 1995.

“But when it comes to the visibility of black people as human beings that is where we continue to struggle.”

Maynard feels that there is a rhetorical shift underway and that blackness is being reconfigured in the Canadian landscape.

She said this is the result of decades of black struggle beginning in the 1970s and moving into now, and into what she believes in some ways is a tipping point for visibility.

The community organizer said recently Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finally recognized the existence of anti-black racism.

“I think there is a symbolic value in that I think it really demonstrates how far we have come as black activists that we can now force this issue into the public realm. But I think this new era of visibility also presents us with different challenges and different risks as well.”

Maynard said while it’s great to have anti-blackness recognized as a fact and not a fiction, notions of black excellence continue to be co-opted on the political level.

She said Canada has a black immigration minister who is set to possibly oversee one of the largest mass deportations of black people from Canadian soil in recent history, and Haitian members of parliament have been paid by the Canadian government to go to the United States and tell Haitians not to come to Canada.

“So whether black visibility is on the radar that does not necessarily mean that black lives matter. It doesn’t necessarily mean a transformative shift in the way that our society continues to be organized.”

Maynard said there are many lessons to learn from the decolonization movements and ongoing colonial realities of the Caribbean, in South Africa, in the United States “that we know that black prison guards, black police, black heads of state is not a stand-in for justice for black people. And, in some ways, it makes black liberation struggle more complex.”

She said these are some of the questions that black people should ask themselves: “How can we create struggles that cannot and will not be co-optable? What does it mean to move forward into something that is more than just integration, that actually moves into what it means to actually have black emancipation?”

[This story has been published in the Weekly Gleaner, March 1-March 7, 2018.]

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