SOME UNSUNG HEROES OF THE LOCAL BLACK COMMUNITY
Montreal, February 1st, 2012
As we mark Black History Month 2012, the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR) would like to pay tribute to the many unsung heroes in our city: Black women and men of all ages, especially Black mothers and children, who combat racial injustice and inequality by standing up for their civil rights.
These are the individuals whose faces seldom grace the Black History Month calendars. For far too often, these calendars are produced by public institutions that prefer to present misleading images of social harmony rather than to implement sustainable policies that can engender true equality, equity and inclusion. Many individuals will never enjoy the privilege of attending government-sponsored wine-and-cheese receptions that sing of Black History makers. Many more will never know the pleasure of being publicly recognized for their financially and socially painful, yet righteous, struggle for dignity and freedom in their daily lives.
Nevertheless, their struggle is the glorious prolongation of a universal fight for civil rights in the Americas, which changed the course of modern history and Western consciousness. Unbeknownst to many of us, these Black men and women continue the legacy of a Frederick Johnson, a Black man in Montreal who in 1899 successfully sued a Montreal theatre for racial segregation in public establishments (he won, on the basis of a breach of contract, as the ticket did not specify segregation of “colored people”).
The Frederick Johnsons of our city, then and now, are the stuff that history and legends are made of. Unfortunately, selective memory and socially exclusionary conceptions of history have conveniently erased these brave individuals’ stories from the pages of our history books.
In their honor, I will simply mention three profiles of Black courage, whom my colleagues, at CRARR, and I have had the privilege of supporting and representing in recent months.
There is the young Anglophone teenager who, at the age of 15, was deemed guilty, simply for riding the subway while Black. While on her way home from Cadets, in 2010, STM inspectors intercepted her to check her proof of payment as she was leaving the subway station with her friends, dragged her across the floor, handcuffed her and arrested her in Little Burgundy. The inspectors became so aggressive that they almost dislocated her shoulder. To make matters worse, they placed her health in jeopardy by refusing to hand her her asthma pump to prevent an asthmatic attack while she was handcuffed. Her psychological wellbeing, as well as her faith in public institutions, was further shattered by the unjustified violence and the vile insults she experienced, during her detention in a closed room.
Thanks to her mother’s steadfast love and support, she filed a civil rights complaint and stands unwavering in her desire for racial justice. A determined survivor, she soldiers on, seeking to restore her own honour and dignity while fully embracing her commitment to fight for the freedom of all racialized youths to ride the metro without discrimination, intimidation or violence.
There is the Black mother who works two jobs in order to support and raise her sons into successful, respectable and community-oriented professionals, such as fire fighters and doctors. This Black mother decided to take a stand against racial injustice by refusing to accept how her Black teenage son was stopped, searched, intimidated and fined for loitering outside the Villa-Maria metro station. His experience is even more troubling when one considers that officers intercepted and fined him, while his light-skinned male friend was left alone. All he actually did was await his friends and then talk to them calmly, without causing any problem. Although the humiliating incident changed her son overnight, the mother presses on, seeking to instill in her child the value of determination, the full freedom to be young and Black and the power of strength in the face of adversity.
There is the gay Black Haitian youth who was constantly subjected to homophobic bullying in school. In the end, he buckled under pressure and hit his tormentors in defense. Barely out of his teens, he stood up for himself, as well as his disabled mother, who lovingly embraced her son’s sexuality, and his siblings, who witnessed firsthand the hateful taunting and school officials’ attempts to stigmatize the entire family. The youth and her mother are not only determined to do everything possible to ensure full educational fairness and opportunities. They also decided to bring the school and the school board before the Quebec Human Rights Commission for failing to provide a homophobia-free and bias-free learning environment. In addition, they are determined to “go all the way” with their civil rights actions; because they realize that theirs is not only the battle of a single family. It is first and foremost a struggle for all Black youths and Black families with a gay child.
Strength in character and conviction in motion guide this young man, whose case will no doubt encourage gay and lesbian youths of all hues to cleanse their schools of hatred.
Every person’s life is filled with stories of courage and boldness. These are no exception. In fact, there are many more stories in our neighborhoods, our community centers, our workplaces and our schools waiting to be told.
And so, it is a small tribute that we pay to these extraordinary individuals, with the hope that they will recognize themselves and find comfort in these words. More importantly, we hope that they fully realize that their cause is just and that their quest is an inspiration for others.