Friday, April 5, 2013

Resisting the State: "I Call It Surviving"

Chapter 4 of Scott Neigh's Resisting the State deals with Lynn Jones,  a black, female trade union and community activist from Truro Nova Scotia.

My Mom's family settled in Truro when she was a girl. We went down east once on a visit and my Aunt was driving us around and referred to one part of town as "where all the black people live" with what I sensed was unease. Having grown up in Hamilton on a steady diet of Buffalo, New York news and American television, my 8-10 year old mind immediately thought of practical dangers of poverty and crime and not some visceral dislike.

Maybe around ten years ago, a black guy asked me for money outside Copps Colosseum in Hamilton. "I'm not a nigger!" He told me. "I'm from Nova Scotia!" Completely unsure as to what the proper response to that should be, I asked him what part of Nova Scotia and when he said Truro, I told him that my mother was from Truro.  I said my Aunt lived in Bible Hill. We talked a little bit about the place and I went on my way.

Nova Scotia has had an oppressed black community since the American Revolution, when blacks who had served the British cause were given their scant reward by the British government as dramatized in Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes. They were relegated to segregated sections of Halifax and, among other places, Truro.

Lynn Jones faced blatant discrimination from the very beginning in Canada's white supremacist society. That's the origin of the chapter's title: "You call it activism. I call it surviving." Her statement shows the clarity of the difference between minority and majority status. For white people in North America, it's possible to just go with the flow. An attractive middle class white woman could, in the 1960s, get a financially successful husband or, with time, a career. A working class white guy can hope to get a steady job and know some degree of autonomy. But for a low-income, female black woman, or a Canadian aboriginal, struggle comes as part of the job description. For instance, it came as a bit of a surprise to me to hear that there were separate washrooms for black and white schoolchildren in Truro schools in the 1950s.

Jones fought for recognition of black culture while in high school. In university, she fought for the preservation of a government program that allowed blacks and aboriginals to access post-secondary education.

When, as a member of PSAC, her and a friend applied for two union executive positions that were vacant, the retiring members suddenly decided they weren't going to leave after all, provoking a genuinely spirited campaign. Once in, Jones got her union working on things like sexism and racism. Men walked out of meetings where they were told not to refer to women as "girls" and both white men and white women bridled at the idea of bringing "non-union" issues like anti-racism into the discussion.

On pages 122 to 126, Jones relates her organizing the community in Halifax, primarily black, against the federal government's attempts to close down an unemployment office. Given the lack of public transportation and the community resident's lack of private transportation, this was not a good thing. They occupied that office for 122 days before the feds relented.

But, and this is where Scott and I have our biggest disagreement; The feds waited for a bit, and then they moved the office to a smaller location and then closed it altogether. I believe it's a tall order, but we have to work at taking power ourselves. Spirited communities of people are crucial and power corrupts and yadda, yadda, yadda. But as long as the assholes have the initiative, they will wear us down and they will win. As exhausting as the struggle is just to hold the line, it will be a bigger, more exhausting struggle to take power away from those who have it, but it will also mean less struggle later on. If it's done right and set to with philosophical rigour.

[P.S. This post took a little longer to type because when i couldn't find a google image for Lynn Jones, i looked for images of Truro, Nova Scotia. Apparently there's a talented budoir photographer in Truro. If you're looking for such a service, and you're passing through Truro, you might want to check that establishment out.]

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