Now that I have lived in Canada for 13 years, I can look back on my experience as an American with a bit of perspective. In the past four years, it has slowly occurred to me that I grew up in a war zone, learning to survive as part of the “at risk” society. When I was a kid we still had Jim Crow—a nickname for the law that became part of the political landscape of the south and ultimately of the north, at the turn of the twentieth century, after the lawsuit of Plessis vs Ferguson.
In a nutshell, Jim Crow mandated each state to choose how to implement segregation and discrimination on the black population. There were many ways. Some of them were made up on the spot, and some were literally written onto the buildings and into the laws: whites-only restaurants, whites-only drinking fountains, whites-only hotels, whites-only banks, whites-only auto mechanics, whites-only schools, whites-only parks, whites-only pools… I saw some of those signs when I was a kid.
Therefore, we were always at risk of being arrested, assaulted or killed for turning up in the wrong neighbourhood or at the wrong event. We all knew what the laws were because we all either had lots of incarcerated relatives or else we were the ones getting arrested constantly. I’m not ashamed to say that I know my way around a county jail pretty well (though I’ve never had a criminal record or criminal charges brought against me). I have often enough stared down the barrel of a service revolver. Once I had one pressed to the back of my head while the officer handcuffed my hands behind me and placed me on the ground, face-down; he put one foot on each of my shoulders and whistled for backup. I was then whisked to the police station where a group of eight officers tried to taunt me into a fight. All this happened in Killeen Texas—while I was in a military uniform.
The “book” was regularly thrown at us. Luckily, we read some of those books along the way and were able to help some of the more conscientious members of the main sector of our society in their efforts to help us. Still, the institutions that we lived in and the laws we were subject to were rarely in our favour. There was always some written or unwritten barrier or some caveat to our inclusion to any event. The end result is that all African-Americans necessarily bring a high level of paranoia to any social or political situation.
When I arrived here, I was fighting with Canadians as though they were Americans, because they looked like Americans and that was the only way I knew how to interact with them. Sometimes the fighting was warranted, but many times it was not. The fact that I myself was an American brought out a certain amount of smugness and contempt in many social and professional situations. I discovered that the chances of overstepping some unwritten boundary didn’t disappear when I moved to Canada, but the consequences of doing so were nowhere near as severe.
There is much to unpack here and very little space to unpack it, but I can say this: though living in Canada has not been a crystal staircase, it has afforded me a chance to see how living in the United States had reduced me to thinking more like a hunted animal than like a normal human. In fact, the best experiences of my entire life are playing out right here in Winnipeg. My blood pressure has begun to drop and my thinking has become much more clear. I now have real friends and many inspirational colleagues to work with. Taking all this into account, I have to say, Life is good!