Silver Donald Cameron

Posts Tagged ‘racism’

The Sea Cook of the Schooner

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

August 1, 2010

I read Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous when I was a boy, and I loved it. It was among the books that shaped my life by fuelling my interest in the sea, and in fishing, and in schooners. Later, after moving to a fishing community and actually meeting some of the men who had built and sailed the saltbankers, I read it again. That’s probably 30 years ago now, and I might see it differently today, but I still thought it was a fine book.

The essence of the story is simple. A spoiled young man named Harvey Cheyne Jr. is travelling with his wealthy family on a luxury liner from Europe to New York. As the ship crosses the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, Harvey falls overboard. He is rescued by the Gloucester fishing schooner We’re Here, whose skipper, Disko Troop, tells him flatly that they’re not taking him ashore till they’ve filled their holds with fish sometime in the fall. In the meantime he can earn his room and board by working as a fisherman.

The boy is furious, and he resists and complains — but ultimately, for once in his life, he has to do what he’s told. Naturally, the impact on him is profound. He grows up and fills out both in body and in soul, and he learns how to conduct himself as a man among men. He develops a deep respect and affection for the working men he lives with, and when he’s eventually returned to his family, the spoiled boy has become a capable and responsible man.

When I read it the second time, I was struck by the book’s fidelity to reality, and by the really specific references — one decrepit schooner goes by, “full of gin and Judique men,” says Disko Troop, not the only reference in history to a certain Cape Breton predilection for the sauce. But when I read that the cook on the schooner was a Gaelic-speaking black man from Cape Breton, I thought that Kipling had trusted his imagination too far. No doubt Kipling knew that Cape Bretoners spoke Gaelic, and that Nova Scotia had a large black population. So he added two and two and got five.

I was wrong. Kipling was right.

Since then, I’ve run across the story of the black Gael in several places and in several forms. As I understand it, the story begins in Halifax, where Captain David Smith, the patriarch of Port Hood, met a black orphan boy on the docks, took him home, and raised him with his own family. The boy — whose last name was Maxwell — grew up as a Gaelic-speaking Cape Bretoner and married a black woman from Guysborough County. According to a 2003 article by Rannie Gillis recently re-printed in the Gaelic magazine Lasag, the Maxwell family lived on Cameron’s Island, just off Marble Mountain. Among their children were twin brothers named George and John, both of whom went to sea on separate fishing schooners.

The two had never experienced racism in Cape Breton, says Gillis, but the international schooner fishery was a different environment. Though the twins were big men, George was retiring, while John was more assertive. When the two met on the Banks one day in their dories, George complained about the harassment he was getting from two new crew members. John suggested they switch clothes and dories, and he returned to the ship in George’s place.

When the two new crewmen taunted him, John taunted them right back. When one of them rushed him, John flattened him. When the other one attacked, John knocked him cold.The next day the twins met again and switched back. Neither was ever harassed again.
Some time later, George Maxwell met Kipling in Gloucester, and the two spent several evenings together. Kipling was fascinated by Maxwell’s experiences, and the result was the black, Gaelic-speaking sea-cock of the We’re Here — the one I thought was impossible.

W.O. Mitchell once said that in a work of fiction, every single word is the literal truth, and the whole damn thing is a lie. Yes, I actually know that. And so did Rudyard Kipling.

– 30 —

President Obama and the Rainbow Family

Sunday, November 9th, 2008

November 9, 2008

Sometimes we’re ambushed by our own emotions.

I had no idea how deeply and personally I cared about the election of Barack Obama until I found myself weeping on election night. I don’t believe that I allowed myself to hope for so much. But a huge weight lifted off me – a weight I hadn’t even known was there. This is a personal moment of liberation, and to understand it, you have to know something about my rainbow family.

Every week I write about things I care strongly about – but I never write about my children. For one thing, they didn’t choose to have a writer for a father, and they are entitled to privacy. But just once, after Obama’s astonishing triumph, I need to talk about them.

I have four sons and a daughter, and the five of them have four nationalities. They are all Canadian, but by birth, one son is American, another is Danish, and my daughter is British. They live all over the place – the West Coast, the Prairies, Ontario, the United States.

Two of my sons are adopted. The wee Dane was five months old when we met. I was courting his mother, and we used to say that all three got married together. The other adopted son is black, born in Halifax to an inter-racial teenage couple. He was nine months old when he joined my earlier family, more than 40 years ago. His partner is a white woman, but he has two adopted black children.

One of my white sons married a proud and lovely Jamaican woman, and their union gave me a delightful grandson, now 19. The colour of Barack Obama’s skin reminds me of my grandson’s, and my son’s. My daughter-in-law is more the colour of Michelle Obama, and her excitement and joy at Obama’s candidacy was inspiring.

Another white son married an enchanting Peruvian woman of Inca, Spanish and Chinese ancestry. Her parents cherish their “gringo” son-in-law, and consider us “co-parents” through the marriage of our children — a marvellous Latin American concept. That marriage has given me an adorable olive-skinned grandson.

This rainbow family – Danish, French, Irish and Scottish, with a generous component of African and vivid highlights of native, Hispanic and Asian – this Canadian rainbow family did not come about by accident. My first wife and I were not freedom riders and civil disobedients, but we lived in California in the 1960s; we were of that generation and we shared its dreams.

Later, as students in England, we became close to an Afro-American couple from Arizona, and talked for long hours with them about the gap between our races, and how our generation might close it. Those talks gave us courage to adopt a heart-melting boy who had been born into that gap – and we did it as much for our own sakes as for his. We wanted another child, but we also wanted our white children innoculated against racism by growing up with a much-loved brother from another place in the human spectrum.

But my children and grandchildren cannot be equal while there are still places that some can go and others cannot, ambitions that some can achieve and others cannot, filters that cast aside people of colour just because they are people of colour. The unidentified weight on my shoulders is the weight of racism, and Obama’s triumph liberates me, too, by affirming that there is no weight that cannot be lifted, no moat that cannot be crossed, no door so heavy that it cannot be prised open with skill and dedication and love.

Our family, like others, has known failure, sadness and loss. But we have loved and honoured the whole spectrum of humanity, and I am helplessly grateful for the experience. Our rainbow family prefigures a brighter, better world, a world we ardently wish to inhabit, a world in which everyone on earth is a part of a single, vast rainbow which is the human family.

When a black man can be President, that world I want for my kids seems immeasurably closer. And that’s why I wept on election night.

– 30 –

The Book of Negroes

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

August 24, 2008

Maybe there’s something else out there as vile as racism, but I can’t think what it would be. I have just read Lawrence Hill’s magnificent, heartbreaking novel The Book of Negroes, and I am filled with horror, wonder and fury.

Horror at Hill’s crackling account of the unspeakable violence of being abducted and enslaved. Wonder that people can go through the hellfire of slavery and emerge with their minds intact and their hearts still warm. And fury at the persistence of racism, whose heat still scorches us all.

The Book of Negroes is the story of Aminata Diallo, a girl of 11 captured by slavers who murder her parents. After walking three months to the coast, Aminata is bundled onto a reeking slave ship and sold to a South Carolina plantation, then to a Charleston businessman. Escaping while visiting New York, she emigrates to Nova Scotia as a Black Loyalist, emigrates again to Sierra Leone, and ends her life in London as a living witness for abolitionists working to end the slave trade.

But that bare outline does not begin to describe the violence that Aminata endures. She is beaten and raped. Her husband repeatedly finds her and is torn from her. Both her children are ripped away. Equally painful is the cultural and psychological violence that she and her fellow-slaves suffer. Africans from dozens of different nations are tumbled together — Igbo, Ashanti, Yoruba, Fulani, Mende and many others – so that they are all isolated, unable even to speak to one another. It’s as though someone had captured Finns, Scots, Basques and Greeks, and lumped them all together as “Europas.”

Nor are the Africans permitted to generate a new identity. They are forbidden to learn, teach, read or write. They develop two languages:Gullah, which they speak among themselves, and a form of English to use with the “buckra,” the white people.

This robbery of culture and identity is not accidental, argues an unnamed writer on a website called

“Slave owners wanted our ancestors to think of themselves as nameless objects of property, plain and simple, like a chicken or a cow,” s/he writes. “I am convinced that this still impacts our people today, crippling our ability to know ourselves by connecting with our family’s past…. We have internalized generations of doubt and fears about who we are as a people and what we can accomplish, just as White racists wanted us to do. And we continue to pay a terrible price for this.”

Yes, exactly. Many of Aminata’s companions go mad, or kill themselves. No wonder that the effects of this horrific experience linger on. Afro-American slavery dates from the same period as the Highland Clearances, the deportation of the Acadians and the decimation of the Mi’kmaq. If the rest of us still feel the sufferings of our ancestors, how can we fail to weep at the anguish of the Africans?

But we do fail, to our enduring shame. Stories of racism bubble up in this newspaper almost on a daily basis: slurs in Digby, teenage battles in Cole Harbour, constant harassment for the offence known to black people as “DWB” – Driving While Black.

So it is no surprise that Aminata’s experience during eight years in Birchtown, Nova Scotia is one of exclusion, poverty, broken promises and lethal violence. And it is no surprise that she chooses to emigrate again to the new free colony on the Sierra Leone River – the very river where she was branded with a red-hot iron and thrust aboard a stinking slave ship 40-odd years before.

The Book of Negroes is hard, vivid and unsentimental, and Aminata is not a soft character. Though she is capable of great love, she is also tart and clear-sighted, shrewd and cunning. Her salvation is her adaptability, her skill as a midwife and her love for languages, which repeatedly allows her to eavesdrop on people who think she cannot understand them.

As a child, she learns a bit of reading from her father, whose copy of the Qu’ran is the village’s only book. Although she is a girl, she yearns to be a djeli – a village storyteller, a recorder, a magician who conjures with language. And she knows that in the end, her words are the tools to give meaning to her life of loss and pain.

“I have long loved the written word, and come to see in it the power of the sleeping lion,” she writes. “I will write down my story so that it waits like a restful beast with lungs breathing and heart beating.” Someday, “one of these people will find my story and pass it along. And then, I believe, I will have lived for a reason.”

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