Indignation always seems to be the driving force behind Black activism, and rightfully so. It’s practically impossible to read Toni Morrison, learn about Black history, or keep up to date with activism and not feel angry. There’s a lot of that in Desmond Cole’s The Skin We’re In, a book that timelines 2017 through the lens of Black activism in Toronto.
Most notable, as Cole reiterated at his recent appearance at the DG Ivey Library at New College, was his criticism of Canadian ignorance. It was certainly a breath of fresh air to have him explain this problematically Canadian constant state of surprise in regard to Black struggles.
Whether it’s the news of the disproportionate discrimination against Black TTC riders or the stark police violence targeted against us, it’s consistently shocking. The non-Black populace in Canada is perplexed to discover such disturbing truths and responds by dedicating itself to learning more. They are always surprised, learning, figuring it out, and consequently removing themselves from any responsibility to actually do something.
How are they supposed to act on anything when they’re still trying to understand what’s going on? We have to give them some time! Rome wasn’t built in a day, right?
But as Cole pointedly explained, how could they not know about the very harm they were committing? It’s an act — a performance that never ends and at times feels like it never will.
That was the uneasy feeling that settled at the pit of my stomach as I listened to his discussion with Huda Hussein, a journalist and U of T PhD candidate. I had seen Cole speak before, in 2015, and it feels like there are still just as many things he is working against now as there were then, if not more. The cases that he spoke of in his book and mentioned briefly in the discussion were alluded to be deserving of their own novels. He is just one activist, and before him lies an infinite amount of work.
An audience member, who spoke about a friend from Nova Scotia who passed away at the age of 103, asked Cole when the struggle for Black liberation would end. The silence was crushing as the audience member asked the same question: when would the paradigm shift?
We all seemed to tune in more than ever, because in the crux of that question lay a sense of wistfulness of a world where it wouldn’t have been asked at all.
See, I’ve gotten so used to stories of Black struggle and pain. My body, as Billy-Ray Belcourt, a writer from the Driftpile Cree Nation, once expressed, brands so many wounds of remembering our constant oppression that it almost feels normal.
Which is probably why the chapter titled “May” made me cry.
It’s the shortest chapter in the book, only a page and a half, and in it Cole speaks only of his affinity for nature and caring for plants. Of watching caterpillars crawl on his friend’s hands, of reminiscing about the tulips his mother saved in jars, of visiting the botanical gardens.
There it was, that world we all attentively waited for Cole to tell us was just around the corner, hoping he’d say that we, too, wouldn’t leave this earth still dreaming, just wishing. It was right there in that chapter of “May,” and it broke me just how far away it was.
Cole’s response confirmed exactly what I already knew was fact: we are the ones that decide when it all ends. I let out a small, tired sigh as I crashed back down to Earth. We have to choose whether or not we wait for capitalism, and, in turn, racism, to crush us under the weight of it all or to fight for our survival.
But God knows how much I’d give to be planting roses instead. To reminisce about my mother’s excited rambles about the tomatoes she was growing in her garden, to focus on teaching my sister how to care for her indoor plants, to just smell the damn flowers forever. I want to live in May, where remembering isn’t painful and all life knows is nothing but cultivating plants and plucking tulips.
I hate that the unfortunate truth is that I have to fight to get there, just like Cole decided he’d rather fight for Black liberation, rather than fall into despair. It’s not like white Canadians are willingly going to step outside the cycle of ignorance; it doesn’t benefit them to take any kind of accountability. Cole too, I believe, would rather get to that field of flowers sooner rather than later.
It’s the secret driving force often overlooked within Black activism — why I guess the whole liberation movement hasn’t killed me yet, like I believe a pure reliance on indignation would. We’re all just dreaming of planting breaths of fresh air and blissfully just being.
I don’t know whether we’re close to that life or not, and it was hard to listen to that audience member’s question knowing that the next day, she was going to bury her friend who died wondering the same thing. I guess my only consolation, if anything, is that in that garden of liberation, someone might remember to plant some poppies, forget-me-nots, maybe even a couple of asphodels, in memory of me, in memory of her, in memory of all of us.