It was a historic moment when the largest national gathering of its kind came to Halifax.
This is part of a series focused on the National Black Canadians Summit at the end of July 2022 in Halifax, which led up to Canada’s second official celebration of Emancipation Day on August 1st.
The summit brought together 1,200 Black elders, youth leaders and professionals locally and across Canada to discuss various topics from innovation in technology to reforming the justice system, healing from racial trauma, creativity and expression through art, and a lot more.
I walk into a sea of Black faces, nervously smiling. There is only one white guy out of sixty to one hundred people in this room. It's been so many years since I saw a supportive white guy in a room full of people of colour, for a moment I wonder if he’s lost. But he’s not lost. He appears quite sure that this is what he came to support. Although there is still some confusion about where to stand.
Everyone in this room is the same in one pressing way–we are all unsure of how to register. Already overwhelmed by the beauty of this unusual gathering of exceptional humans of every gender and non-gender, profession, skin tone, and class, most are also desperately looking for signs indicating where to stand, while those of us who haven't been to a conference in three years quickly find someone–anyone–to stand behind and proceed to attempt to avoid eye contact, for what turns out to be 45 minutes.
The lines are divided alphabetically (of course) but the lines for G to L and M to R have merged into one super-line, then split apart again at multiple points leading up to the registration table at the front. Everyone within five feet of me is talking to someone, it seems, except me and the only white guy.
I turn around and notice a women behind me who also seems short on conversation partners, and almost as soon as she turns to me to ask if I know which line we're in, someone approaches the both of us with his business card in hand.
The construction consultant assumes we travelled together, asking where we’re from and what we do. I tell him we were in the middle of meeting when he marched over with his business card and cut in line, but not in those words. He makes his pitch to her about how his consultation service works with Black contractors to strengthen their competitiveness in the larger market, and the woman is intrigued by the idea that someone might help her friend recover a botched renovation by a new contractor she hired in Montreal. She appears otherwise unimpressed, but by the time it’s the consultant's turn to register, with barely a word, Anathalie and I become quick friends.
When I finally get to the front I see why the line is so slow. The longest line is mostly operated by young volunteers, all just as confused as we are. Each frantically looking for name tags, filling swag bags with t-shirts, posters, pamphlets, and one water bottle each. When it's finally my turn, there are three people simultaneously asking my shirt size, my name, and how old I am. The combined effort does nothing to speed up the process.
At one point, Bernadette Hamilton-Reid, summit volunteer and administrative assistant for the African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent Coalition (ANSDPAD), shouts above the din to say there have been, admittedly, some "glitches." But as we in the African community know, she says, our ancestors are proud to see us gathered today, regardless. Throughout the conference this recurring image–ancestors looking proudly on us from beyond–grows in my heart and mind until, by the end of the three days and possibly forever after, my eyes swell with tears at the mere mention.
Later the same day, I find myself explaining how I grew up thinking of Canada as a place where Black people were free. Those of us in the United States who knew Black Canadians existed, thought they were all famers. They picked blueberries, and skated on ice ponds in the winter. To us, they were not slaves. In reality, many of them were. But before my romantic image of Blackness in Canada was tarnished, this was ingrained in my imagination–Blacks who were never touched by the slave trade, who all along had the freedom to thrive in whatever way they chose, doing the stuff our American ancestors could be killed for even attempting; reading a pleasant book, having friends over for dinner, or staying out late because they simply lost track of time.
To be clear, that did not turn out to be true. Our stories on both sides of the border are more similar than not, in more ways than most Canadians want to admit. But those ancestors (to whom the U.S. and Canada border meant little but the difference between possible freedom and definite enslavement) would be so proud to see this room of free, albeit slightly confused, people attending a conference of Black professionals.
Anathalie asks if I want to do what the brochure suggests–join the guided bus tour to visit Africville before the first summit workshop–or get ourselves there by uber. Thus, we embark on an adventure to Africville.