White Girl, Black Art 

I grew up in a small rural community in Southern Ontario.  It’s called Prince Edward County, otherwise known as “The County”. It is familiar to the provincial tourists who love sandy beaches and the adorable small villages and towns, connected by rural roads along farm fields.  It was a beautiful place to grow up.  Small schools, small class sizes, knowing all of your neighbours (being related to many of them too!) and popular community events like the strawberry social and the village fair (not the kind with rides).    *Note: This was the 1980’s and 90’s, not the 1880’s and 90’s.


The village near where I lived was Milford, a hamlet really, in the south end of The County.  Perhaps 60 or so folks lived within the village limits and the rest of us were spread out over farm fields dotted with family homes.


And everyone was white.


Truth.  I believe there were two or three Chinese families (possibly more) in the entire County, but where I grew up, there were only white people.  My entire elementary school, Kindergarten to Grade 8 - white.  There were two little schools down the road from each other. The single hallway school had Kindergarten to Grade 4 and grades 5 to 8 were in the two hallway school in nearby Cherry Valley.  To my recollection, everyone was white.  Teachers, custodians, students…  It’s possible there were some people in my school who had more diverse backgrounds, but I guess that’s the beauty of children.  They really don’t see colour.  At least I don’t remember seeing colour.  I didn’t think of my classmates as being all white, I just thought of them as my classmates.


I can imagine it must have been difficult for my County-born-and-raised parents to talk about race relations and white privilege with me when we didn’t have people of colour around to relate the issues to.  But somehow, in that upbringing, I learned about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, which lead to learning about slavery, which lead to me asking questions about the many black musicians and singers we listened to in our home.


There is NO WAY I learned enough about black history to make myself some sort of scholar on the topic, but I did learn some.  Probably more than many of my peers.  I was lucky that way.  Education is a right, but specific education like the history of Indigenous, black and other people of colour seems to be a privilege.    *Note: I realize by just writing that sentence that our school curriculum needs to change and we need to not only include more of this specific history, but FOCUS on this specific history.


To give credit where it is due (and with no disrespect to my parents’ efforts) the bulk of my education on race relations came from Oprah. True story. She was on at 4pm every weekday and the bus dropped me off in the driveway just in time to grab a snack and turn on the TV to see what she had to say.  This is where I learned about the injustice that was plaguing so much of the black community in North America.  She had guests on her show that had stories to tell (mostly sad and heartbreaking) about their treatment in society as African Americans.  It was eye-opening to me and I cried.  A lot.  She was pure magic in how she shaped conversations with guests and audience members. She spoke passionately about issues in the world, especially race related issues.  Although I couldn’t fully put myself in the shoes of someone of colour, I learned to at least acknowledge that I couldn’t do that and it was my responsibility to try and educate other white people on the injustices that were overwhelming the black community.


And in the way a child can, I tried.  After watching and re-watching (I taped Oprah to re-watch sometimes) a specific episode of Oprah centred around the Little Rock Nine, I decided I would write an informative speech on the event and use it at the annual school board public speaking contest. I was so moved by this story and I was sure others would be too.    *Note: If you don’t know what the Little Rock Nine refers to, I highly encourage you to research it. Find that Oprah episode (there may even have been two!) if you can. This is an important piece of history. Not just black history, but human history. Across the board, this is an amazing story of heartbreak and courage.


There were only two of us in the 14 year old category.  Apparently public speaking wasn’t an exciting activity for that age demographic.  But I had something to say!  I wanted to do something that I thought was proactive in making the world a better place, not just for people of colour, but for ultimately everyone.


I lost the public speaking contest to the other participant.  Her speech was about her messy bedroom.  Apparently, my insistence on trying to educate the audience about this piece of history made people uncomfortable.  People don’t like to be uncomfortable and people really don’t like to feel uncomfortable at the hands of a child.  My dad was mad.  I was confused.  I wasn’t a poor loser, but I knew my speech was better.  It was researched.  It was informative.  But ultimately, it made that very, very white room uncomfortable.


As an adult, I still see that it is uncomfortable to talk about racial issues.  And sadly, because we absorb these moments and experiences as children, I have grown to be an adult who does not often talk about racial issues.  At least not in a public forum.  I started working with my daughter when she was a toddler, teaching her about white privilege and racial injustices, but those conversations didn’t really go beyond our home life.


I am a full-time soul musician.  I sing, I write, I play soul-blues music.  The backbone, foundation and history of the music from which I make a living is rooted in the black community.  Without their contributions, I would not have a career in music;   plain and simple.  To say I am indebted to the black community is only the tip of the iceberg of my gratitude and I have a hard time expressing it in words.  I cannot relate to the experiences from which this music was born. I do know that it has moved me, it has defined me and it has compelled me to make it my life’s work.  Perhaps I am due for some more research and reflection on why this music is so unique and special.  It’s a step in the right direction, anyway, of appreciating and acknowledging some of the great contributions of black culture.


In closing, I’d just like to say that we all have a place in making our society a safer, more appreciative place for black people and people of colour.  We cannot change the past, but it wouldn’t hurt to apologize for it.  We also have the opportunity to acknowledge the injustices currently plaguing these marginalized communities and to educate ourselves as white people on what is wrong, why it is wrong and what we can do to help make changes that will fix these issues.  We owe it to people of colour, our next generation of children and to ourselves.  We all benefit from unity and peace.


* This piece is dedicated to George Floyd and the thousands of people of colour who have lost their lives unjustly at the hands of a broken and ignorant society.  It is also dedicated the many people currently making it their lives’ work to improve racial injustice in our world.  #blacklivesmatter


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