KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Jim Crow also lived here, Growing up Black in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, Structural Racism and Generational Poverty, by Leonard Paris, is a short book about life in rural Nova Scotia between the mid-fifties and early sixties.
In essence it is a memoir of his 12 years of living in Priestville, a mostly Black community outside New Glasgow, starting in 1954 when the family arrived when Paris was six years old, and ending when he left town shortly after he turned 18.
It’s a sad, eye-opening kind of book.
Extreme poverty is one of the two themes of the book, and, as the title indicates, the other is virulent racism. The two often combine forces.
Paris tells us how a drafty house the family rents lacks plumbing and a well. In the winter a Black neighbour allows the family to use their well, but come summer that both the well and a nearby brook run dry and the family would depend on Black relatives and friends in town, meaning a long walk using a crude wooden wagon.
Asking white people in the community for water was out of the question, Paris explains.
”Walking into any of the white people’s yards would be met with ‘Get off my property’, or ‘Get out of my yard’. These shouts of hate and threats would often be accompanied by racial slurs and swearing.”
Writing about his elementary school days Paris mentions the bullying by most of his white fellow students.
“It was a daily feat to get to school without being attacked by groups of white students from the neighborhood. There were times on our way to school that some of the white instigators would group together to beat up any Black student caught walking alone or in pairs. We would often wait in the small clearing above the schoolhouse until the bell rang to avoid confrontations with the white students.”
It’s only when Paris attends an Army Cadet Camp in Aldershot at a much older age that he realizes that not all white people are necessarily overtly racist.
Reading the book you get the feeling that Paris did not set out to write about racism as such. It’s more that he felt an urge to write down some memories, like so many people do after retirement, and there are happy memories as well, about growing up in a part of Nova Scotia that offers woods to explore, brooks to wade in, relatives to visit, and where poverty is normalized, because all your friends and relatives are equally poor.
It just so happens that you cannot write about growing up Black in Nova Scotia, no matter when, no matter where, without writing about racism.
What makes the story Paris tells so powerful and heart wrenching is that it is told from the perspective of an innocent youngster who is just beginning to figure out how the world really works.
It’s also a story that warrants telling.
We hear quite a bit about racism here in Nova Scotia these days, and rightfully so, but most of this attention remains focused on Halifax, while rural Nova Scotia is easily forgotten.
But that doesn’t mean racism isn’t equally prominent there. Let’s not forget that it’s only months ago that young and Black Nhlanhla Dlamini was bullied and assaulted at a Pictou County workplace, not far from where Paris grew up.
There are reasons for this lack of focus. When I spoke with Jessica Bundy, who studies racism and policing in rural Nova Scotia, she mentioned several, including this.
“If there are incidents of racism in these rural communities, where do you go? And do people know about it? There’s a stronger sense of community, but also at the same time, we don’t always know what’s happening from one small community to the next. I grew up in the Valley, and something happening in Kentville might not be very well communicated to people in Cambridge. And that’s not too far away.”
Paris little book provides an opportunity to learn a bit more about racism as an experience in Pictou County in the sixties. The sixties isn’t very long ago, and Pictou County could be any place in rural Nova Scotia at that time.
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