Editor's note: This Black History Month we’re highlighting Black perspectives, and sharing stories from Black Googlers, partners, and culture shapers from across Canada. This is the second and final part of Valerie Jerome's story. You can read part one here.
Since 1995, many of my Black History Month presentations have included a recounting of that time during my childhood in North Vancouver. And other presentations have focussed on my thirty-five years as an elementary school teacher in the City of Vancouver. A recurring story I share from my teacher in my first year of teaching in 1964 when I was placed at an elementary school where the principal often peppered his comments with racial epithets.
An anecdote I centered my presentations on is the following: This principal once came into my classroom after the students were dismissed and showed me, in his perfect Macleans method handwriting, how to write the N-word backwards. Before we left the school on a field trip he would enter my classroom and demand “Give me that little darkie over there; I need to show the children what will happen to them if they miss behave while they are away.” It was always the racialized children who needed to feel the sting of the razor strop.
That year, especially, was a nightmare. And, thirty some odd years later this craziness continued in my life as a teacher. For example, in the mid 1990s when I reported at my staff meeting, at a different school, that a recently arrived student from Haiti was being called the N-word, the principal suggested to the staff that the student may have deserved it. Sadly, in 1996, there were no Annabelles on my staff.
As recently as 2020, the parent of a little girl in a grade one class came to see me about racism at his daughter’s school. The worried father had gone to see the school principal and was told “the school did not have any racism until you came here.”
It was not just in my childhood that racism marked my life; it would take pages and pages to enumerate and describe the incidents that constantly keep me aware that I am not a real Canadian. From being turned away in 1964 from the Banff Springs Hotel on my honeymoon, to riding on the bus in Vancouver and listening to a barrage of racism from other passengers in the 1990s. To being turned away from a Vancouver restaurant with the words “we don’t let women like you in here”. To the fruitless searches for apartment rentals where the for ‘rent signs’ remained long after my inquiries.
I can even recount instances of being in my own home when a woman who knocked on my door insisted on speaking to the homeowner. Or, while running as a Green Party candidate, I was harassed and called the N-word by a woman who attended our candidate meetings. Even the everyday insult of being asked where I’m from in an ongoing experience because it is a question that reflects the assumption that in Vancouver, a person of colour must be from elsewhere.
Even my friend whose great-great-grandparents came here to lay the railway tracks that linked this region to the confederation called Canada in 1873, is not referred to as Canadian— this reality exists despite her family living here for generations, she is still only Chinese in the eyes of many. Canadians are white, and she is not.
This all being said, Black History Month seems to still be necessary for progress. The great American writer and lecturer James Baldwin articulated that “not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, coupled with the ongoing unearthing of murdered Indigenous children on the grounds of former residential schools in Canada, has finally forced our country to face the reality faced by people of colour.
Since then, I have been booked as a Black History Month speaker by community organizations, public and private schools, historical societies, probus groups, libraries, seniors residences and multicultural support groups. Now, I’m asked to give my Black History Month presentations year round.
But I look forward to the day when Black History Month need not be designated, and when people of all colours can be considered Canadians, not hyphenated Canadians. My late brother Harry Jerome was a Canadian track and field Olympic athlete. When he donned our country’s uniform he represented Canada. When his name lit up the scoreboard, he was Canadian.
No hyphens needed.