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(I wrote this piece in October of 2005 for the now-defunct Catholic New Times, a newspaper for progressive Catholics.)

I had two recent experiences that bookended my summer and also presented me with a graphic picture of the range of views in today’s Catholic Church.

At the beginning of the summer, I went to Mass in a big beautiful church in another city. I was enthralled by my surroundings but unfortunately, as the Mass progressed, I became grateful for the beauty, grateful for something other than the words of the homily to put my mind to.

The homily was spoken by the deacon and early on he asked us to consider the evil that surrounds all of us, every day. Yes, indeed, I thought – and considered racism, domestic violence, illegal wars, child abuse.

“Birth control,” he intoned solemnly. Oh dear Lord, I thought. He’s opening with birth control. He went from birth control to divorce to abortion to – his real destination – same-sex marriage. He was followed by the priest who asked us to pray that the politicians in Ottawa would not pass the marriage bill.

I dragged myself out of church that day, feeling rotten, and said to my husband, “This is not how a person should feel, leaving the Mass.”

I have never been subjected to this style of preaching. I am fortunate – blessed, even – to be in a parish where the priest is a scholar and historian, who uses his homily to interpret the day’s readings and to give us a greater understanding of the teachings of Jesus.

In our church, we don’t pray for politicians to close their eyes and ears – and their minds. We pray for them to work for peace in the world and to put policies into place that would reduce the gap between rich and poor.

At the end of the summer, I took part in a conference for recipients of the Canada Millennium Scholarship in Ottawa. One of the workshops I attended was called The Catholic Church: A Call for Internal Reform. I couldn’t resist it. It featured Father Raymond Gravel, a parish priest in Joliette, Que. In the program introduction to his workshop, he’s quoted saying, “To truly follow the teachings of the Gospel, the Church must become more open, more welcoming, more tolerant and more revolutionary.”

He is an open and outspoken – and cheerful – priest who preaches the Gospel of love and acceptance and inclusion. He was given the Fight Against Homophobia 2004 Award to highlight his exceptional contribution in the debate about gay marriage when he said that “the Vatican was wrong when it condemns such a marriage.” He has happily and publicly opposed the Church on other controversial subjects such as abortion, the ordination of women and marriage for priests.

He was sent a letter of reprimand by then-Cardinal Ratzinger entreating him to return to the fold and conform to conventional Catholic dogma but he’s still enthusiastically unconventional, by most Catholic standards today.

I listened to Father Gravel in a brightly-lighted room full of young people – all in their late teens and early twenties. They were engaged and listening intently. They had many questions both challenging Father Gravel and seeking further information. Many of them prefaced their questions by saying, “I was raised Catholic but I don’t consider myself Catholic any more.” There was excited chatter in the hallways as the young people left the workshop, still discussing everything they had heard.

The beautiful church where I heard the homily at the beginning of the summer was dim and still and cool – like the old churches in Europe. There were no young people there, no challenging questions, no chatter. There wasn’t much of anything.

When I look back, the symbolism couldn’t be clearer.

(February is African History Month. This is a piece from my archives, first published in 1993.)


Maxine Tynes
(Maxine Tynes)

Maxine Tynes was born and raised in Dartmouth, where her heritage goes back to the time of the Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia. She is a graduate of Dalhousie University and was a high school teacher of English. She has done freelance broadcast work both regionally and nationally.

Maxine is a poet and author. Among her books are: Borrowed Beauty; Woman Talking Woman; Save the World for Me; and The Door of My Heart.

Borrowed Beauty tynes_woman talking woman Door of my Heart.

She has been named the Milton Acorn People’s Poet of Canada and the Dartmouth Regional Library has named a room in her honour.

She has been awarded an honourary doctorate of human letters by Mount Saint Vincent University and was awarded the Governor General’s Canada 125 medal in recognition of contribution to Canada, to compatriots and to community. She was the first Canadian of African descent to be named a member of the Board of Governors of Dalhousie University.

I interviewed her in the Maxine Tynes Room at the Alderney Gate Library in Dartmouth.


Maxine: I’m one of those Maritimers who will never move very far away from home. I grew up right here beside the railway, just a stone’s throw from where we’re sitting in this library. It was a very good place to grow up, in the heart of downtown Dartmouth.

There was a lot a traffic in and out of our house because we were so central. All of the neighbourhood kids congregated at the Tynes’ house. My mother knew where her kids were every minute of the day. It didn’t matter if she was thinking about her six-month-old, her 16-year-old or her 26-year-old, or her 36-year-old, she knew precisely where each was at all times.

My father worked at the shipyard which meant it was a five minute walk to work, down the track and around the corner. There was a lot of traffic home with him. He brought the world through our front door to our dinner table – daily, weekly, nightly, yearly. He was a big, gregarious man, he loved life, and people just naturally took to him.

You could imagine an environment like the shipyard, where people were coming from the four corners of the world for short stays or long stays for boat repair and there was this man who always made it his business to meet and greet the stranger. It didn’t matter to him that this Captain spoke Greek or French or Russian.

My mother, on the other hand, was juggling a dozen children plus this man and plus whomever else he brought home. But like all good Maritime women or probably all working-class women, that pot is bottomless and endless. You know, we Maritimers, we’ll throw an extra fish in, a few potatoes and onions in, and the chowder feeds the multitudes.

And so what convinced me that I would be able to speak and write and string poems together and actually have people read them and want to read them and ask for more?

Early days told me many things before I was conscious of the telling: we always had to make every day count and my mother, probably like your mother, most people’s mothers had all these little homilies and little lessons about life, these little philosophies that she would drop upon our head as easily as she would pull on a stocking cap or braid up our hair at night and so time and again we heard things like, “if something’s worth doing it’s worth doing well,” “if you don’t believe in yourself nobody else will,” “if you don’t take a chance you won’t know what you can do and what you cannot do,” and always, “try, do your best and nobody can ask any more than that.”

Most wonderful things that have been planted in your mind, in your little childhood heart and soul, you probably felt it was going in one ear and out the other. But for somebody who would put pen to paper eventually, it meant that I have instilled within me an intrinsic belief in self. While I was tightly reined in with the rest of the brood, in a sense my parents offered a kind of freedom that is hard to come by: the freedom to think for oneself and believe in oneself, as long as you feel you’re doing and saying the right thing to the best of your ability.

The family has disintegrated. Our parents knew our lives intimately: who we got connected with; what we got from that; what changes we went through as a result of being exposed to these young people or to those.

The railway track had to be no more than eight metres from my back door. But a dozen children could be raised in that proximity to these huge leviathans and not one hurt, not one maimed – not even a fear or threat, because my parents had eyes everywhere, all the time, and we were trained to have eyes on each other.

But it was more than that. While they were saying watch out for the little ones, where are the little ones, where’s your sister, where’s your brother – the message was we care about you, we care for each other, I’m responsible for you, but you in turn are responsible for the one younger than you. You could always count on someone older than you knowing where you were and reaching out that hand to catch you before you fell.

What I don’t see in young people today is that safety net. When you see, out of necessity, single mums or struggling partners sending their children out to a caregiver so they can pay the mortgage or dress and feed their children, children develop a different ethic – to whom are they accountable? to Mom and Dad? They love Mom and Dad, Mom and Dad love them, but then there’s a third party in there.

So by the time they’re in elementary school, then junior, then senior, more and more their personal time is given to them to entertain themselves, to put their own brakes on, to make those value judgments. Who is controlling the moral atmosphere, the atmosphere in which they develop values? It’s out of necessity but there’s a price to pay for that – I didn’t have to pay that price.

I was a child, I was a little girl, when I started writing. I was reading voraciously and then I started writing. I don’t remember my first poem. I remember the first stories that I wrote – they were stories I would have written when I was in elementary school, probably in grades three and four.

I would get my star on the essay and then I’d get the willies because invariably my teacher would want me to read it in class which didn’t bother me but then she would take me around to the other grade fours and then the grade fives and then the grade sixes so you can imagine the pressure on a little kid to do that. It was wonderful, but it was unnerving at the same time.

I guess it stimulated that desire within me, but even before school stimulated it, my Mom did. I was a sick kid when I was very young – I had a couple years off school, I had polio in the ’50s – so my mother took charge of everything. She rallied me around and also took care of my early education – best teacher I ever had. I know that I model myself as a teacher after my Mom. And she gave me this love of words and reading.

For me as a writer, it’s important to add to the growing and burgeoning store house of developing African Canadian literature and North American literature produced by those from African culture. I don’t have children but I am leaving writings behind that will mark my place and that will illuminate and amplify the fact that we are a culture too and that we were here. People over historical time have been eradicated, have been exploited, have been displaced, but their art remains; sometimes, it remains in its pure sense.

Like all writers and all artists, there’s something in me that drives this thing to be done – this writing, this poetry, this literary voice – that is subconscious, but there is also a conscious drive and that is the sense of self as black woman in the world who wants to speak this womanist, feminist vision and philosophy and dialectic, who needs to speak from black culture, to look behind me and where I find blank trails to turn to myself to create some, to lay down a path of my own with the story and the poem.

I feel a strong connection to Africa. It’s a feeling of being connected and disconnected at the same time. It’s a sense of having a foot firmly in the past and feeling impotent, probably almost a rage, that the disconnection was made for me. This thing was done to me generations ago without any sense of cultural control and so I look at a map and I see this continent that is truly mine and there’s another sense of displacement that moves in – the continent is mine but where and when will I be able to claim it?

How can people say — and seem to really believe — that war is not romanticized, sentimentalized, glorified? Remembrance Day has now become Remembrance Week. Some people start wearing poppies before the end of October. The airwaves are choked with story after story about the wars. I have no objection — of course — to stories and memories but the stories are told, so often, with such affectionate nostalgia.

Those of us who speak against wars are shushed, especially on November 11, or we’re told that it is these wars (even the one in Afghanistan!) that have guaranteed our freedom to speak openly.

As many others are, I am moved by the faces of the elderly veterans on November 11 and that’s a little sentimental. I really dislike the false equivalency that tosses all the wars in the same basket and I am not at all impressed by antics such as the recent one at an Ontario Legion, which puts a bit of tarnish on the veterans’ organization.

Let’s just say that, to me, the observance of Remembrance Day has been appropriated and turned into a tool of propaganda and I have come to resent its tone and what it has come to represent.

What follows is a column I wrote in November, 20 years ago. The war-in-preparation that I refer to in this column was the First Gulf War.

poppies
(This is a poppy watercolour painting project that Calgary artist Gail Bartel did with a grade 1 and 2 class.)

The love of war, the glory of war

November 9, 1990

We were talking last week about Remembrance Days of our pasts; my outstanding memories — with years all melded together — involve standing in Elm Park in Chatham, N.B. (when the elms were still there), freezing half to death. It always seemed to be an overcast day with a little snow on the ground, about an inch, the frozen November grass showing through just to add to the general bleakness.

There were veterans and the ladies’ auxiliary from the legion, high school cadets, the town’s band — it was pretty good too — and the usual dignitaries. We sang Abide With Me and the bugler played the Last Post and they solemnly read the names of all the people who hadn’t come back from the wars and laid the wreaths. The whole town seemed to turn out.

Pretty typical, I guess, just like any other small town in Canada on November 11.

Years later, my friend Margaret wrote a prize-winning newspaper column which was headlined “Time to stop glorifying war.” She felt that the further off the big wars were, the more people seem inclined to use words like “glorious victory” and “brave fighting men.” Her intention was not to dishonour the memory of anyone who had fought in the wars but no matter — she was censured from pulpits, strongly reproached by the local legion, and many people cancelled their subscriptions to the paper.

Margaret lives in Germany now so she isn’t following the current call to war as closely as we’re able to — particularly thanks to all the Canadian journalists (including local ones from our two television news shows) who are sending back reports from their vantage points aboard the Canadian navy ships.

One of the favourite slogans of the women’s peace movement is “Take the toys from the boys.” Never has it seemed more appropriate as we learn in such enthusiastic terms how well the guns are working during the daily tests, as we read the poetic language the journalists are using to describe the “aloof, sleek” CF-18 jet fighters and the pure affection with which they write about the aging Sea King helicopters — “a noisy, vibrating bird,” one wrote.

Well, propaganda is not a new device, for sure, and it’s certainly effective. Even now, little boys are running about making helicopter noises or dropping imaginary bombs on the head of the latest Evil Incarnate, Saddam Hussein, not unlike many earlier generations of boys who hoped against hope that the war of the moment would last long enough for them to get a crack at it.

The love of war — the romance of war — the glory of war have all been expounded for a long time.

Men grow tired of sleep, love, singing and dancing sooner than of war. (Homer: Iliad XIII).

Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war! (Shakespeare: Othello I.i.).

War, that mad game the world so loves to play. (Jonathan Swift: Ode to Sir William Temple).

But this year, 1990, as we accept the possibility of war in the Middle East, also marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of the pacifist organization, Voice of Women for Peace. It might be a good time to remember some of the words from its constitution, adopted in 1961.

  • To unite women in concern for the future of the world;
  • To help promote the mutual respect and co-operation among nations necessary for peaceful negotiations between world powers;
  • To protest against war or the threat of war as the decisive method of exercising power;
  • To appeal to all national leaders to co-operate in developing methods of negotiations;
  • To appeal to all national leaders to co-operate in the alleviation of the causes of war by common action for the economic and social betterment of all people;
  • To provide a means for women to exercise responsibility for the family of humankind.
  • May their voices be heard loudly and strongly this Remembrance Day. Peace, dear sisters.

    When I first started my website, I wanted it mainly so I’d have a place to bring together all my archival writings — interspersed with occasional pieces dealing with present-day issues. I have always called it, “my website.”

    Others though, refer to it as my “blog.” Now, I think of a blog as a journal, a diary, a regular life-update — indeed, a “log” which is the part of the original word “weblog” that gives the blog its common nickname. I don’t mind that people refer to it as my “blog.” It just has never seemed accurate to me.

    So I have decided to remedy the inaccuracy. I’m turning it into a blog by which I mean I will write here much more regularly and the nature of the writing will take on a different tone. I will still deal with issues, of course, because that’s what I think about a lot of the time. Because I’m closely related to the Nova Scotia NDP government — by marriage — I will avoid writing about provincial issues and will leave that to others.

    But I will write on a variety of topics that interest me — and I hope interest you — because really, interesting things do happen every day.

    For example: A few days ago, I was browsing in the produce department of my local supermarket. I observed one of my fellow shoppers, casually roaming around choosing her vegetables wearing a see-through dress. It wasn’t “see-through” the way a sheer fabric would be or the way a piece of plastic wrap would be.

    It was something like an eyelet cotton, something like this:

    eyelet

    It was short — a few inches above the knee — and she was wearing a black bra and panties underneath, and that’s all. I should also say — because you’re wondering — that she was not a nubile teen nor a sexy supermodel. She was middle-aged, average build, a little stocky maybe.

    I confess that my first reaction — aside from bemusement — was a little judgemental. Did she look in her mirror before she left home? What could she have been thinking? Tsk, tsk.

    But as the days have passed, I keep asking myself the same questions but now, not rhetorically. Did she, in fact, look in her mirror before she left home? What could she have been thinking?

    It isn’t as if I have anything against alluring/revealing clothes. Quite the contrary. But am I uncomfortable in this case because she was middle-aged and didn’t have a perfect body? If she had been a five-feet-eight, 120 pound, 22-year-old in a see-through dress, would I have forgotten all about her before I got home?

    We talk a lot about the hypersexualization of young girls but not too much about the sexuality of middle-aged women. And was she sexy? Not to me but I wonder if she felt sexy. Or was sex involved at all? Maybe she was just in a hurry to grab that broccoli for dinner and she didn’t even take the time to consider what she was wearing.

    Going out shopping in your barely-covered underwear: another feminist issue to ponder. Do you have any thoughts about this?

    The Toronto Star’s fearless feminist columnist/feature writer, Antonia Zerbisias, wrote recently about beauty pageants and some of today’s high-profile women who have spring-boarded to their current positions from their pageant participation. Antonia believes we shouldn’t knock beauty contests because it has helped some women get ahead and she gives some interesting reasons and examples.

    I feel differently about this. For those who think of feminists as an homogenous group with identical opinions on everything, this is a good example of how committed feminists can look at issues differently — and still hold a feminist view.

    I wondered if I would agree with Antonia if the women she cites in her column — Carole Taylor, Helena Guergis, Sarah Palin, among others — had used their pageant success as a springboard to work toward advancing the cause of other women. It can’t be said that they did. The women Antonia names fit themselves very firmly into the status quo or, in some cases, are actively working to diminish women’s rights and take away many of the advantages women have gained over the past few decades.

    Over the years, I have written numerous columns about beauty contests. I went to my archives and chose this one to share — a fairly radical column, more radical now than when it was written more than 20 years ago. (The only change I’ve made was to remove the name of the beauty queen in the story. It was 20 years ago. Who knows how she would feel if she saw this piece again?)


    SEPTEMBER 3, 1989

    “When they called her name, Mary Smith* , Lunenburg’s Queen of the Sea, thought it was a dream. But when she opened her eyes and the tiara was atop her head and the sash fell gracefully from her shoulder, she knew it was real. She was Miss Nova Scotia . . . ”

    Was this 1902 in Godwin’s Lady’s Book? Or maybe a 1910 edition of Ladies’ Home Journal? Not at all. This was written by Stephen Forest of the Truro Bureau of The Chronicle Herald and was published last week, August 29, 1989. Was Stephen kidding?

    How far have we come, after all?

    I’m regularly badgered to write a column about beauty contests. And I always ask, what more can there possibly be to write?

    Beauty contests are standing-room-only affairs at all fairs and exhibitions; they command front page coverage in local newspapers; in the big time, they take over prime time and earn millions of dollars in advertising revenue.

    So what’s the appeal in these rather silly contests which are, we assume, heartily sanctioned by our male-ordered society but are usually organized and attended by women? We know that they’re ridiculed in most circles and mocked by stand-up comedians and in sitcoms on television.

    Not long ago, a man I know went to one in his hometown and described it to me later while laughing so hard he could hardly get his words out. This particular one involved 13 and 14 year-old girls tottering across a stage in high heels and bathing suits, talking about what might make the world a better place. This guy almost died laughing.

    So what’s going on?

    In centuries past, Chinese mothers bound their little girls’ feet in accordance with a tradition that made their daughters marriageable. Although it may not sound like something we would do, those mothers were aware that the fate of an unmarried female was much worse than painful, deformed feet and so foot-binding became not only a necessity for survival but a psychologically desirable ritual.

    Mothers and daughters shared the mutilation with the mutual understanding that to please the male was the only true choice each of them had.

    Our own male-pleasing rituals, those day-to-day habits that we have either to show we’re available or to maintain our position vis-a-vis our man, are less drastic but no less conspiratorial. Even though we now believe we can make our own choices — based on many things other than appearance — it’s still a rare woman who has given up the tools of an earlier trade: cosmetics, lotions, razors, tweezers, mascara brushes, three inch high heels, diets.

    The extreme example of our homage to the male-pleasing ritual comes in that archaic form of entertainment, the beauty contest.

    Unlike my male friend, I don’t see anything funny in the spectacle of young teenagers being put on ludicrous display. I don’t see anything funny in the comedians who make fun of the big time beauty contestants doing their baton act and speaking out on behalf of world peace and a clean environment. I find the first pathetic; I find the second embarrassing. I guess I just don’t have much of a sense of humour.

    But I think the beauty contest has become a psychologically desirable ritual — in some women’s circles anyway — and has evolved into a symbol of women’s traditional dependence on catching a man: the young girls lined up in a competition to be judged on who has the best hair, the best skin, the best teeth, the smallest waist, the shapeliest legs.

    At the local level, it’s just tacky. When they tart it up and put it on television, it’s tasteless and really harmful to the continued progress of women. In the end, it serves its purpose very well, by trivializing women and the role most women want to fill — in the workplace, in our relationships with others, mostly in how we feel about ourselves.

    Supporters are, of course, quick to point out that looks are not the most important thing in a beauty contest — which they insist you call a pageant. They say that poise and personality count for a lot too.

    Oh, please. Who cares?


    *Not her real name.

    IWD

    Today is International Women’s Day, always a day that gives us plenty to think about. I admire optimists and people who make a point of thinking positively but it doesn’t seem that I was ever destined to fit either of those descriptions for reasons that will become clear.

    I’m republishing here a column I wrote in early 1991. Don’t let my playful tone fool you. There was a war on then too, the Gulf War, entered into by the first George Bush. A few days before I wrote this column, I had participated in a teach-in about the war at Mount Saint Vincent University. My feminist presentation was about the sexual and erotic imagery used to describe war. The proceedings at the teach-in were recorded and later that same day, part of what I’d said was played on CBC Radio’s As It Happens, “for the record.”

    There was a lot of response to that radio spot and one person’s response led to this column.


    February 17, 1991

    Well, ladies, I had just popped an apple pie into the oven and was getting the ironing done when I decided that what I really should do is go out and get my hair done and then go shopping for something nice for myself. A new hat maybe … or some perfume … or maybe a nice frilly feminine dress. That should cheer me up, shouldn’t it?

    You see, girls, I had just opened my mail and had a letter from a fellow in Ontario who had heard some remarks I made on the radio about the sexual imagery of war. From his letter, I discovered that I’m really on the wrong track and I should change my way of thinking or just shut up. I should lighten up, give it a break, get a life. I should try just being a normal woman and I might discover that I like it.

    This particular letter, interestingly enough, kept calling my views “ubsurd” (sic). He went on to say that they’re half-baked, pop-feminism. He said he has a feminist friend who also heard me and she said it’s terrible to hear someone who’s supposed to be on your side and you wish she was on the other side.

    Each to his own opinion, of course, but in the last few months I’ve been called ridiculous and vindictive, mean-minded, sour and hostile, and accused of spewing vitriol and being anti-male. Goodness, girls. Can this really be me?

  • violence against women: (more than 100 Canadian women will be killed by their life partners this year; one in four women and girls will be sexually assaulted; one in 10 women is regularly beaten by her partner; popular culture — videos, movies, books — still portrays violence against women as a form of eroticism.)
  • sexual harassment: (even as I write this and as you read it, some woman somewhere is being denied a raise or a promotion because she refuses to sleep with the boss; or a female student is being offered a chance to pull an A+ on her toughest course if she favours the professor — if you know what I mean; or a woman working in a roomful of men is being subjected to sexual jokes, often having to do with her own body.)
  • inequality in the workplace: (women still make only 69 cents for every dollar that men make; in the workplace, 41 per cent of women earn more than $27,500 per year compared to 84 per cent of men; 21 per cent of aboriginal women earn more than $27,500, compared to 81 per cent of native men; 28 per cent of women in visible minorities earn more than $27,500 compared to 75 per cent of visible minority men.)
  • the feminization of poverty: (the number of women living in poverty increased by 110 per cent between 1971 and 1986, while the number of men living in poverty has increased over the same period by 24 per cent.)
  • child care: (the percentage of women with children who work outside the home reached 77.4 per cent in 1989 but the number of publicly-funded child care spaces has not increased — in 1989, there were 450,000 more pre-school children with mothers in the labour force for whom no child care was available than there were in 1979.)
  • pornography: (how come every time I whisper the word “pornography”, there’s someone to yell “freedom of expression” and I’m accused of advocating censorship — when I’m not? Then, how come I could to listen to 50 minutes of a CBC Radio Maritime Noon phone-in asking the question “should news from the war be censored?” and 99 per cent of the callers (all callers except one were men) intoned their support for censorship because of the “special circumstances” of war and no one says boo?)
  • Well ladies, you just know I could go on and on but I think I should defrost the fridge, mop the floor and make a quilt. I’m trying to be a normal woman.

    I just want to add, however, that I don’t invent the situations and statistics I’ve cited above and I’d like to ask why the people who are the perpetrators of those situations and responsible for those statistics are never called anti-female? Ubsurd, isn’t it?


    Here is an interesting version of Bread and Roses, sung by the Boston Workmen’s Circle (A Besere Velt — A Better World) Yiddish Chorus. Bread and Roses is woven together with an anthem dedicated to the fighters in the Spanish Civil War. But also, just before the three-minute mark, they sing, “We are marching for health care, universal and affordable …” to great applause from their audience.

    Happy International Women’s Day, 2010. There’s still much to be done.

    February is Black History Month; March is Women’s History Month. Either one is an appropriate time to look back at the life of Dr. Carrie Best.

    In the history of Nova Scotia — home of the largest indigenous Black community in Canada — Dr. Best was well-known and admired for her many years of work on behalf of her people. She died in 2001 but not before she had made her mark and helped to dispel some of the egregious racism that existed throughout her life.

    Dr. Carrie Best
    Dr. Carrie Best

    She was born in New Glasgow in 1903. In 1946, she founded The Clarion, the first newspaper for Blacks in Nova Scotia. She wrote for newspapers and magazines and was a weekly columnist with The Pictou Advocate. She was the author of an autobiography, That Lonesome Road (which is also a social history of Nova Scotian Blacks.)

    She was well-known across the country as an equal rights activist and was a founding member of the Kay Livingstone Visible Minority Women of Nova Scotia, an organization which works with women and young people to promote a sense of identity and pride of race, integrity and self-discipline “and to lift others, as we ourselves climb toward dignity and self-respect.”

    Her last doctorate was awarded in 1992 by the University of King’s College in Halifax. In 1970, she was awarded the Lloyd MacInnis Memorial Award for her work in social justice. In 1973, she received the first annual award of the National Black Coalition of Canada. In 1974, she was appointed to the Order of Canada. In 1975, she was granted the degree Doctor of Laws by St. Francis Xavier University.

    In December of 1991, she received an award for outstanding contributions to human rights on the anniversary of the day the United Nations ratified the Declaration of Human Rights.

    I interviewed her a few years before her death at her home in New Glasgow. She scoffed at my tape recorder and refused to let me turn it on, telling me she didn’t want to talk into “that thing.” I returned to the time-honoured tradition of taking notes. Her words are in italics. My occasional comments are not.



    The ‘religious hobo’

    Dr. Best is in perpetual motion, rummaging in her well-packed briefcase for a pertinent document, punctuating her remarks with a gentle jab to her interviewer’s shoulder or a soothing pat to the knee. Her energy and vitality are infectious. She often speaks with tongue in cheek.

    * * *

    I was invited to give the convocation address to the Atlantic School of Theology. I nearly dropped dead when they asked me! They can’t mean me, I said. Do they know I don’t go to church? Well, I slept on it. I do live close to God — I’m a born-again Christian — but I consider Christianity and “churchianity” two different things.

    In the end, I accepted. I described my religious background to them and told them I was a “religious hobo.” When I was born, my parents were Salvationists and that’s how I was registered at birth. When I was a young child, they left the Army because the first “black church” had been established in Pictou County. That was Baptist.

    When I grew up, I had the bad taste to marry an Anglican but he was good enough to go to the Baptist church with me. After a time though, he missed the Anglican way of worshipping so … he had accommodated me and I thought it was my turn to accommodate him so I went to the Anglican Church with him. But I missed the Baptists. The Baptists clap and laugh and sing and really know how to praise the Lord. So I went back to the Baptists. You can see I’m a religious hobo.

    As I got older, I met so many wonderful people of all religions. I began to accept people for what they are — colour and creed don’t matter. I believe that all roads that lead to God are good.

    The root of my faith is Mother Earth. I think of all the little creeds as just different ways of interpreting God.

    So that’s what I told the graduates of the Atlantic School of Theology!

    * * *

    That Lonesome Road is dedicated to her mother. On the dedication page, she wrote, “Society Said: You are an inferior being,/born to be a hewer of wood/ and a drawer of water/ because you are Black…. My Mother Said: You are a person, separate/ and apart from all other/ persons on earth. The pathway/to your destiny is hidden…/ you alone must find it./ …And then she said…/ Take the first turn right,/ and go straight ahead…”

    * * *

    It’s very painful to talk about some of the practices of the past. When I was growing up in New Glasgow, you couldn’t eat in a restaurant. You couldn’t get your hair cut. I went to jail. My son and I were at the movies; we sat downstairs, we went to the movies three times a week and we’d sat in the same seats for years. Then one day, the usher came to me and said, “You can’t sit here. You have to go into the balcony.” I refused. They called the police; they had to drag me out of there. I was in jail for an hour. I was charged with causing a disturbance.

    But at all times of my life, I’ve been a happy person. When I was young, I think we might have been broke but we were never poor. I was personally just as happy no matter what we had. My personal happiness had nothing to do with racial discrimination.

    I confront bigotry face on. If I hear — and this has happened — that someone has called me “nigger,” I go right to that person. I look him right in the eye and I say, “did you call me ‘nigger’? Now I’ve heard you did and all I want from you is to tell me if it’s true. If you say it isn’t, I’ll believe you. We’ll go together to the person who told me and you will tell him it isn’t true.” You could always tell if it was true or not.

    I’m not a nigger. I’m as good as anyone and better than most. I love everyone who’s worthy of my love — but I won’t sit back and take that kind of bigotry.

    * * *

    Her memory seems unlimited. She quotes long stanzas of poetry, long passages from books, most of which were learned many years ago. She considers poetry to be part of her spiritual nature and part of her search for identity.

    “The long hours spent in reading poetry,” she wrote in That Lonesome Road, “and the hundreds of poems memorized during my early childhood, my learning years, my yearning years and even now in later life, are fragrant memories of my journey in Search of an Identity. The irresistible habit of committing poems to memory still persists, and like deposits in a savings account, can be drawn out at will. The fund is never exhausted, for the interest grows both on deposit and withdrawal and is compounded daily.

    “Black history was virtually non-existent in Nova Scotia during my learning years … I remember when I received my cherished volume of the Poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar. I was ten years old … I found to my utter astonishment and delight that I could read the Dunbar poems which were written in the Negro dialect as easily as those he had written in classic English. These gave me my first sense of Black Identity.”

    * * *

    Things have changed — but not enough. The white race has got to start learning from those they feel superior to. The Blacks have to take pride in who they are. When Frederick Douglass was a young slave, the white mistress said, “He’s a bright boy. I’d like to teach him to read.” The slave master said, “When you educate a Negro, you unsuit him for a slave.”

    Education is very important — more important than ever. We have to start teaching our children ourselves — in “kitchen schools.” We have to get funding from Black churches, Black organizations, and take the time to teach the children where they come from, how far they can go.

    Being old now is not a disadvantage to me in all my projects. It’s a blessing. God gave me this extra time to accomplish whatever I can, to meet wonderful people of all races. I’m so thankful.

    Earlier today, I had a difference of opinion with one of my Facebook friends — Tony — about the movie, Thelma and Louise. In a move that amazed even me, I went into my archives and found a column I’d written on June 22, 1991, just days after the movie was released. I stand by the analysis that I wrote then. (The only change/addition I’ve made is the bracketed explanation about the film Independence Day.)
    ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

    Thelma and Louise

    Several years ago, I saw a movie called Independence Day. (This 1983 movie, directed by Robert Mandel, starring Kathleen Quinlan and Dianne Wiest, is not to be confused with the 1996 science fiction film of the same name.) It was the story of a violent marriage and it had an explosive, dramatic ending. I remember the exhilaration and excitement I felt when, with great deliberation, careful planning, perhaps a silent cheer from abused women everywhere, the battered woman filled the house with gas and blew it up with her husband inside.

    I saw the movie again recently. I watched in shock and horror as the ending approached and it dawned on me what was really going to happen. The wife did, in fact, blow up house and husband. What I had forgotten was that she was in the house too.

    How could I have forgotten that? How could I have been so manipulated into seeing that explosion as a happy ending?

    Those questions — and the answers — came to me with astounding clarity during one of the many discussions I’ve had recently on the subject of Thelma and Louise. One of my friends who had seen it and loved it said the unhappy ending was simply realism; it was the only thing that could have happened.

    Unhappy ending? That’s it, I said to myself. Like the ending of Independence Day, the ending of Thelma and Louise was not presented as unhappy. It was presented as triumphant, victorious, jubilant. Like the battered wife of Independence Day, Thelma and Louise ended up dead but the audience cheered and the critics pronounced the film a fun-filled frolic, a feminist romp that “all women will love, all men must see.”

    Thelma and Louise is the story of two women who have a history (and a present) of being mistreated by men — husbands, boyfriends and strangers. As the plot unfolds, they come to use standard male tactics as a way of dealing with the abuse: in the pivotal scene, Louise guns down a would-be rapist in the parking lot of a bar and from there, the two women — rightly assuming that no one would believe their version of the attempted rape — hit the road and head for Mexico.

    Market surveys all show that to be commercially successful, a movie must appeal to males, age 16 to 25. This accounts for the fact that a high percentage of Hollywood films are laced with violence, sex, car chases, explosions, crude language and multi-million dollar special effects. Thelma and Louise passes up no opportunity to include these elements.

    It’s a movie that competently reflects the culture it springs from — a culture that says “if you have a problem, shoot it,” a culture that insists that violence is not only effective, it’s entertaining. From the highly eroticized rape scene to the terrorist methods the women use in dealing with a highway patrolman to the spectacular explosion of an oil truck, violence is seen as a lark in which the occasional casualty is only to be expected, but nothing much to be concerned about.

    And the effects of violence? After a brutal rape, you might think the last thing on Thelma’s mind would be sex with a stranger. But no, barely a day later, there she is, ready to be seduced by a hitchhiker the women pick up who turns out to be a charming armed robber. Is the lesson here that maybe being raped isn’t so bad after all?

    Defenders of Thelma and Louise insist that this movie will cause people to talk about violence against women. I doubt that but, if it’s true, what will they say? I’m told that in some theatres, women stand and cheer at the violent methods employed by Thelma and Louise. Some of my own friends say they have felt empowered by the movie, have enjoyed seeing two women who decided to fight back.

    I can’t concede their point. Thelma and Louise decided to fight back — and they lost. Far from being a tool of empowerment for abused women, Thelma and Louise exploits the issue of violence against women for its own commercial purposes. There is no affirmation of womanhood in the movie, no suggestion that things can change; in the end, there’s no hope.

    The final scene is not violent. The death of Thelma and Louise is stylized, almost as in a cartoon. The final impression is of two women who have hugged each other, thrown back their gorgeous heads in gay abandon, decided they can’t turn back. They gun the motor of that ’66 sea-green T-bird, leave their police pursuers in a cloud of dust, and drive straight into the Grand Canyon. The action freezes as the car is in full flight and the manipulation is complete — a tragic ending that leaves its audience feeling good.

    Maybe the ending should have come with a word of warning though: don’t try this trick at home, ladies. Freezing the frame only works in the movies.

    Back when second-wave feminism was a new and exciting movement, we used the word “patriarchy” unabashedly, not at all self-conscious about naming the structures that were deliberately designed and kept in place always to the advantage of one segment of society. “It’s a man’s world” was no joke and it was the premise we had all grown up with.

    It came with another word: entitlement. Entitlement was so deeply embedded that to even suggest — never mind demand — changes that would bring those outside the advantaged group some measure of equality was met with fearful hostility.

    It was as if some people gaining a few rights meant that others had to lose some — as if there were only so many rights to go around.

    There has been a backlash against some of the strong language we used as feminists in the ’70s. Nowadays, patriarchy is mostly used — condescendingly — in speaking of Afghanistan or other cultures that we need to demonise and look down on.

    But in our own society, patriarchy hasn’t gone anywhere. Physical and sexual violence against women and children — up to and including murder — continues unabated. Popular culture is rife with images and stories that exploit the sexuality of young people. Planeloads of North American and European men still fly off to Southeast Asia where they have made specific arrangments to have sex with children — children as young as six.

    Catholic priests live in the heart of the patriarchy. Why would it be shocking to anyone that they too are swept along in the privileged belief that adult males are entitled to act out their sexual urges no matter the hurt and broken lives they leave in their wake?

    Of course it is a horrible betrayal of trust to be raped by your priest — as it is to be raped by your father, your stepfather, uncle, brother, Boy Scout leader, hockey coach. Yes, some are worse than others although comparing betrayals doesn’t seem wise to me. But this rampant abuse is all rooted in the same place and it has shaped the society we live in.

    Men no longer “own” women and children but in large swaths of the world — and in too many religions — men still seek to control the minds and bodies of women and children, both those they know and those they don’t know.

    During my reading on this subject, I came across a website called Male Survivor. It’s the kind of website I usually avoid because I expect it to be heavy on men’s rights and feminist bashing. But this website has neither. Instead, it pays tribute to the feminist movement and urges those who are working on child abuse issues to take a lesson from rape crisis centres and other feminist organizations.

    For years, professionals grappled unsuccessfully with how to understand and prevent the physical battering of a woman by her husband or partner. The standard question asked by the professional focused on the (female) victim: “Why doesn’t she leave?” That question was based on numerous theoretical models and treatment interventions designed to resolve the problems of battering by treating the “victim’s pathology.” However, advocates of battered women, many of whom had been physically assaulted themselves, eventually confronted the professional establishment and posed an important re-framing of the question. Quite simply, by shifting the focus from the victim to the (male) perpetrator, the primary question then became: “Why does he hit?”

    It goes on to say, ” the abuse of children cannot be adequately addressed without acknowledging the fundamental political and social dimensions that govern our society. Existing social norms create a climate that fosters physical and sexual abuse of children.”

    To suggest that priestly celibacy is the problem implies that child sexual abuse doesn’t exist in all other segments of society — most notably in families.

    The problem is patriarchy and its upholding of the social norms of adult male entitlement and the often not-very-subtle subjugation of women and children.

    I recommend much of the material in Male Survivor. I also recommend this column, written by my friend, Ralph Surette.

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