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(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?

bleeding hearts cropped for web

(Today is Valentine’s Day and I have gone to my archives for a look at love and marriage. This column was first published on September 17, 1989. I suspect things have not changed too much.)

I’m interested to see that the Advisory Council on the Status of Women is doing a study in provincial high schools to find out if young women have a realistic view of their futures. In similar studies done elsewhere, the Council has discovered that many young women believe in the mystique of a Prince Charming who will come into their lives.

“But the reality is,” says researcher Jane Wright, “that many women are living in poverty and are single parents.”

A few years ago, I did a series of articles about women in marriages, all of whom had married — or were about to get married — at a young age.

My first question to the engaged girls was always, “What do you expect to get from your marriage?”

Without any exceptions, the answers were individual variations on: “Well, I’d just like us to have a nice life together.”

On further questioning, I discovered that most of the young couples had no sense of shared interests or life goals, and the majority had never discussed the question of having children and how they would fit into the fantasy life that seemed to prevail in youthful girlish minds.

From what I could gather, the “nice life together” that the brides-to-be envisioned included vague romantic ideas of dining by candlelight looking like a picture in a magazine, strolling on Sunday walks through crackling fall leaves, and taking annual vacations aboard the Love Boat, dancing under tropical stars.

There was little knowledge about the part money plays in young married life (or old married life for that matter) and there had been no discussion about finances.

I went back to interview one of the brides a year after her marriage. She hadn’t yet given up but she was disillusioned. The candlelight dinner — if it ever got off the ground — had given way to a quick scoff in front of the television with reruns of Three’s Company. The romantic Sunday strolls were spent at the ballpark where the groom was either playing or practising. The Love Boat had been sunk by a wild trip to Montreal that the groom had taken with his buddies to see the Expos play.

When I interviewed her for the second time, it was mid-winter, she had a new baby, and she was feeling quite optimistic about the future but still fantasizing. She hated the time he spent playing ball and going on ball trips and she had wrung a promise out of him that he’d quit the next season. I felt sorry that she had gone that far and I pointed out that she had known before the marriage that he was a zealous ballplayer.

“Yes, I did,” she said sadly, “but I thought he’d change after we got married. I thought he wouldn’t need baseball any more.”

The marriage did break up — of course — but it wasn’t because of baseball. It was because the young couple had never been realistically prepared for their life together. He went out west and worked in oil and made a lot of money; she remained in her home town with the two children and lived on social assistance.

I also interviewed the prospective grooms, by the way. I found in most cases that they had given little thought, romantic or otherwise, to their impending change in status. The reason is probably as old as the institution of marriage itself: men view marriage as the context in which they will pursue whatever in life interests them, whether it be a career, sports, friends, hobbies or community service.

Too many young women still view marriage as an end in itself.

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