Flashbacks of My Upper West Side Childhood In The North End Of Halifax
In my as of yet unpublished novel The King of the Woods, which is a fictionalized account of my teen years in New York during the 1980s, the narrator's paternal grandfather is a Black Nova Scotian from Halifax. I knew quite a bit of the history of Blacks in Nova Scotia. As a literary device to make the novel more interesting, I wrote the subplot of Kevin Blake of having Nova Scotian descent. Still, the novel is about New York City and Kevin Blake is a typical Upper West Side kid. One of the reasons why I was keen to visit Halifax was the meet other Blacks and learn more about their history and their current social position.
I visited Halifax three times in the seven weeks that I spent in Nova Scotia. As always, the first impression was the most lasting. Though I had expected to find similarities between Halifax and Boston, as well as similarities between Nova Scotian Blacks with those from the Northeastern USA, I could've never imagined that my first visit to Halifax would be a time travel adventure to my own childhood in New York in the early 80s.
On the second evening of my first swing through Halifax I attended the premier screening of the very first outdoor cinema series in the North End of Halifax. The North End is Halifax's historical Black district. It's been slowly eroded since the 1960s with the building of the MacKay Bridge which displaced the Black residents of Africville. Today gentrification is adding to the displacement of life long residents. In my three visits to Halifax, I spent most of my time in the North End as it was the only interesting part of the city that I found. The outdoor cinema series was named after Viola Desmond. Desmond is the Rosa Parks of Canada. In the 1940s she was arrested, tried and convicted for refusing to pay for racially segregated seating at a cinema house in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. She was given a posthumous pardon.
The outdoor cinema series was oriented towards children. It was held in a park in the middle of public housing units. At the edge of the park is a community garden named "Hope Blooms". A few hours before the screening, free food was served to all. Hot Dogs, chicken, rice, cake among other things were dispensed. There were more children than adults in attendance. As I've explained repeatedly, I'm not terribly keen on children. It's not that I dislike children. I'm indifferent to children for the most part. Since I'm not a parent and likely that I'll never be one, children aren't in my life. As I don't have any siblings, nieces and nephews are not in the picture. With the few friends that have children, I rarely socialize with them as much as when they were single and childless. I tolerate children but I keep a definite arms length from them.
Name Calling and Ball Disputes In 2016 and 1980However, the Black kids of North End Halifax caught my attention for most of the evening. The first kid that I met was a 10 year boy of mixed parentage. His mother was white. When he introduced himself to me, it took two minutes for me to pronounce his Gaelic/Celtic name. I still can't recall his named. For this essay I will name him Dioredan. At first I though he said "Dorian". He kept correcting me but I still couldn't say it. Dioredan insisted that I pronounce his name properly. Most adults would've dropped it and moved on. The exchange went something like this:
I felt quite stupid. Somehow I managed to finally pronounce his name. Satisfied at last, Dioredan left me alone. However Dioredan would retain my attention for another hour. He and the other boys were playing football. (Since most of my audience is European, I use football instead of soccer). A Black youth counselor or worker that was the spitting image of my youth counselor back in 1979-80, called Dioredan's name before kicking a red football across the grass to him. Before that, the kids were kicking around a white football. Dioredan decided that he didn't want to play with the other kids anymore. He wanted to play with the red football all by himself. Naturally the other kids noticed the red ball and wanted to play with it. Dioredan wasn't giving the ball up. Two Arab boys started following him around the grass insisting to play with it. Dioredan was stubborn and wouldn't budge. The two Arab kids got more agitated. Dioredan was pissed off that they wouldn't stop badgering him. The situation escalated physically. They started hitting him in a bid to get him to surrender the ball. Dioredan appealed to the youth counselor for help.
"Tell them to stop! They're attacking me!"
"No, they're not attacking you," the counselor replied. "It's about playing soccer. That isn't your ball!" It was at this point I could hear my counselor from 1979 saying exactly the same thing in the exact voice.
With that Dioredan begrudgingly surrendered the red ball. Then I flashed back to 1980 on the Upper West Side.
I was in 3rd Grade going to P.S. 87 on West 78th Street. Over the previous weekend I had bought a black and white football. I brought it to school the following Monday. A dispute quickly developed during recess in the schoolyard. My schoolmates naturally wanted to play with it. However, I wanted to play Dodge Ball with it. My classmates wanted to play Kickball. I objected. Things escalated quickly with a shouting match and attempts to snatch the ball from my grasp. I wouldn't budge. As typical, I launched a verbal attack slicing and dicing my schoolmates in the process. As far as I was concerned, this was besides the point. It was my ball. I determined what game should be played with my ball. After I cursed out and insulted the other boys, I turned my back and walked away. I left them standing on the kickball part of the yard as I went to the far side to the chain link fence enclosure next to the school building where we always played Dodge Ball. The other boys were stunned and stung from my recalcitrance. They huddled together and came up with a plan. They broke into a run straight out of the "Charge of the Light Brigade". One of the Black boys tried to kick the ball out of my hands. This led to shoving and pushing plus another round of insults traded. I can't recall how it ended. No one else got to play with the ball. After school I reported to my uncle what had transpired. I was quite indignant that the other boys wouldn't respect my property and my desire what to do with it. When I expressed incredulity that the boys made a charge attack, my brilliant uncle replied: "Of course they did that because they wanted to play with it." However, I had standing because unlike Dioredan, the ball actually belonged to me.
That wasn't the only ball dispute of the evening. Minutes after the football incident, a young white girl had the misfortune of having a tennis ball desired by another Black boy. The girl had dropped the ball. It bounced into the hands of the boy. She asked for it back and it wouldn't surrender it. She followed him around but he held it over his head out of her reach. She appealed to the middle aged white woman named Dorothy who was cooking the hot dogs and hamburgers to get the ball back. Unlike the adults in New Yorker, Dorothy remained polite as she tried to coax the lad to return the tennis ball. I cracked up because it was very Canadian.
"Please give the ball back to her." Dorothy asked with extreme Canadian politeness. The adults of New York would've yelled, screamed and demanded the boy. Though Dorothy remained polite throughout repeatedly saying "please" and using the interrogative tense rather than the imperative, her countenance was serious. The lad turned his back to walk away. Dorothy and the girl followed him. Then the lad motioned as he would hand the ball back but as soon as the girl reached for it, he snatched it back out of her reach. I had the impression that the lad wanted a minimum tribute of 50 "please" before he would surrender the ball. He finally surrendered the ball by throwing it as hard as he could on the ground so that it would bounce hither and thither forcing the girl to scramble after it. After he released it, Dorothy said "Thank you" to the lad. Though I've spent nearly a decade of my life in Canada, I'm still amazed by Canadian politeness. By now I was thoroughly amused and tickled by the scene.
A High School Graduation Party, Cake and Nova Scotian Charm
The residents used the premier screening to have a High School Graduation party for a Black lad from the area. The history of Blacks in Nova Scotia is a hard one. One of the main issues for Blacks is the lack of education. In general, The Maritimes has a higher rate of high school drop outs than any other region in Canada not on Native Reserves. The high school drop out rate is high in The Maritimes across racial lines. Of course, Black high school dropouts face greater obstacles for employment than white dropouts. Since the screening took place in the middle of the Halifax projects, it was quite a big deal for a Black lad to actually graduate.
I kept my distance from the festivities for a few reasons. First, I had just arrived in Halifax the previous day. Whenever I arrive to a new city or country, I sit back and observe the scene and terrain. Second, I wasn't from the community. I was a guest and outsider. Third, I was having a ball (no pun intended) watching the kids. Dorothy, whom I had met earlier that day at a youth community centre that she founded and runs, invited me to eat some cake.
The others took notice of me. I was obviously not from the area. Since I was laying against my backpack, I was obviously "from away", as The Maritimers describe everyone not from the region. I waited on queue for a plate of baked chicken and brown rice, plus cake. As I got closer to the table, some kids cut in front of me. Ordinarily, I would've objected but since I was "from away" and had no ties to the community, I let it pass.
Another Black boy saw me and asked where I was from. When I said that I was originally from New York, he and others turned around. I went from being the mysterious detached stranger to distinguished guest of honor. I may have very well been the first New Yorker they had met. In any event, the people grew warmer towards me. The young lad wanted to make sure that I got enough food and cake. Though this was inner city Halifax, there was a certain level of provincial naivity. The young lad trying to talk like a tough from East New York Brooklyn charmed me when he said in the friendliest, warmest and most sincere manner to the food server: "Hook the homey up!" That warmed my heart.
I Know Who's Behind The Mask! Children Can Be Cruel and Violent
Before I attended P.S. 87, I went to the Cathedral School of St. John The Divine at the northern end of the Upper West Side in Morningside Heights for Grades 1 and 2. On the last day of school before Eastern vacation, a faculty member put on an Easter Bunny costume handing out chocolates and candy as we went on an Easter egg hunt. We were convinced that the person in the costume was the headmaster. Later on in the day when we passed by him, we shouted and accused him of being the Easter bunny. Now that I recall his expression of surprised, it's evident that he wasn't the one. But as a 7 year old, I was certain that it was him.
The film being screened was Disney's "Zootopia". It was actually better than I had expected. An adult dressed up in a costume of the fox character from the film. A Black kid thought that he knew who it was. "That's so and so. I can recognize his walk from anywhere!" He ran off to unmask the person. The kids immediately swarmed the mascot. They were convinced that they knew who was underneath the costume. The poor person, whom I later learnt was actually a woman, was besieged by the kids. Many attempts were made to pull the head mask off her. But she held her ground. On a few occasions she came perilously close to having her head mask taken off but she kept control. She had the additional challenge of remaining silent. For if she opened her mouth, her identity would be revealed. Frustrated that they couldn't unmask her or coerce her to speak, the kids began violently assaulting her. A flurry of punches and fist blows landed all over her body. A couple of boys started kicking her in the ass, legs and shin. The heated vehemence in which they attacked her was intense. Another boy got a running start and jumped into the air with his foot landing on her knee. To her credit, she remained calm and kept her composure.
Observing this scene I thought how I would've reacted. I would've failed. I wouldn't be able to let all those kids physically assault me without yelling at them to stop or getting physical with them. I would have certainly pushed them away from me. As I don't know my own strength, there would be the danger of inadvertently hurting some of them.
When I went to Istanbul in 2002, I had recurring subplot of aggressive shoe shiners. Many desperate people target tourists for cash. Not a day passed walking through Taksim Square without me being pestered with people trying to shine my shoes. They had a tactic of bending down at my feet. I had to jump over them to avoid tripping on them or stepping on them. I had had enough. Initially they were all adult men. One day a 10 year old child aggressively tried to shine my shoes. All my attempts to sidestep and tap dance around him failed. My patience left me and my temper erupted. I yelled and cursed at the poor lad. My Austrian girlfriend at the time that I had traveled with, chastised me for blowing my cool. I definitely don't have the temperament to handle children. I admired the patience, restraint and tact exercised by that woman.
One difference between the Halifax kids from the incident in First Grade is that we wouldn't have dared to assault the headmaster. On the other hand, we might have done so in public school. However, the New York City public schools didn't have the resources to organize Easter egg hunts and unlikely to have someone dress up in an Eastern Bunny costume.
The Female Version of a Young Der Kosmonaut
Earlier this year I explained how I became a radical in opposition to authority. I explained how I defied my teachers and would curse them out. I had always assumed that it was something unique to the era in which I grew up in New York. I was proven incorrect in Halifax.
I spent most of my days in Halifax at the North End public library branch. A couple of years ago a new main library was built downtown. I went in a couple of times but never liked it. I always preferred the North End branch. It was built in 1966 specifically for the Black community. Since then it's been the most important anchor of the community. As the North End is very poor, many parents are unable to afford summer day camp when school is out. The public library serves as the primary summer day camp for the neighbourhood children. Each time that I went to the library to use it's wireless internet connection, it was overrun with kids.
A 12 year old Black girl arrived. She had an arrogant attitude of defiance. Her character was so intense and strong that I looked up and observed her. Apparently she had been suspended from the library for two weeks due to bad behavior. Her bad behavior was that she used to curse out and mouth off at the staff. Undaunted by being suspended, she boldly and defiantly entered the library.
A staff member named Mark confronted her. I was never to determine whether he was the Head Librarian or in charge of children and adolescents. However, he was the staff member that most dealt with the kids. Mark reminded her that she had been suspended and was not allowed back in for another week. She disputed the time period of her suspension. She insisted that it was only for a week. Mark contradicted and said it had been two weeks. They both agreed on the date that she had been suspended but everything else was disputed. Mark told her that she had been rude to the woman at the check out desk.
"You were just rude to so and so." Mark said.
"I don't like her! She doesn't like me! I don't like her face. She's a stupid bitch. That's why I cursed her out. I don't like the way she talks to me."
"That doesn't matter," replied Mark. "You still have to be polite."
That cracked me up even though I remained straight faced. Or at the very least I don't didn't burst out into laughter. Again, it was the Canadian nature of the dispute. She was suspended because she hadn't been "polite" to the staff.
Mark insisted that she leave the premises immediately. She refused. Mark was getting visibly frustrated. The girl was getting more defiant. I was transfixed by the entire spectacle. That was because I was seeing a reflection of myself in that girl. I was transported back to 8th Grade when I had an epic battle of wills with my teacher. Moreover, I was amazed how serious Mark was. If I were in his position, I wouldn't be able to keep a straight face. At the very least, I would've had a smirk on mine. I wouldn't take her so seriously nor would I be upset with her.
On many occasions Mark politely asked her to leave. She wouldn't budge. A staff who worked security arrived. The North End branch is the first library that I've been to in North America which didn't have either uniformed security. He told her to leave. She refused. Then she said to her friends:
"Watch, they're going to call the cops on me."
"That's not going to happen," replied the security man. "You're going to leave."
In fact, the girl probably watched too much American TV. Indeed, if this had been in the USA, the police would arrive. Not only would they eject her, but she would be tasered and brutalized by them, in addition to being cuffed, arrested, thrown in the back of a cruiser and placed in a holding cell. I was reminded of how fine a line the border is between Canada and the US.
The girl lingered for a few more minutes. She went towards the entrance of the library out of my sight. I hear her scream and swear and then sudden silence. She had been ejected without the use of violence or the intervention of the police.
Observing the Black kids of North End Halifax revealed quite a bit about myself. I could have easily been born and raised in Halifax and developed the same personality as in New York. The narrator Kevin Blake in The King of the Woods could easily just as be from North End Halifax as the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It spurs me to find a publisher for my novel. I wouldn't be surprised in the novel has more success in Halifax than in New York. The youth today would certainly relate to Kevin Blake.
This makes sense as the Black Nova Scotians are descendants of freed and escaped slaves from the USA. Unlike Central Canada (Quebec and Ontario) where most Blacks are immigrants and their descendants from the West Indies and Africa, the Blacks of Nova Scotia are American. More importantly, they are very similar to Blacks from the US Northeast. They're certainly unlike Blacks from the US South, Midwest or West Coast.
As I was soon to discover when I traveled down to the South Shore of Nova Scotia, meeting these Upper West Side kids from the North End was just the key to discovering my spiritual roots in North America. That will be the subject of my next post.
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