It all started as a friendly competition. “There’s only room for one JB,” I joked with Tom Power on Q, the radio show he hosts on CBC.
When he asked about my strategy to bring home the win for Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, I simply said, “I’m going to tell the truth because it takes no effort to remember it.” Little did I know my truth would share the stage while championing her work.
To be honest, being chosen as a panellist for Canada Reads (CBC’s highly acclaimed literary competition) brought up some serious insecurities that I’ve tucked away for most of my life. It’s amazing how much a Black child’s negative self-image, pressed into the psyche by labels and opinions of the people who were paid to educate us, can linger on long after our formal education is complete. My English teacher once told me it were up to him, he would fail me. He didn’t make good on his threat, but instead continually marked my assignments at 51% regardless of the effort I put in. A classmate of mine, a white girl who was consistently marked with high grades, once offered to swap papers with me. When the teacher returned our papers, there it was again, at the top of my essay, in black ink. 51%.
The opportunity to be a Canada Reads panellist was, in many ways, an opportunity to prove to myself that I am greater than my flawed self-image. So when I said yes, it was a “YES” to allowing myself a new voice; one that spans beyond music, and one to finally speak over those insecurities.
Canada Reads is a live television show that places five great Canadian Books in the hands of celebrity panellists, all of whom who must read each book and choose one to defend. By the second chapter of The Marrow Thieves, the title (Finding Direction) and the first sentence had me stop and reflect on my own life right away.
“Sometimes, French, you gotta trust that people are making decisions for the better of the community based on thing’s they know that you don’t.”
The Marrow Thieves is like a literary Trojan horse. At first glance, it could be mistaken simply for a young adult story set in a dystopian future. But this it dawned on me, once I began to understand, the characters, that The Marrow Thieves is an allegory for residential schools. It’s the story of quiet genocide that Indigenous peoples (and their supporters) often get criticized and harassed for talking about. It’s the story of community struggle, and also an incredible story about hope and love. It’s a reality of finding laughter, love, family, and adventure in the midst of pain and oppression.
I was in my own pain when I began to read The Marrow Thieves; when I first opened the book, it had only been 13 days since I buried my beloved mother.
I felt in my spirit that there was a purpose behind this book being assigned to me. This is why I not only wished to defend The Marrow Thieves for a competition, but truly believe this book should be incorporated into every high school English curriculum across the nation. I didn’t choose The Marrow Thieves; this book had chosen me. It might have been a work of fiction, but Cherie Dimaline had written into it a powerful reality.
After closing the book for the final time, I was blessed with the opportunity to meet and hang out with Cherie. Our souls instantly connected. The warm embrace and enthusiasm from Cherie, upon finding out I was chosen to defend her book, was an ointment for wounds I’d carried since childhood.
What’s amazing is that we didn’t speak much, if at all, about her book. We simply hung out and allowed our spirits to connect authentically. Long after you meet people, you may not always remember what they said or what they did, but you will always remember how they made you feel. Being around Cherie, with her skin tattooed like mine, and with her bold, gracious personality, I felt accepted. I felt smart! We swapped numbers and made a pact to keep in touch.
For me, defending this book was going to be more than just a debate. There was a greater purpose at stake than helping a talented author grace the bestseller lists. Cherie’s book had the potential to reshape Canada’s national narrative on reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. It was an urgent call to action. That’s why my confident, new-found voice told me Jully, prepare yourself.
While I was on tour, Cherie and I kept in touch. While preparing lines for my first starring role (in the gospel musical production Amazing Grace) we kept in touch. During the weekend of the Juno Awards (which concluded on the eve of Canada Reads), we kept in touch. Every day following the debates, I checked in with Cherie to ensure I was correctly representing her book, and her community.
Being Black in front of a live national audience meant I had to be ten times more informed, and had zero room for error. My personal goal was to make sure I could be an ally for Indigenous communities, and also make sure not to take up undue space. I wanted to champion this book as a means to open Canada’s eyes, and to provoke the audience into making change for all of us.
Throughout my career, I’ve become accustomed to being the only Black person the room, so I was in comfortable territory as a panellist on Canada Reads. But the reality is, I am still a Black woman. The same demeanour that earns my white peers superlatives like “confident,” and “assertive” has earned me labels like “loud,” “angry,” “aggressive,” and “obnoxious.” In my exchange with Jeanne Beker, I earned another label for stating a factual point: attacker. I have never been accused of attacking another person while having a conversation; to be accused of that on live national television was, at the very least, antagonistic. Given our purpose for being on the show (to passionately defend books that we believe to be Canada’s strongest literary work) it was completely inappropriate.
To give you some perspective, when the cameras were off, Jeanne and I got along fine. But the on-camera tension began a day or so prior when she stated that The Marrow Thieves was too dark. She may not have realized it, but that description, coming out of her mouth, was the first hint of colonial privilege that I later brought up in our exchange. Indigenous peoples do not have the luxury of the light-heartedness that Beker seemed to be advocating for, because “too dark” is their history and their present day reality. That was the point of the book: for Canada to see life through their eyes. And that was the point that Ali Hassan excused the audience from internalizing, when he made an exception to colonial privilege for the people in the audience.
I often pray to God that He stand in my body, think through my mind, and speak through my lips. The old Jully – the bitter Jully – would have reacted to being mischaracterized as “attacking” Jeanne by giving her the business right away. The better Jully, on the other hand, gives my mind over to God and lets His grace work through me. Jeanne cut me off once while speaking.
“But Jully what about what’s happening with ourselves, yeah we gotta change the world but there are a lot of screwed up people in the world…”
I let it slide. Then she cut me off again.
“There’s [sic] a lot of people who have to work on themselves. When we see people wreaking havoc…”
When I attempted to finish my thought, which she seemed to be listening to, things took an unexpected turn. Jeanne blurted out “Why are you attacking me?”
My prayer came through in full effect, and that’s when the words naturally came forth: “Whatever you’re feeling take it to the altar because I am not the one that’s responsible for your feelings.”
For every accomplishment I’ve made in my life, my mom always told me “Well done.” Whether it was winning awards, or being chosen to sing for the Queen of England, my mom always carried those two words for me. Well done. My mom, who lived a beautiful 81 years, always provided a voice of wisdom when my insecurities had me trying to ease God out of my soul. The night that I defended The Marrow Thieves was, to the day, four months since my Mother took her last breath. And on that date, possibly for the first time on Canadian national television, the daily lived reality of Black women was brought into instant focus. I know that, in heaven, mom was looking down and telling me, once more, “well done.” That was good enough.
But the thunderous applause from Black women around the globe, who related to that moment of personal truth, has been overwhelming. It became even more clear to me that so many of us have been silenced by fear of losing our jobs, relationships, access to career enhancing opportunities, or even social and economic status. We are silenced, while forced to carry the emotional burdens of white fragility and white privilege; and forced to silence ourselves before white women, who weaponize their fragility by defaulting to victim mode when faced with a black woman carrying knowledge and understanding.
Black women don’t have the option to be fragile. Ever.
I’d like to highlight a few things that may not be quite so apparent to many white Canadians. We, Black women, are capable of formulating and delivering intelligent thought. We do not need your applause for being “articulate.” We are capable of expressing ourselves with passion, boldness, and respect. We do not need your fragility. We are capable of freely having a difference of opinion. We do not need your labels of “difficult,” “combative,” and “aggressive.” You can take the “angry black woman” label and leave that at the altar too.
And we have as broad a range of emotion as you are capable of feeling. A society that affixes the label “strong” to Black women, and Black men, is a society that would rather we suppress our feelings and cope with the institutional harm that your people have inflicted upon us, and still continue to inflict upon us.
The theme for the 2018 season of Canada Reads was “One book to open Canada’s eyes.” Through fiction and futurism, I contend The Marrow Thieves was exactly that. Dimaline’s writing piqued my curiosity, and prompted me to step out of my own relatively privileged sphere to learn so much more.
What really happened in residential schools? What is still happening now, through the Children’s Aid system? It’s sad to say that what I learned through Cherie’s mentorship (and, of course, Google), is far more than I learned in a school system that was content with my invisibility.
The morning of the Canada Reads finale was the day the news broke that Pope Francis stated he would not issue an apology for the Catholic church’s role in the abuses committed in residential schools. That apology, which would mean so much to Indigenous peoples, also happened to be one of the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was a clear slap in the face, and made me understand how easily their concerns are dismissed.
As a Black woman, I cannot accept injustice against my Indigenous brothers and sisters. And to speak from the skin I am in, I will use my platform as a bridge, to amplify Indigenous voices and affirm the truth that racism and discrimination is alive and well in Canada. But we are living in a time where we can easily come together to change that.
I would also like to mention that, after saying what I said to Jeanne Beker, not only did people from Black and Indigenous communities congratulate me, I also received a degree of love and accountability from white people. And there’s a lesson in those messages that was best said in a tweet I received from Twitter user @openmindsMH: “Fellow white folks, this is essential viewing. We need to hear POC’s truths without feeling personally attacked by their pain, anger, outrage, even simple fact-stating. It’s hard, but we are better for it. I applaud @jullyblack for this.”
Being able to listen to our truths is a good place to start. But action is the vital component that’s been missing from the process. One of Cherie Dimaline’s quotes, over the last few days, has been resonating with me: “We cannot continue to congratulate ourselves on reconciliation when there has been so little action.”
A ninety second video clip, at the end of the day, is a place to begin the conversation.