Friday, April 11, 2008

White Culture

I used to think it was an oxymoron. The notion that we have little more than Wonderbread and Earl Grey tea to claim as our own is sad.

Growing up I read a lot of Toni Morrison novels, watched a lot of Oprah, and had a thing for each of the Cosby kids. As a result, I think I thought I was black. Or at least someone who was cultured beyond Kraft Dinner and aluminum siding installation. I was convinced my own family had nothing to say, nothing to show for ourselves. I didn't want to accept Jell-O molds at Easter as the pinnacle of our culinary creativity. I remember being disappointed by our lack of history, our boring approach to everything. I had a hate-on for Farley Mowatt and couldn't understand what I had in common with meat loaf or a John Deere tractor. That wasn't my life. How could it possibly be?

When I was in grade ten I wrote a short story about a little black girl in Mississippi who . . . oh, I can't even say . . . it's all too much. Suffice it to say, it was called Tears of the Blackbird and was in no way a story of my life, not in the slightest bit based in anything I knew more deeply than a thousand Oprah-hours logged on the couch. But I was proud of it and convinced myself a story about rural Ontario was no more my life than that of a traumatically-blind 9 year old black girl from the southern United States.

Looking back, I see I was wrong.

I always bonded with student teachers and ours at the time willingly read my story. I remember being nervous, as it was my first significant piece of writing at nearly 20 type-written pages. When we met in the library to discuss, I was shocked by her response. What I saw on her face felt like disdain and arrogant, hateful mockery. She asked me, basically, what the hell I thought I was doing. She told me I had to write what I know. I immediately stopped listening. I was a good student, one who could write well and express myself in several creative ways. My teachers were always amazed and held my classmates to a standard I set. Who was this woman to tell me anything? I think I fell into a rage black out, but I remember being very upset, telling her she was mean and lacked the heart required to be a supportive and effective teacher.
I may have overreacted.

Years later, after starting my Canadian Literature class, I put down the Morrison and clung to Robertson Davies. These were stories I could see myself in. As I read Fifth Business, I could replace the streets of Deptford with the ones I grew up on in rural Belmont, Ontario. It was shocking to me. White people could be interesting!

It was eye-opening and I began to see my family in several more dimensions. It was a definitive moment I recall quite clearly. I was to write a collection of poems for Writer's Craft, one of those hokey classes taught by the comically aged and erudite member of the English faculty. I wrote several long and involved limericks about human darkness, and just one 4-line poem about my great grandma and her 30 baroque geese, an ode to the depth I had begun to see in my family, my own culture. In just those few lines I realized how the life they had lived had been savagely discounted by an obnoxious teenager (me) and hoped one poem (I shared with no one) could make up for it.

Not long after that, I'm ashamed to say, I was happy when my Dad fell into a bipolar episode. It solidified my new-found interest in the annals of my family. Not only were we interesting, but we suffered too! At the time, it seemed worthiness came from sadness, from strife. That's teenage-hood for you. I mean, it wasn't decades of slavery, but it was something! Conflict and Resolution are powerful notions to a young person; they satisfy on every level, like makeup sex for the soul. It's important to create trauma in order to successfully manipulate a resolution. A favourable resolution can stay with you for weeks and months, making you feel alive and successful! It's what being young is all about, a compulsion I'm glad has, for the most part, passed.

I had finally found a way to appreciate my life. Until that point I didn't know what to do with it. I didn't know how to take Philadelphia Cream Cheese and make it interesting, worthwhile. I wasn't sure I would have anything to tell my grandchildren. Now when we drive through southwestern Ontario, I stare out the windows, across vast fields, and think of my Grandma working in them. I think of my Grandpa and my Dad in the tractor, cutting through the wheat and soybeans. I imagine my great grandparents going to church on Sundays, living through the Depression, raising all those children. My mail correspondence with my Grandma reveals so much, and by uncovering the stuff within, I'm okay with Jell-O molds.  In fact, I tend to think they are fairly amazing, architecturally-speaking.

(Top: My Grandpa, 1940 | Bottom, left to right: My Dad, Uncle and Grandma, 1960)


  1. Those photos are real treasures! Your grandpa looks almost surreal in his environment. Your parents must have really wondered at times what the heck was going on in your little head, eh? I hope my friends' children are that interesting!

  2. Hey just read this and I love it! Belmont sure is something special. Hell, rural communities in general are. I grew up in Belmont, In the subdivision beside Manning when it was first built. It was great living in a small subdivision with cornfields all around. And walking to the 7-2-11 in the summer to get ice cream were priceless experiences. It gives you a special outlook on life growing up in a place like that, one so sheltered from the rest of the world. Good ol' South Dorchester, haha. I'm still a teenager. We moved out to Yarmouth Centre in 07 actually, so we live even more in the country now. Growing up, I didn't think about rural Canadian culture either, you think about how pretty much everywhere else is interesting but here. But lately I've come to realize that this is one of the greatest places to be in the world. But, it's saddening how that notion seems to be slipping away from most people. People see it as the lack of jobs, but I think people just need to use a new perspective. Agriculture was, and is, the biggest industry here, that's plain enough to see just driving around. But there's gotta be more uses than endless fields of corn and soy. I've started tapping my own trees haha. It doesn't get more Canadian. And while being multicultural is great and all. You don't hear much about the raw Canadians. Those people whose parents, grand parents, great grand parents, and great great grandparents have lived in that area. It's funny to see how, in thee small towns, most of these people are related somehow. Now my parents moved from pei, they're acadian. So, same original Canadians, just bit different culture. But at this point the culture around here has conglomerated into one pile of Canadianism as I like to call it. The mass mounts of hockey players, beer drinkers, and generally nice people live in the rural communities accross our great country. Living here, people don't really appreciate what they are, that is, until you give them the chance, we're a damn patriotic bunch. Sadly however, the general consensus of people my age(17) is to get out as fast as they can. Which is good in a way, the world is certainly something worth being seen, but hopefully they don't forget the amazing place they came from. I know I won't.

  3. Hey Jeremy, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Glad you stumbled on this. South Dorchester -- such memories. I was only there until Grade 2 when we moved to London. But I'll always be a kid from Belmont.