It was during a childhood game of tetherball that Vancouver Park Board Commissioner Constance Barnes learned what the word nigger meant.
The vibrant and charismatic Barnes, who emceed the launch of Black History Month at Vancouver City Hall on Friday (February 1), shared a story from her personal history with the audience, who filled the council chambers to full capacity.
She recalled how her family (with a white mother and black father) lived in a small house on the Barnet Highway in the 1960s, and while she was in grade one, her father built a tetherball court for her. One day, when she and her siblings were deciding who would play first, she started chanting "Eenie meenie miny mo, catch a nigger by the toe."
Her mother, who overheard her, called her into the house.
"And she's got this face of love but horror," Barnes said. "And I'm like, 'Oh, what have I done wrong? I have no idea.' "
Her mother sat her down, with books, to teach her what the word nigger meant. What her mother told her became a revelation to her.
"The more she explains it to me, the more I realize, 'Okay, that's why I get called that name.' Because it didn't register. So many other kids used it at school, and so many times I got called that name…all of a sudden, pieces started to come together, that 'Okay, I've got fuzzy hair—that's what's different. Oh, I've got full lips—that's what different. Oh, some kid spit on me—that's why they're spitting on me. And all of a sudden, I realized that I was different."
The experience also proved to be a pivotal one for her mother as well.
"The fear on my mom's face was because she realized that this is what her parents warned her about. This is why she was disowned. This is why they said, 'You marry that nigger and your kids, if you ever have children, will never have an equal life. They will never be treated as human.' "
But Barnes revels in how she has grown from those experiences and what she changes she's seen over the course of her own lifetime.
"It was one of those times in my life that made me realize that I was different," she said. "I honour that difference now. I treasure that difference now. I treasure the story because I see kids now coming home and there definitely is racism happening in our schools and bullying happening in our schools. But the most beautiful thing is my mother was strong. She taught me well. My father taught me well. They were in that school fighting and battling this all the time. But we've come a long way. And I'm very proud when I know my kids do go to school and they come home without having been called that name. So we have come a long way."
Another sign of change is the BHM proclamation event at city hall. After the event, Barnes chatted with the Straight, recalling how that came to be.
"It was three years ago….I work at the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Gardens….I remember being at an event and it was Chinese New Year…and nothing had been done in the city for Black History Month or any acknowledgements, and I actually said something to the mayor. And he jokingly said, 'Well, do something about it.' And we did. So we pulled it together, and you know something? Gregor was very supportive. Council was very supportive. So the fact they honoured reading the proclamation last year, and this is our second year, it just shows that times are changing. It is pretty cool to be in this chamber and have the energy and all the city councillors...and the mayor so supportive. I think it speaks volume to the change."
The city hall event included an official proclamation of BHM by Mayor Gregor Robertson, music and dance performances, the unveiling of two stamps by Canada Post, and the book launch of Great Black North: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry. (More coverage of the event to follow.)
But Barnes feels that the time has come for the creation of a black cultural centre in Vancouver.
"I'm feeling a motion coming on because I think we need a black community centre," she said. "We have a Chinese cultural centre, we have an Italian cultural centre. We have everything. But we need a place now to honour black history and a library where we can teach our children and our youth our history, and we need a place—where you look in this room and there are so many black people coming together—we need a place that we can do that on a regular basis in the city of Vancouver."
She added with a laugh, "I love stirring it up at city hall."