The 30th anniversary edition of Cheryl Foggo’s landmark work about growing up Black on the Canadian prairies
Cheryl Foggo came of age during the 1960s in Calgary, a time when a Black family walking down the street still drew stares from everyone they passed. She grew up in the warm embrace of a community of extended family and friends, with roots in the Black migration of 1910 across the western provinces. But as an adolescent, Cheryl struggled against the negative attitudes towards Blackness she and her family encountered. She struggled against the many ways she was made to feel an outsider in the only place she ever knew as home.
As Cheryl explores her ancestry, what comes to light gives her the confidence to claim her place in the Canadian west as a proud Black woman. In this beautiful, moving work, she celebrates the Black experience and Black resiliency on the prairies.
About the author
Cheryl Foggo is a journalist, screenwriter, poet, and playwright. She has a particular interest in the history of Black pioneers on the prairies and has written extensively on that subject in books, magazines, and anthologies. She lives in Calgary.
Excerpt: Pourin' Down Rain: A Black Woman Claims Her Place in the Canadian West (by (author) Cheryl Foggo)
CHAPTER ONE: MEETING JIM CROW
Skin is a badge that you will always wear, a form of identification for those in the world who wish to brand you.
There was nothing amiss, nothing lacking in Bowness. In 1958 my parents bought a house there for seven thousand dollars. It had no plumbing, no basement, no porch, an unfinished yard and only five small rooms.
Our street, 70th Street, was gravel and dust. No street lamps. No trees. When the wind blew, which it did frequently, great clouds of sand would whirl up and spin across the road. My brothers and sister and I, and our friends, were delighted by these dust storms. Someone would shriek, “It’s a tornado!” and we would chase the cloud, madly laughing.
Around the corner and up 46th Avenue was a cluster of businesses—the bakery, the hardware store, Gibson’s Variety, a cafe, the library and the Crystal Grocery, which everyone referred to as “Garry’s,” after the proprietor, Garry Fong.
At the other end of 70th Street was Bowcroft Elementary, which my brothers attended, and the kindergarten that I attended in the basement of the United Church. Before gaining the church doors, there was a long, wide, grassy field to master. Initially, the crossing of this field required a certain amount of courage-gathering. The grass was, in places, as tall as I and the boulders in the distance might have provided cover for an animal or a bully. Soon, though, bolstered by the company of my friend Ricky Hayes, the field’s gently waving, rainbow-coloured foxtails became a treasured part of a five-year-old’s life.
Our street contained the closest thing to a Black community that one would find in Calgary in 1961. Ricky Hayes’s parents were interracial, but he, his brother Randy and sister Debbie considered themselves Black. The Hayeses, their grandparents across the alley, my family and the Saunders and Lawson families up the road made up what I believe was the largest concentration of Black people in a single Calgary neighbourhood.
My parents had an attitude of kinship toward the other Black families on the street. The families knew one another, they knew each other’s parents and grandparents, and probably because of that knowing, they communicated to us our connection to other Black children. We played together. Without isolating ourselves from the other children in the neighbourhood and without any discussion of it, we sensed a link that transcended our environs.
Across the street from our house was another field that we had to cross to reach the railroad tracks leading to the twin bridges, the Bow River and, ultimately, to the paths that took us “up in the hills.”
Most summer days we spent meandering along the tracks to the river, the usual goal being a picnic in the hills. The picnic, however, was not really the point. The point was the adventure we would sometimes encounter along the way.
On a very warm day, if there was no breeze, the heat from the iron rails and sharp smell of oil and metal bouncing up into our faces would drive us down from the tracks to walk through the high grasses. This meant slower going, but it was good to sniff the flowers instead of the heat and to dig around what someone would insist was a badger hole.
From the first time my brothers pronounced me old enough to go along with them until I was sixteen and we moved from Bowness, the journey along the tracks to the river, across the bridges and up into the hills was real life. It was the meeting place. It was where we went to talk and light campfires. It was something we did that our parents did not do.
Across the alley from us lived two children, a brother and sister, who never joined the treks to the hills if we and the Hayes children were going. Their father forbade them from associating with us, and effectively ostracized his children from the rest of the neighbourhood by prohibiting them from joining any games where we Black children were present. When groups formed for kick-the-can or softball, we were often aware of these two children’s eyes peering out from the cracks in their fence. They were there, we were aware of their presence, and in retrospect, their loneliness seems palpable.
When I was young, I was minimally aware that racism was a special problem. People who shared our neighbour’s prejudices seemed so rare and to have so little effect on my life that I did not attribute their bigotry to a world condition.
My mother had implanted in the minds of my two older brothers, my younger sister and me that we were special, not ordinary in any way. She would refer to our bigoted neighbour with utter contempt, as “the likes of him,” implying that his ideas and his two unfortunate children were unworthy of our time or thoughts.
Our mother was diligent, but even a fiercely proud mother’s constant reassurances cannot protect her Black child from learning, sooner or later, that skin is a badge you will always wear, a form of identification for those in the world who wish to brand you.
One afternoon upon returning from school, I overheard my mother talking on the telephone to Mr. Leavitt, the principal. He was calling to plead with her to try to persuade Floyd Hayes to discourage his children from fighting at school. Floyd was the brother of my mother’s twin sister’s husband and the father of the aforementioned friends, Randy, Ricky and Debbie.
“I’m afraid that I can’t agree with you, Mr. Leavitt,” she was saying. “I’m not going to tell them how to handle their problems. They came from a place where they can’t fight. Where they come from a Black person doesn’t have a chance against racists, and if Mr. Hayes has decided his children are going to fight name-calling with their fists, that’s up to him.”
When my mother replaced the receiver on its hook on the wall, I pestered her with questions. What did Mr. Leavitt want? Why had he called her? Were Randy and Ricky in trouble? What did she mean when she said Floyd had come from somewhere else where they couldn’t fight it? Fight what?
“Jim Crow. They couldn’t fight Jim Crow down there, but he’s determined he’s going to fight it here.”
“Who is Jim Crow?”
“It’s not who, it’s what. It’s called Jim Crow when Black people aren’t allowed to ride at the front of the bus or drink from the same fountains as Whites.”
“Jim Crow?” I repeated. “Jim Crow. Where is the Jim Crow?”
“Kansas. Floyd and them were all born in Kansas.”
If Floyd “and them” were all born in Kansas, that meant that my Uncle Allen, Floyd’s younger brother, had been born there too, and that he had lived with this Jim Crow.
“Is Kansas in Canada?” I asked nervously.
“No, oh no,” my mother said. “We don’t have that kind of thing here. Kansas is in the States. Allen and Floyd and them never went to the movie houses when they were kids, not because they didn’t believe in it, but because nobody was going to tell them that they had to sit up in the balcony or at the back. They came to Canada to get away from that, and they figure they’re not going to tell their kids to stand by while anyone calls them ‘n****r’ either.”
My mother was clearly quite agitated by Mr. Leavitt’s call. I knew that she would repeat the entire conversation, with some embellishment, to her sisters Pearl and Edie on the telephone later that evening.
As for me, I was relieved to learn that Kansas was not in Canada. Here was yet another story, another horrific tale of life in “The States,” fuelling my growing belief that I was lucky to have been born in Canada.
Only short days before Mr. Leavitt’s call, I had learned that my grandparents, my mother’s father and mother, had also once lived in America.
The discovery came to me when I asked my mother to explain why my grandpa was White, yet his brother, Uncle Buster, was Black.
My grandfather was something less than five feet, ten inches tall. He had grey eyes, he wore glasses over his long, narrow nose and he was light-skinned.
He had been called George Washington Smith at birth, but upon joining the Canadian Army in 1918, he revealed the full extent of his embarrassment over the name and lied to his commanding officer, saying that his middle initial stood for Willis. Thereafter, he was known as George Willis Smith and that is how I knew him.
I believe he possessed an average build, although it is difficult to be certain as he always dressed in loose clothing, in particular a pair of grey-beige pants and a yellow shirt.
He had a deep voice and a low, rolling, rumbling laugh. He began most sentences with the phrase, “Well, ya take.” He called his five sons “Son” and his four daughters “Daughter” and he sometimes called me “Granddaughter.”
He would say, “Well, ya take, granddaughter, I don’t yodel when big girls (referring to my grandmother, who was singing in the kitchen) are listenin’. I only yodel for special small girls.”
He was born in Chandler, Oklahoma, on October 31st, 1897. When I say that he was light-skinned, I mean that his skin colour was indistinguishable from that of any White person.
That is why, in 1963 when I was seven years old, I asked my mother how he could be White and his brother be Black.
She turned and stared at me. “Your Grandpa is not White.”
“He is,” I said.
I went to the china cabinet and took the photograph of my grandparents with their children taken on the occasion of their fortieth wedding anniversary. Carefully, I took it to my mother and placed it in her hands.
My mother took the picture and brushed it gently, wiping away imaginary dust.
“He has very fair skin, honey, but he isn’t a White man. What he would say if he knew his grandchildren thought so!” She was very amused and continued, “You see, just look at his hair.”
I looked, but seeing nothing remarkable about his metallic-grey, brushed-back hair, did not speak.
“You’re not going to find any White man on earth with hair like that,” she said. “Daddy has him some bad hair.”
“Bad” was how she described any head of hair, like my brother Richard’s or my cousin Sharon’s, that was tight and nappy.
She frequently caused me considerable grief by comparing my hair with my sister’s, whose loose and supple hair qualified as “good hair.”
I continued to gaze glumly at the photograph in my mother’s hand. I was embarrassed at having been wrong about my grandfather. There he sat, beside my dark-skinned grandmother, to whom all along I thought he had been blissfully and interracially married.
“Grandma is Black,” I finally said.
“Uhhm hmm, no one would ever mistake your grandmother for White. Daddy and Mama used to run into trouble when they went back to the States. If Daddy wears a hat, you see, he can’t lay claim to his heritage. He used to wonder why nobody bothered him when he went into the White areas.
“Once, Mama and Daddy went to Oklahoma to see Mom’s relatives. They’d been shopping and made plans to meet in a restaurant for lunch. Daddy got there first, took a table and told the waiter that he was waiting for his wife. He didn’t take his hat off until he sat down. When Mama got there she joined Daddy at his table, but no one came to take their order. The waiter walked all around them, just like they weren’t there. He acted like he was deaf when Daddy said ‘Excuse me.’
“Finally a person came from the kitchen and whispered, ‘I’m sorry, but we won’t be able to serve you today.’
“Daddy was shocked. He was a young boy when they left the States and had forgotten what it was like there. He really got angry. He stood up and said, ‘You sure were planning to serve me before I took my hat off.’
“He started to go toward the man, but Mama stopped him. ‘No George, let’s just get our things and go,’ she said. ‘We don’t need for you to land up in jail down here.’ Mama and Daddy got out of there and shook the dust of that place off of their feet. Daddy’s never gone back again, never again.”
Knowing my grandparents to be the gentle, lovely people that they were, I couldn’t imagine what kind of madness would cause them to be treated in such a manner. I began to fear the very words whenever I heard someone refer to “The States.” I vowed that I, like my grandfather, would not bother to darken America’s doorstep.
Thinking it over now, it is easy for me to see what would have been the most difficult thing about the Oklahoma experience for my grandfather. To walk away from a man who had insulted his wife by refusing to serve her would have been contrary to his principles. He believed that among his functions, one of his “jobs” was to protect his wife. It was up to him to see that life provided her the ordinary dignities that she deserved.
Following the conversation with my mother that day, I sat down to write my grandparents a letter. I did not mention the story that my mother had told me. I mentioned that I had recently had my tonsils removed, that we would be, as usual, travelling to Winnipeg to see them during the Easter break from school, and that I no longer wept when my mother washed my hair.