These were the hateful words directed to us from a hillbilly dairy farmer who forcefully uttered them as he repeatedly poked his rigid skinny index finger deep into the centre of my poor older brothers chest.
We had just moved from a suburb of the City of Winnipeg into an area only half an hour away in rural Manitoba. My mothers’ love of horses required the move so that we could secure an acreage, fenced corrals and barns for her beloved animals.
Our new home was situated in the municipality of Rosser…….approximately fifty acres of mature Oak trees complete with meadows, barns, chicken coops and rarely travelled gravel roads.
As untamed young boys…..we were extremely excited by the prospects of exploring the wide open spaces….the forest, the gravel pits and swimming holes. We were elated by our new surroundings and were excited about this new beginning.
We had a great summer that year…..running wild in the bush, swimming in the gravel pits and enjoying the fresh country air….it was a significant change in lifestyle…..we were country boys and I loved it.
Unfortunately, summer holidays don’t last forever…..it was time to get back to school.
That meant fresh haircuts, new clothes and school supplies…….it was a time of great financial stress for my mother who constantly struggled to make ends meet……no easy task with five children and limited resources.
With household income barely keeping us above the poverty line we didn’t have much…..no quads, snow machines or other toys…..we had the basics….plenty of food and water……and thats all we needed.
I don’t recall if it was the first day of school or if it took a few days for word to get around about my family. Regardless, the confrontation was one that I will never forget.
When you live in the Country one of the perks is that the school bus comes directly to your home……the driver stops at the end of your driveway and away you go.
I recall it was a warm and sunny afternoon…..we had just stepped off the school bus and were standing in the driveway.
The dairy farmer pulled into the yard and jumped out of his pick up truck. He was a tall skinny man wearing suspenders and nondescript farmer grey pants and shirt. He had one of those bad hillbilly hair cuts and a rough looking stubbly beard.
He was completely irate…..
His gait was quick, his anger and aggression boiling over…..his verbal assault on my brothers and me stinging our ears.
Our lives forever impacted with the knowledge that we were “niggers.” A word that was foreign to me before this day. I really didn’t understand it right away…..it took some time to soak in. I knew that it meant that we were “less than” but I failed to completely understand the context or how it applied to me.
It would all become clear to me some time after this incident…..
My father was the product of a biracial marriage. His mother born of German decent and his father, a direct descendent of African American slaves.
I would learn that being the son of biracial parents was no picnic…..my father experienced rejection from both the white and black communities. Thats the reality……you aren’t black enough for the black community and you certainly weren’t white enough for the white community.
It was lucky for the hillbilly that my father was frequently absent from our home as he worked up to three jobs just to keep food on our table.
You see, my father was a very large and powerful man with some anger issues of his own. Standing around 6’2” tall and weighing around 350 pounds…..he cast a significant shadow. Add in the fact that he had massive biceps and a chest that was as thick around as an oak tree and you get the point…… he was a formidable opponent for any mortal man.
Had he been home at the time of the “incident” I have little doubt that he would have pulled that skinny farmers limbs off and beat him senseless with them.
Our new social status deeply affected me…..I became hyper aware of attitudes, perceptions and the power of words.
I recall feeling sickened when the boys in my school played the popular game they called “bush nigger.” It was essentially a game of hide and seek that required one boy to assume the role of the “bush nigger.”
The other boys gave him a head start and started a countdown before they pursued him into the bush on the school property.
Once the countdown was over…..the group of boys ran into the bush to find him and when they did…..they “roughed” him up by kicking, stomping and punching him. It was all intended to be in good fun and no one ever got seriously hurt.
These were different times…..a time when Brazil nuts were commonly referred to as “nigger toes” and black licorice candies were called “nigger babies.”
I remember how angry these offensive terms started to make me feel. Instant rage burning inside of me….violent reactions so difficult to suppress.
Like every other hurtful or negative experience I’ve had in my life……I eventually find a way to create a positive outcome.
The exposure to childhood racism prepared me for a career in law enforcement that would span over twenty-five (25) years. Policing a community with a significant Aboriginal population that presented many issues related to race and racism. In the wake of the JJ Harper shooting…..these issues dominated every conversation.
Relations between the Aboriginal Community and the Winnipeg Police Service sunk to extraordinary lows.
Call after call…….Aboriginal citizens accusing me of killing “JJ”….calling me stereotypical derogatory names like “Pig” and others. Aboriginal offenders echoing these comments and using their race to make excuses for their criminal behavior. Criminal Code arrests for serious crimes…..outrageous drunken, violent and assaultive behaviour and the all to familiar tired accusation “You only arrested me because I’m an Indian.”
During my career I arrested hundreds of assholes……….assholes do not have a race, a color, a religion or a sexual preference. I can assure you of one thing…….I never, ever arrested anyone because the were an “Indian”.
At times it was difficult to suppress the anger the hostile remarks conjured up inside of me…….but I always knew that it wasn’t me they were targeting….it was my uniform. I understood the anger…..I knew where it came from…..the feelings of marginalization, victimization, hatred and resentment all familiar to me. Don’t get me wrong……I don’t excuse the behaviour…..I just understood it better than most. Labelling anyone, a group or organization, such as the Winnipeg Police Service, as racist is simply wrong. The Police Service is a diverse ever changing organization that reflects the changing demographics of our society now more than ever.
It’s time for Aboriginal people to recognize this evolution and to participate in the healing process.
Racism, stereotyping and bigotry is never right or justified…….not even when it is used by those who are visible minorities or socially disadvantaged people in our society.
That hillbilly dairy farmer provided me with extremely valuable life lessons for which I am grateful.
That doesn’t stop me from closing my eyes every now and then and visiting the child who stood there frozen in fear as my older brother retreated with that hillbillies finger sticking him in the chest……
In my vision, I reach out and grab him by the neck……and as I start to squeeze …….I clench my teeth and ask him “Nigger….who you calling nigger?”
See photo in slide show of my Great Grandmother Ellen Jane Lawson…..daughter of Henry Dangerfield Lawson – escaped African American Slave from Virginia, U.S…..
Check out my family history on the Black History in Guelph & Wellington County on line exhibit…..http://guelph.ca/museumsites/BlackHistory/histories.htm#The%20Jewell%20Family