Reflections from the Swamp
Richard van Duyvendyk

Dear Reader,

Happy recent Valentine’s Day! A great day to reach out to others and let them know we love them. So is every other day of the year. This is Black History Month. This is a story about love and the first Black person I ever met.

 

 

Sam Cooke

On a sunlit winter’s carnival day, I was skating around the outdoor rink, counterclockwise with a hundred other kids. The music of “It’s a Wonderful World by Sam Cooke, drifted over us from the PA system. I was skating with Betty. No girl on the planet was as beautiful as Betty. Having Betty acknowledge her undying love for you was like finding the Holy Grail, the Lost City of Gold, and the Ark of the Covenant all rolled into one. No, it was better than that. While we were doing our rounds, we had no idea that Sam Cooke, who sang the song, was Black or that he had been murdered in his L.A. hotel room during the previous year. (1964) All I knew was that the song we heard was written about us, and my love for Betty. We were skating through a wonderful world on Valentine’s Day.

Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book,
Don’t know much about the French I took
But I do know that I love you,
And I know that if you love me, too,
What a wonderful world this would be

Sam Cooke (It’s a Wonderful World)

Although our neighbourhood had a smattering of immigrants from all over Europe, I had never seen a Black person. At ten years of age, I was riding on a Calgary city bus with my school buddies when Eddy yelled out,”Look there’s an African man on the street!” We all moved over to the left side of the bus, and pressed our faces against the glass. I’m surprised the bus didn’t tip over. Sure enough, there stood a tall Black man, with a yellow construction hat working on a road crew with several others. He acknowledged our rude behaviour with a smile and a wave. Later that year, I’d actually meet a Black person.

As a child, I collected stamps. At first, I collected Canadian and Dutch stamps obtained from mail delivered to our home. Later, I asked other immigrant kids for stamps from their mail. By the age of ten, I’d listen for foreign accents on the bus, muster up the courage to talk to the passengers, and soon found myself receiving stamps from all over the world.

I had to transfer buses while going to school which usually involved a 15 minute wait. One day, I saw something new. An elderly Black man was carrying packages into a nearby building. He wore a fedora like hat, gold framed thick coke bottle glasses, and a wide genuine smile. The packages had beautiful stamps from Jamaica. He was the first one to say “Hi”.

I soon learned that his name was Mr. Lewis and that he worked for a Jamaican business of some sort. The stamps were still in pounds sterling, but Jamaica had recently become independent with a new flag that Mr. Lewis was very proud of. He saved all the stamps for me and gave them to me when we met. His Jamaican accent was so foreign that it seemed almost like another language altogether. Mr. Lewis was the first Black person I had ever spoken with. His generosity and character opened a whole new world to me on that street corner. The universe was expanding.

Who were the first humans? Mitochondrial DNA (found only in women) changes very slowly over time. All women, and therefore all men, are related to one of the oldest archaeological finds of humans discovered in the Rift Valley in Africa. Palaeontologists affectionately call her Mitochondrial Eve. In short, all of us are Africans under whatever skin colour we have now. Humankind slowly walked out of the Rift Valley, into the broader world, and through relative isolation formed all the races and cultures we know today. Humanity, although incredibly diverse in culture, is all one. We are one spirit; we all have the same ancient-grandmother, Mitochondrial Eve.

Like Eve, Black history is often lost in the mists of time. By observing Black History Month, Blacks can celebrate their history, music, and multiple cultures, while those of us who aren’t Black can learn about a part of our community of which we may have little awareness. Contemporary issues, such as police brutality and racial profiling are real concerns that require actions by the whole community, and not just from Blacks. Compared to the Freedom Marches in the 1960’s, the recent Black Lives Matter protests included significant support from the non-black communities all around the world. We are moving, however slowly, in the right direction towards justice. It’s not time to pack up the march and go home. The march is always just beginning.

Just as Eve is our ancestral mother, all of us share a collective consciousness, which includes our own history, Black history, Indigenous history, and Canadian and Colonial histories. Together we make up the story of our country and all the good, bad, and ugly parts of it. By celebrating together, we strengthen the bonds that move us forward towards a country that truly values all of its beautiful and diverse parts. We are not just individual trees in a forest; we are all one forest in a tree.

Sam Cooke, might not have know much about history, but he knew that love was way more important. Sometimes while we’re skating around in circles, let’s listen to that voice coming from the heavens and move hand in hand towards that Wonderful World Sam was singing about.