For this month’s Feminist LunchHour, the Blackwood Gallery and the women and gender studies (WGS) department at UTM hosted author Robyn Maynard, in conversation with WGS professor Beverly Bain and sculptor Sheena Hoszko, largely in celebration of Maynard’s new book, Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present.
Bain began with a discussion and presentation of some of her most recent work, drawing from Christina Sharpe’s book, In the Wake: On blackness and being, to discuss black life and black death in the context of care. Sharpe’s book argues against the normalization of black death and how, instead, we should demand that every single black life matters and that premature deaths should not be treated as an expected occurrence.
“Christina Sharpe, in her book, uses weather as a metaphor for the pervasiveness of anti-blackness, and tracks and traces phenomena that devastatingly affect black people anywhere and everywhere,” explained Bain.
She discussed living in the wake of slavery. “In the wake, the semiotics of the slave ship continue—from the forced movements of the slave to the forced movement of the migrant and the refugee, to the regulation of black folks in North America.” The wake according to Bain, is the part of the ocean where you can see disturbance has occurred due to a ship careening through it, or due to someone jumping into the water as many slaves did. “They surrendered to the sea, unable to contemplate a breathable life in white captivity,” Bain states.
“It is wake as consciousness that Sharpe stresses, the wake as care work, care as an aspiration, as a way of keeping breath in the body, metaphorically infusing the body with air, to observe and mediate this unsurvival,” she continued.
As Bain described, when Sofia Cook was shot but survived, there was surprise that she lived—her breathing was a surprise. Sharpe’s work is “meant to create new possibilities where impossibilities exist, [the] kind of work we must do, not as a resolution to black abjection, but that one might approach black being in the wake as a form of consciousness and affirmation.”
As an example of putting breath back into the body, the WGS professor brought forward the example of Sherona Hall’s death and how her life was properly memorialized. “We wouldn’t let them mute her bravery. We gave her the type of huge memorial that brought her into the room, into her full self, as a breathable human being, the kind of work that she did, her life as a queer activist feminist, the way she lived, into the room and within this world. We kept breath in her black body even though breathing in the conventional sense was no more. Life will not cease, even if metaphorically,” Bain remembered.
Sheena Hoszko, also an anti-prison organizer in Montreal, talked about her art installation in CCIT at UTM.
The installation which ran from January 13, 2018 to February 18, 2018, depicted the real-life measurements outlined in the Correctional Service Canada Accommodation Guidelines of a Mental Healthcare Facility, which was discussed in The Medium last week. “I see my work as the beginning of conversations and not the end,” said Hoszko. She also briefly discussed the church’s role in establishing the first prisons, intrinsically linking them with slavery and colonialism. “Those with mental health problems, due to a lack of resources, are disproportionately imprisoned […]. Parallel to this, symptoms of mental illness increase when people are incarcerated, thus the notion of care in a carceral context is an oxymoron.”
Robyn Maynard prefaced her discussion with one statement: “If black women were free, we would all be free.” While that phrase has been used commonly, as she said, we need to remember that it is not a catchphrase, but a statement with the kind of depth that should make us reflect on the position of black women.
The premise of her talk had one strong underlying principle: that we, as society, need “to expand our lens” because it is inherently narrow when we talk about racism. According to Maynard, black women face many forms of oppression simultaneously, but it is a “tendency” of social justice movements to conceive of racism as “being quite straightforward.”
She specifically mentioned the well-known issue of carding and how the crisis is framed as being around black men. Black women are expected to work within this already set-out framework, but “gender, class, ability, age and background, all influence the way black people experience anti-black racism,” Maynard explained.
Maynard reiterated that this does not mean fighting for black men’s “life over death” shouldn’t be pushed for, but that we need to “take away the surprise of black women [also] experiencing these racisms.” She continued, “There is a seamless web of state violence that impacts so many other parts of our lives, including care institutions, because they are also experienced as sites of harm for black lives.”
Black women throughout history, as Maynard highlighted, have been especially vulnerable to sexual violence. This is important because Canada’s history of slavery is generally considered less violent because plantations were not as extensive but, as she said, it “allowed for a different racialized violence.”
When they were made to work in white households, there was “constant scrutiny and surveillance,” said Maynard, which has continued to the present day. They were, as Maynard referred, demonized as bad mothers yet made to take care of white children and heavily observed. “We think of racialized surveillance in public spaces but never in private realms. These are the other kinds of unfreedoms for black women,” she commented. Black motherhood “has been devalued since the era of slavery,” said Maynard, and gave the example of Lydia Jackson who was tricked into signing a contract that made her indentured. As she recounted, Jackson was abused and tortured even in her last month of pregnancy. One would imagine that because motherhood is elevated constantly, it would remain constant across intersectionality, but “black women’s motherhood has never been protected or seen as something that needs to be protected,” Maynard pointed out.
As Maynard emphasized, “Black women’s experiences are constantly erased” and have been since slavery to the present day. For black men, it was carding. A September 24, 2015 article by the Toronto Star reported that black men are three times more likely to be carded by Peel Police than white men. For black women, “Prostitution laws were used for unaccounted moves in public spaces,” mentioned Maynard. During slavery, the targeting was explicit but even with the abolishment, as she explained, targeting has still very much continued. According to Maynard, in 1990, when Sara Dorsy was raped by six white men, they were simply told to “behave themselves,” demonstrating that the conviction level for white men who raped black women was extremely low.
Regarding incarceration and the institutional policing of black women, Maynard described how in the 1990s, black pregnant women were not given the same quantity of supplements in custody as white pregnant women. Similarly, Maynard referenced an Ontario Human Rights Commission report published in 2003 which conveyed that black mothers are on the receiving end of continued scrutiny when advocating for their children in schools and get regular phone calls from the police checking in on them. “This demonstrates the surveillance of black women in a way that we don’t think about,” she explained.
“Abolition isn’t only about removing institutions structured around black death, but structuring them around allowing black people to live, to breathe,” Maynard said, referencing Bain’s discussion on putting breath back into black lives. Maynard concluded by saying: “Memorializing them is very important. Just fighting isn’t the same as making space and making life. Memory is such a political choice and how we remember it.”