Saturday, October 20, 2012


Now that you have touched the women you have struck a rock, you have dislodged a boulder, you will be crushed! Song from the 1950s Women’s anti-passbook struggle in South Africa
On October 27, 1955 approximately 2,000 women took part in a demonstration against the White minority regime which had seized power in South Africa. The women were demonstrating against the passbook laws that the White supremacist regime had announced the month before (September 1955) that it would begin instituting in January 1956. Beginning in 1950 the regime had been planning this “more efficient” pass book system which would further restrict the lives of African women. Restricting the movement of Africans in South Africa was nothing new in 1955. Since the first group of White people arrived in the area their aim was to steal and occupy the land and use Africans as unpaid labour. They enslaved Africans and after slavery was abolished in 1834 the abuse of Africans and the restriction of their movement continued. The stringent control of Africans by the government of the White settler class made it possible to manipulate Africans into providing cheap labour for White businesses and households.
In 1913 the passing of the “Black Land Act” allocated 7% of the land to the African majority and the remainder (93%) was covetously claimed by the White minority. Africans were therefore forced to become migrant labour in their own land. In 1913 the regime first floated the idea of African women carrying passes in the Orange Free State of South Africa. The women protested and the regime caught up in the melee of the first European tribal conflict (1914-1918) was not in a position to strictly enforce that law. At the end of the so-called “Great War” the authorities tried to reinstate the law to a very resistant opposition by African women led by Charlotte Maxeke, first president of the Bantu Women's League (changed to African National Congress Woman’s League in 1948) who organised and coordinated passive resistance in 1918 and 1919. In 1922 the regime conceded that African women did not have to carry passes. The victory was not total because country wide legislation was introduced which curtailed the rights of African women. The “Native Urban Areas Act No 21 of 1923” restricted African women’s entry into urban areas allowing only African women who were domestic workers into those areas. The urban areas were designated “White” reserved for White people where African men in cities or towns were at all times to carry pass books failing which they would be arrested and “deported” to a rural area.
The Natives (Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents) Act, Act No 67 of 1952 required that all Africans older than 16 carry a pass book if they were outside of their restricted 7% land space and in a White area. This meant that since the jobs were in White areas every African would need to have a pass book at all times if they were employed. The pass included a photograph, fingerprints, place of origin, employment record, tax payments and encounters with the police. It was a criminal offence not to have a passbook. The protests against the pass laws requiring women to carry the passbooks resurfaced with renewed energy in 1952 and continued throughout the 1950s.
The two largest demonstrations in October 1955 and August 1956 were organized by the Federation of South African Women (FSAW) which was founded in 1954. In her 2006 published book “Women's Organizations and Democracy in South Africa: Contesting Authority (Women in African and the Diaspora)” Shireen Hassim writes: “The FSAW was formed at a meeting attended by the ANC Women’s League, the Communist Part, and trade unions. The federation was a nonracial coordinating body to which different groups affiliated. The ANC remained the ultimate source of authority. In 1955 the federation launched an independent militant campaign against the extension of passes to women that would regulate their urban mobility.” On August 9, 1956 there were 20,000 women demonstrating against the pass laws, 10 times the number of the October 27, 1955 demonstration. Twenty thousand women stood singing “Now that you have touched the women you have struck a rock, you have dislodged a boulder, you will be crushed!” as four women took signed petitions to the authorities. Describing the August 9, demonstration in her 2007 published book “Women in South African History. Basus'iimbokodo, Bawel'imilambo / They remove boulders and cross rivers” Nomboniso Gasa writes: “The great crowd of women, 20,000 having secured about 100,000 signatures – women who dared to go where no one had gone before. The sheer size of the march and the spirit of the women – women from different backgrounds and social strata (some had gone without even informing their husbands of where they were going, for fear of being stopped or exposing the men to danger) - make the march larger than life in the collective narrative psyche of feminist activists in South Africa.” In 1957 several thousand women were arrested for demonstrating against the passbook laws. In post-apartheid South Africa August 9 is designated Women’s Day.
The various demonstrations by the women of South Africa did not in itself bring an end to the passbook laws. The passbook laws were not repealed until June 1986. It is estimated that over the life of the passbook laws more than 17 million Africans had been arrested for “violation” of the laws. Throughout the 20th century African women in South Africa resisted the policies of the White supremacist settler colonizer regime during British and Boer domination. The women led struggle against the pass laws sparked a mass movement during the 1950s that encouraged later struggles which eventually brought an end to White domination in South Africa.
In spite of racism, patriarchy and sexism African women on the continent and in the Diaspora have been involved in every struggle of the race from slavery, to colonization, occupation of their land and everything in between. During October Women’s History Month in Canada remember our sheroes those who are with us and those who have transitioned.


The Thanksgiving weekend has passed and we had so much for which to be thankful. Two of the most important people in my life celebrated their birthday. My grandchildren Taiwo and Kehinde are a year older and enjoying kindergarten for which I am very thankful. Appreciating school is so important for our children who face many obstacles in their adult lives if they are not educated. The Thanksgiving weekend also brought opportunities to connect with Guyanese elder Eusi Kwayana who spoke on Saturday night at New College at the University of Toronto. On Tuesday, October 2, it was my honour and pleasure to interview Elder Kwayana for Tuesday Word of Mouth at Elder Kwayana is a fount of knowledge about the history of Guyana. He arrived in Canada the week before the Thanksgiving weekend and spoke at St. John the Divine Anglican Church in Scarborough about the Village Movement. Researching the Village Movement of Guyana is one of my passions so I attended the session. Unfortunately I had to leave before the session was finished because not being familiar with the area and travelling by TTC I needed to leave before dark. Within the time I was there I learned much more about the Village Movement and Elder Kwayana added information about villages with which I am familiar. He spoke of the villages on the Courentyne in Berbice including the villages where my father and many of his ancestors were born (Courtland, Fyrish and Gibraltar.) He also spoke of the villages where my mother and many of her people were born (Brothers, Sisters and Friends) on the East Bank of the Berbice River. After slavery was abolished in 1834 and before the final emancipation of 1838 there was an apprenticeship period imposed by the colonial government which compelled Africans to remain on the plantations of their former owners and work eight hours every day without pay. Any work after the forced unpaid eight hours they were paid a pittance. During this “apprenticeship” period the enterprising Africans saved the money they earned and in groups of upwards of 30 they pooled their money and bought abandoned plantations where they established villages the first of which was Victoria Village on the East Bank, Demerara. The colonial government soon took advantage of the Africans’ expressed need to own their own land and raised the price of the land. They also passed laws that restricted the number of people who could pool their money and buy these plantations in an effort to thwart the village movement. Elder Kwayana spoke about the villages that were established throughout the coastal regions and about one of the villages on the West Coast of Berbice (Lichfield) which was bought by one African person instead of a collective as with the other villages.
In a surprise turn of events during the weekend Elder Kwayana’s name came up at the National Conference of Black Lawyers (NCBL) another event I attended on the weekend. The NCBL was in town having moved their annual conference from Memphis, Tennessee to Toronto to honour the late activist lawyer Charles Roach who transitioned on Tuesday, October 2. At the NCBL conference one of the presenters was Margaret A. Burnham who is a law professor at Northeastern University. Ms Burnham has an impressive biography including representing activist and civil rights icon Angela Davis during her trial in the 1970s. In an interview with Professor Burnham on October 16 for Tuesday Word of Mouth at she told me that she has known Angela Davis since they were children growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. They were childhood friends. Ms Burnham is also the cousin of the late Guyanese Prime Minister and President the Honourable Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham. She shared a photograph of her visit to Guyana in the 1970s in which there is a very much younger Eusi Kwayana. Talk about “six degrees of separation!” What an amazing co-incidence! Apart from the coincidence of meeting an African American relative of Prime Minister Burnham who also knew Elder Kwayana the NCBL conference provided an opportunity to meet African American, African Caribbean and African Canadian activist lawyers. These lawyers are using their education and expertise to: “serve as the legal arm of the movement for Black Liberation, to protect human rights, to achieve self-determination of Africa and African Communities in the Diaspora and to work in coalition to assist in ending oppression of all peoples.” The NCBL was founded in 1968 ( when “young people of African descent in America were growing impatient with the slow pace of social change.” The organization had its beginning at the time the freedom fighting Black Panther Party members were subjected to: “police brutality, frame-ups and a vicious counter-intelligence program that targeted scores of militants for harassment, prosecution or assassination.” Not surprisingly those early members of NCBL: “began to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with rifle-toting revolutionaries.”
There remains much of that spirit in the present members who are involved in work such as ( Professor Burnham’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) which: “addresses harms resulting from the massive breakdown in law enforcement during the civil rights movement, from the 1950s to the early 1970s.” Information from the NCBL website gives information about some of the other projects in which their members are involved including: “The National Conference of Black Lawyers’ (NCBL) Michigan Chapter is responding to recently published findings by the American Civil Liberties Union that demonstrate consistent racially disproportionate suspensions and expulsions of black public school students across the state. There is also a demonstrated correlation between exclusion from school and dropout rates. Additionally there is a correlation between dropout rates and imprisonment.” The New York chapter is addressing: “The terror that is perpetrated against predominantly blacks and Latinos in the streets of New York by the police “force” should be checked at the steps of the courthouse, but it is not. We call it Judicial Obstruction of Justice because one should expect to find justice in the courtroom, but it is obstructed and further frustrated by judicial attitudes and actions.” During one session NCBL members decried what they described as the “racial violence of incarceration” against African Americans and the “manifestations of genocide from the criminalization and mass incarceration” of that community.
My Thanksgiving weekend was not complete until I saw the documentary “Akwantu: The Journey.” The 87 minute film documents the struggles of Jamaica’s Maroon community to live as free people after they fled the European plantations established on the island since Columbus lost his way to India and stumbled upon this “New World.” This is a must see film, a work of love written and directed by Roy. T. Anderson. Meticulously researched it is imperative that it is viewed and discussed in our schools as a balance to the history that is taught now. The connection of African Caribbean people to the African continent and to each other is palpable. Listening to the rhythm of the drums and watching the movement of the Maroon dancers I was struck by the similarity to African ceremonies in Guyana. We are connected as Peter Tosh sang in his song “African” Don’t care where you come from as long as you’re a Black man you’re an African. The cold Thanksgiving weekend was made warm by the opportunities to share thoughts, ideas and space with brethren and sistren.
On another note: I read in one of the Toronto daily newspapers that Jason Kenney the Canadian Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism is courting/encouraging/wooing young Irish immigrants to come and live here in the Great White North. I thought: “Wait a minute isn’t this the same government that was almost foaming at the mouth and seemed ready to chuck into the sea a group of Sri Lankan refugees fleeing persecution just two summers ago?” What is the difference here? Oh yes, now looking at the two groups I do see the difference. One group looks like Kenny, the other does not. Maybe he was thinking along the lines of the Sesame Street song: “One of these things is not like the others; one of these things does not belong.”


Coleridge Jackson had nothing to fear. He weighed sixty pounds more than his sons And one hundred pounds more than his wife. His neighbours knew he wouldn’t take tea for the fever. The gents at the poolroom walked gently in his presence. So everyone used to wonder why, when his puny boss, A little white bag of bones and squinty eyes, When he frowned at Coleridge, sneered at the way Coleridge shifted a ton of canned goods from The east wall to the warehouse all the way to the west, When that skimpy piece of man-meat called Coleridge A sorry ni—er, Coleridge kept his lips closed, sealed, jammed tight. Wouldn’t raise his eyes, held his head at a slant, Looking way off somewhere else. Everybody in the neighborhood wondered why Coleridge would come home, Pull off his jacket, take off his shoes, And beat the water and the will out of his puny little family. Excerpt from the poem “Coleridge Taylor” by Maya Angelou published October 1, 1991.
Popular and internationally well known African American author and poet Maya Angelou included the poem “Coleridge Taylor” in the anthology of poems entitled “I Shall Not Be Moved.” Angelou (born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928) has published six autobiographies which includes experiences of growing up in a segregated White supremacist southern town (Stamps, Arkansas.) In the poem “Coleridge Jackson” she has captured the pathological effect that living under a White supremacist system has on African American families. Coleridge Jackson’s violent behaviour towards his family after being subjected to his employer’s White supremacist taunts - for several hours of every day - is something even he cannot understand. Angelou writes of Coleridge Jackson’s and even the African American community’s reaction to the violence unleashed on the Jackson family: “Everybody, even Coleridge, wondered (the next day, or even that same night)” However Jackson’s employer knew exactly what was happening and why: “Everybody but the weasly little sack-of-bones boss with his envious little eyes, he knew. He always knew. And when people told him about Coldridge’s family, about the black eyes and the bruised faces, the broken bones, Lord how that scrawny man grinned.” Coleridge Jackson’s employer/tormentor delighted in keeping his employee in a state of anxiety and torment apparently enjoying the Jackson family’s plight and the power he wielded over their lives. “And the next day, for a few hours, he treated Coleridge nice. Like Coleridge had just done him the biggest old favor. Then, right after lunch, he’d start on Coleridge again. “Here, Sambo, come here. Can’t you move any faster than that? Who on earth needs a lazy ni—er?” And Coleridge would just stand there. His eyes sliding away, lurking at something else.”
Coleridge Jackson’s reaction to the White supremacist baiting to which he was subjected daily was to become violently abusive to his family. In many cases when someone is subjected to abuse their reaction is to in turn abuse those over whom they have power. Angelou’s Coleridge Jackson although fictional could be based on an actual person or a composite of several such men. Witnessing human nature and reaction to certain situations can be fascinating and sometimes scary. There are various reactions to the kind of oppression to which Coleridge Jackson was subjected. Some people fight back, some turn their anger and shame into violence against those who cannot fight back while others succumb and internalize the abuse. The late South African freedom fighter Steve Biko is credited with this statement: “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” The results of at least two experiments have demonstrated the effect of continued abuse on the psyche of the abused.
Beginning in 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (April 4, 1968) a White elementary school teacher in Iowa conducted an experiment with her students which powerfully demonstrated these effects. Although elementary school teacher Jane Elliot intended to teach her students the effects of racism on African Americans there were some “side effects” of this experiment. Elliot divided the third grade class of all White students along eye colour and ascribed negative traits to children based on eye colour. First the brown eyed children then the blue eyed children. The reaction was the same for both groups when their eye colour was designated the “undesirable” colour. The children who up to that point were fairly well behaved, co-operative and friendly with each other were fighting and bullying each other depending on which eye colour was considered superior or inferior. All this happened within a few hours of the experiment. Since then Elliot has conducted this experiment with adults with the same results (
Many people take on the role that is assigned to them by society. The other experiment that demonstrates this is the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted in 1971 by psychologist Philip Zimbardo. With 24 male university students who were paid $15.00 a day the experiment began on August 14, 1971. In less than a week the experiment had to be abandoned because even though the students were mostly White middleclass males they very quickly internalized their roles. Two of the “prisoners” were emotionally traumatized in a very short time and the “prison guards” very quickly became sadistic bullies. Some of the “prisoners” became rebellious and fought back and the entire experiment degenerated as these University students bought into the roles they were assigned for the experiment. Like Angelou’s fictional character Coleridge Jackson, the third grade students in Iowa and the university students in Zimbardo’s experiment some of us who immigrate to this country internalize the roles this society ascribes to us. We need to resist internalizing the roles that are ascribed to us in this culture, this society. We know who we are and must resist the dominant culture which includes the media redefining us. And most importantly, especially for our young people, never live down to the lowered expectations!


On September 28, 1829 African American abolitionist David Walker published “ Walker ’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America .” In his pamphlet he urged enslaved Africans to defend themselves against their enslavers. His words although written during the time when African Americans were enslaved must have resonated with later generations of African Americans who organized against White domestic terrorism. A famous quote from “Walkers Appeal” was: “The whites have had us under them for more than three centuries, murdering, and treating us like brutes. They want us for their slaves, and think nothing of murdering us in order to subject us to that wretched condition - therefore, if there is an attempt made by us, kill or be killed. Now, I ask you, had you not rather be killed than to be a slave to a tyrant, who takes the life of your mother, wife, and dear little children? Look upon your mother, wife and children, and answer God Almighty; and believe this, that it is no more harm for you to kill a man, who is trying to kill you, than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty.”
Walker was born on September 28th, 1785 in Wilmington , North Carolina to a free African woman and an enslaved African man. David Walker was born a free person because it was the law throughout North America that children inherited the status of their mother. This law ensured that Africans retained slave status because it was very rare for an African woman to gain her freedom. Most free Africans were men who were skilled in a trade, were “rented” out to work for people other than their “owners,” where they were allowed to keep part of their wages and eventually bought their freedom. There were occasions where the “master” promised that an enslaved African could buy his freedom and reneged on that promise after the unfortunate enslaved African paid the agreed sum of money. Moses Grandy whose lifestory is documented in the book “Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, Late a Slave in the United States of America,” (published 1843) was cheated by three white men after he paid each of them the agreed price for his freedom. The father of Sylvia Stark, one of the pioneer African Canadian women of British Colombia, was also cheated by his “owner” after he paid the man the agreed price for his freedom. In Ontario , the case of Peggy Pompadour who was advertised for sale along with her son Jupiter in 1806 is evidence of the children of Africans in North America inheriting the status of the mother. Peggy Pompadour was married to a free African man but she and her children were owned by Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Peter Russell and his sister Elizabeth Russell.
Even free Africans in North America were at the mercy of their White compatriots. In some states (e.g. Delaware and California ) any White person could claim that a free African was their slave and the African would not be allowed to counter that claim because they were not allowed to give evidence against a White person. In California this law was extended to include anyone who was not white being prevented from giving evidence against a White person. In 1854 the California Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a White man, George Hall in the murder of Ling Sing, a Chinese man because the three witnesses who had testified were all Chinese. The law stated that African Americans, mulattoes and Native Americans could not give evidence against White people and since Chinese were not White they were included in the group who could not testify against White people in a court of law. George Hall was set free even though he was guilty of murdering Ling SingWalker as a free African living in an American slaveholding society was therefore not entirely free. He witnessed the degradation of Africans and the injustices to which they were subjected. He wrote about the horror of witnessing an enslaved African man forced to whip his mother to death by a sadistic slaveholder. Walker eventually left the Southern state where he was born because as he said, “If I remain in this bloody land, I will not live long. I cannot remain where I must hear slaves' chains continually and where I must encounter the insults of their hypocritical enslavers.”
Walker traveled throughout the USA then settled in Boston where he opened a clothing store close to the waterfront. Many of his customers were sailors whose patronage would be very important in his most important venture. Walker became a member of organizations that denounced the enslavement of Africans in the Southern states and the discrimination to which Africans in the Northern states were subjected. He was a regular contributor to the abolitionist newspaper “Freedom’s Journal” and by the end of 1828; he had become Boston 's leading agitator against slavery.
“Walker ’s Appeal” was considered militant because of his denunciation of slavery, those who profited from it, and those who willingly accepted it. To reach his target audience, the enslaved men and women of the South, Walker relied on African American sailors who worked on ships that traveled to the southern states. Walker used his clothing business which, because of its location close to the waterfront, was patronized by sailors who bought clothing for upcoming voyages. He sewed copies of his pamphlet into the lining of sailors' clothing. Once the pamphlets reached the South, they could be distributed throughout the region.
Slaveholders already worried by the success of the Haitian Revolution were panicking because an African man had articulated what they feared most, an uprising of enslaved Africans in America . The White slave holders were not the only people who panicked when they read “ Walker ’s Appeal.” In 1829, when 50 copies of “ Walker ’s Appeal” were delivered to an African American minister in Savannah , Georgia , the minister informed the police. The police informed the governor of Georgia which led to the state legislature passing a bill making the circulation of materials that might incite slaves to riot a capital offense. The legislature also offered a reward for Walker ’s capture, $10,000 alive and $1,000 dead. Other Southern states took similar measures. Louisiana enacted a bill ordering the expulsion of all free Africans who had settled in the state after 1825. By 1830, White authorities in the Southern states had begun a campaign to suppress “ Walker ’s Appeal.” In New Orleans , four African men were arrested for owning copies and vigilantes attacked free Africans in Walker 's home town, Wilmington , North Carolina . In Savannah , Georgia , the White authorities seized dozens of copies and banned African American sailors from going ashore at the city's port. The mayor of Savannah demanded that the mayor of Boston arrest Walker and outlaw the pamphlet. White slave holders offered a $3,000 bounty for Walker 's death, and a $10,000 reward for anyone who brought him to the South alive. In June 1830, shortly after publishing the third edition of his “Appeal,” Walker was found dead on the doorstep of his home.
Walker’s words ( although written 183 years ago still resonates when the “stop and frisk” policies of the New York Police Department (which disproportionately targets African Americans) and the notorious “stand your ground laws” in several states are taken into account. In spite of the fact that America now has an African American President, African Americans like 17 year old Trayvon Martin continue to be victims of the ingrained attitude of what Walker described in his “Appeal”: as “more than three centuries, murdering, and treating us like brutes.”