By Lisan Jutras
About 10 years ago, I found myself taking the St Clair streetcar through a rainy autumnal haze to a church near Old Weston Road. I wore a grey dress and my good shoes and I was alone and I was going to see a concert by Donnie and Darryl, the Gospel Midgets.
I was glad I dressed up because the vibe was pretty formal. Underneath the cross that hung outside the church, casting a neon reflection of the words JESUS SAVES onto the wet pavement below, a crowd was massing. I showed myself into the church and took a seat among families dressed up, bald dads with maroon shirts and matching handkerchiefs carrying little girls in layers of lace, moms in bright suits and shiny pumps, grannies in yellow silk and Mrs. Doubtfire glasses. The church got more and more full until every seat was taken. There had to be 500 people in there. Even after the pews were filled, people stood at the back of the room.
And everyone was black. Except me.
I felt awkward being white and alone. I imagined someone might feel suspicious of my motives for being there, but Christianity these days being what it is, it was more likely they were just happy to have a new adherent.
Only, I wasn’t. I was firmly unreligious. I really was there to see Donnie and Darryl.
Okay, they were midgets, but I swear there was nothing ironic about my interest. I was obsessed with gospel music. I couldn’t explain the way it made me feel… it was something beyond words. When I heard a truly good gospel song (and any measure of its worth was taken entirely by my heart), I felt too full of emotion to have much in the way of thought. Whenever I heard the raw frenzy of “This Is a Holy Church” on Sacred Steel Guitar, it was like my heart was the church and it was full of people dancing and going berserk with the spirit of the Lord. When I heard “Mary Don’t You Weep,” on Aretha’s gospel album, I’d picture myself running super fast, or maybe even floating, with a pushing feeling inside my chest, and I’d find myself crying.
The only thing better than listening to those albums was seeing gospel live. It seemed everyone around me was totally there, totally present, and they were able to do all the things I’d feel weird doing… wave their arms in the air, or cry, or dance, or even just go off, with the spasming and the ranting in tongues. Donnie and Darryl, who performed old school gospel, indistinguishable from a certain strain of ’60s R & B, tore the roof off the sucker. There was no way I could sit still. Alone or no, I made my way to the back to the church so I could stand and clap and, yes, dance.
Yet whenever the preacher started talking about the blood of God, and sinners, or even referenced Bible stories, I’d start getting uncomfortable. The worst was when, in some services, the preacher would say things like “If you’re not a true believer, show yourself out of the church.” I’d have silent, legalistic arguments with myself about whether I qualified as a “true believer” if I seemed to be having some sort of ecstatic experience that happened to not be focused around Jesus, but rather around how Jesus made other people feel.
What was happening to me? My affinity for gospel seemed part of a larger issue, one which is so ridiculous, it is hard even now to admit to it. The issue was that I felt part black.
A problematic statement, to be sure, and for so many reasons. As Jon Robson noted in an earlier post, it seems like white people sure do like to piggyback on other cultures, in a bid to find a sense of belonging, maybe, and/or in order to alleviate their white guilt. I noticed these people too, and I didn’t like what I saw, their alpaca ponchos or ooky white-person dreads, so I tried really hard not to act culturally orphaned. I didn’t hang posters of MLK or Malcolm X on my walls. I didn’t form awkward, forced friendships with black people. I went to Afrofest once and refused to get a head wrap even though my friend was telling me it would be cool.
As a white, mainstream, mostly Anglo-Canadian, I felt I didn’t have much going for me, culturally. Some people get really into their Irish or Scottish heritage, but that wasn’t for me. I hated the Highland Games. I felt oppressed by plaid, and the Scottish thistle emblem seemed appropriately dour and prickly. Riverdance and Braveheart made me cringe. Celtic music was pure poison. Although one-quarter French-Canadian, I could only speak French because of high school, and therefore, I couldn’t understand Joual. I also couldn’t stomach all the meat pies that Franco-Canadian pride entailed. The culture that I most wanted to be mine was black.
(Just to clarify: “Black” in this case means something close to African-American. I’m aware there are lots and lots of people who could conceivably be called “black,” from Somali to Venezuelan, but it was a certain, relatively specific version of blackness that resonated with me.)
Now, I can imagine how this looks from the outside, and it isn’t good. My own step-brother, born and raised in tha 613, yo, went through a heavy phase of wearing huge shirts and baggy b-ball pants and using “ghetto” as an all-purpose adjective. It was pretty ghastly, although anthopologically compelling.
In my defense, I had no delusions about thinking I understood how it felt to function as a black person, whether in this day and age or any other. There was just no way for me to know what that felt like, no matter how many hours of the 1987 civil-rights documentary Eyes on the Prize I watched. I wasn’t about to start calling black people “brother” and “sister” and thinking that I grokked their struggles. It was my secret, and one which I still consider wildly embarrassing. (To draw an imperfect analogy, I can just imagine what I would think if a man I knew was really, really into the women’s movement and said he felt “part woman.”)
The thing is, I didn’t have any friendships with black people partly because I didn’t actually know any black people. So, like a magpie grabbing bits and pieces of history and culture, I fashioned an idea of “blackness” and found permission there to feel things I wouldn’t otherwise.
You know how, when you perceive cultural differences, you give certain people a pass that you wouldn’t grant anyone else? If you’re aiming your elbows for my ribs when you’re getting on the streetcar, you better be a 200-year-old Chinese woman, or else there’s going to be trouble. Black people are allowed to get away with all kinds of shit, in my books, that white people are not.
A partial list of things black people are allowed to do
- Be super, super religious
- Recite dub poetry
- Wear those sunglasses that are a bunch of plastic slats like Venetian blinds
- Throw around the words “goddess” and “womb”
- Put wind-chime sounds in music
- Have conspiracy theories about the government
But here was the thing: not only was this made-up idea of “blackness,” but I sensed this adulation was a thing that only worked if I was on the outside. If I were black, I’d probably feel about it the way I do about feeling white now: whatevs. I created a thing and then I loved it, but I could only love it by being on the outside of it. Basically, put like that, the whole thing seems nuts. It was easier, and, in some odd way, made more sense to just imagine that I’d been black in a past life. That summed up the feeling of being on the outside, wistfully looking in, more than anything rational.
The whole thing was a construct that felt absolutely real to me, which was, I suppose, how the believers at a gospel concert felt. Maybe, in this regard, we had more in common than I originally thought.
Lisan Jutras is an editor at The Globe and Mail and a writer who seems to like putting herself in uncomfortable situations.