Guest Post: I Am Not The Next Anyone by Christelle Saint-Julien
"I’d rather be the next someone but I can’t be that because the ones before me where not seen"
- Christelle Saint-Julien
I Am Not The Next Anyone
Thoughts on a personal experience of local erasure
© Christelle Saint-Julien 2019
I was told I could be anything. So, I became an artist. I was born in Montreal in 1991 and I spent all my life living here. I like to think of my hometown as a city-state; it is it’s own entity within a province, a country. Upon traveling and always coming back, I realized that this feeling that I had about my place of birth and life had a lot to do with the city’s multiculturalism. Montreal has this way of nesting many different cultures. It is visible and palpable in a way that is inextricable from the city’s identity and offering, a hub as much as a home to a mixed population, both marginalized and privileged.
I attended Concordia University full-time from the fall of 2010 until I graduated in the Spring of 2013. This experience was formative as it should be, but I walked out more disheartened, with questions and debt than anything else. Such feelings made me quietly swerve away from the post-graduate degree road, bidding goodbye to what had been a long time dream of mine. For some reason, I just couldn’t find my place in school. And yet, as a young graduate, I had to go through the obstacle Black artists go through. Counting in years, time went on as I slowly unpacked these feelings. A memorable moment was a discussion with a dear friend and fellow black Concordia alum. The class that brought us together was the only course taught by a black teacher that I attended to complete my degree. I owed a lot to that teacher, I knew that already. She opened up doors of a place I did not know yet existed, a literary world that was not white. As my identity was still forming, this impacted the younger version of myself into the writer I am today.
In 2015, two years after I left Concordia, I stumbled on a trailer for the feature documentary Ninth Floor, by filmmaker Mina Shum. I hastily Googled the subject matter and I bought a ticket for a screening at Cinéma Du Parc. It occurred to me that never in my time at Concordia University, or living in this city, was the Sir George Williams affair mentioned to me. I had never heard of it.
It is not new that here, in Montreal, exists a blatant problem of representation, along with systemic and historical incidents of racism that remain absent from both our textbooks and the general discourse. But we know that culture and history are intricately linked and shape each other.
Although Black Canadians are the largest visible minority group, forming 10% of the city’s population, Black narratives are not part of the cultural landscape.
We can cite obvious example such as the embarrassing 375e celebrations, the SLAV debacle, tales from the local music scene (let’s talk about the rap scene for a moment), or simply by taking a stroll in the Salon du Livre. There is more.
Integration is an odd concept. Of course, it was not created by those who needed to be accepted in. if you can’t conform to the standards (white, euro-centric), well, you are not in. And here, it’s very hard to carry a double identity.
By these means, contributing to society means two different things. You will participate in capitalism, pay your taxes and your dues while your skin colour determines what you may or may not be able to do. And if public recognition is ever awarded to you, you will be tagged as an “agent for change” or some other epithet. As if it is what a person of colour should aspire to be, instead of just wanting to be themselves. I’d rather be the next someone. But I can’t be that, because the ones that came before me were not seen. So, will I get a breakthrough? I might, but I’ll be quickly forgotten, discreetly pushed back to the margin where I’ve been told I belong.
The public eye is segregated. The “know your place” mentality is still culturally enforced. Just like the Sir George Williams affair, an event that does not belong to collective memory nor popular culture.
Another layer of this erasure is how it interferes with our capacity to reach out and support one another. I’m always both shocked and relieved to meet new fellow black artists living in the this city, and I shouldn’t be. If we don’t know about each other, about ourselves, it’s hard to carry on or to lead by example. Everything feels like it always has yet to be done. Breakthroughs keep happening. When will we be able to just be?
However, this is considered a non-issue. Because according to the ruling majority making history and culture, it will not get better because it’s already fine.