Genevieve Allen Hearn
Dr. Geraldine Browning greeted me warmly at her door wearing a sparkly silver scarf and bright coral lipstick, then generously spent the next two hours telling me her life story. The tissue box was used a few times, and my knee was slapped several times in fits of laughter. Boy, this legend of a woman can tell a story!
I was invited to talk to Browning about African Heritage Month. Browning is the chair of the Valley African Nova Scotia Development Association (VANSDA), a founding member of the Black Business Initiative, a guest speaker in schools and institutions across the province, a human rights activist (although she will cringe at the use of the word ‘activist’ and claim that she simply ‘cares for people’), has been awarded the Order of Nova Scotia, received an honourary doctor of humanities degree from Acadia University. On top of all of this, Browning has a long career as a nurse while raising nine children. Once her children left home, she turned her spacious home in Gibson Woods into a bed & breakfast because she “needed something to do.” Her energy knows no bounds.
“It’s important to keep telling stories of racism,” Browning tells me when I ask her why African Heritage Month is important. “It’s about talking to people and trying to understand.” This year’s theme is Listen, Learn, Share, Act, and the ‘listen’ part of the theme seems to resonate most poignantly with Browning, as she spent much of her life feeling invisible. “We don’t know what another person goes through,” she says, “We need to listen – not just hear – but really listen.” She recalls the many times she was treated as if she didn’t exist. The times she was told she couldn’t do things because of the colour of her skin. Eighty-six years of fighting for the things we now take for granted has given Browning an enormous amount of grit: “I picked raspberries and sold them door to door so that I could afford to go to high school,” she explains. “Black kids had to pay to go to high school then…It was a screening tool.” This form of oppression worked hauntingly well—Browning said she was one of two students of African descent that attended her high school in Halifax.
While progress was made over the years, her children still experienced racism and social isolation. Browning said her children were the only students of African descent in their school, and they were teased because of it.
Brittany Mastroianni, diversity and outreach specialist for the Municipality of the County of Kings, was in the room with us while I interviewed Browning, and commented on how we are not far removed from these acts of overt racism. Many people who are still in the workforce today had to overcome a system that was stacked against them. Mastroianni points out that while ‘listening and learning’ are important, the other two calls to action in the theme, share and act, are equally significant: “Continue having conversations in your sphere of influence,” Mastroianni suggests. “Share the changes you’ve made with other people. This is about calling people into the work, rather than calling them out.”
Mastroianni feels that the theme of African Heritage Month is a perfect response to the Black Lives Matter movement that captured the zeitgeist in June, 2020. “It’s not about the marginalized becoming less marginalized, it’s about the oppressor being less oppressive,” she points out. She places the work and responsibility on all of us.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, African Heritage Month looks different this year. The Municipality of the County of Kings could not run its annual African Heritage Month party, and many of the provincial events are taking place virtually. Having said this, there are still many ways to engage, including access to virtual events across the province that can be viewed from our living rooms on the African Heritage Month website (ahm.bccnsweb.com). Browning and Mastroianni also recommend watching the film The Little Black School House by local and award-winning filmmaker Sylvia D. Hamilton. The documentary unearths the story of the children, women, and men who were students and teachers in Canada’s racially segregated schools. Browning is in the film and you can learn more about her remarkable life story (the film can be rented for $3.99 on Vimeo.com).
There are books for all ages that cover the topic of the Black experience in Nova Scotia. I am currently reading Meet Viola Desmond from the Scholastic Canada Biography Series on heavy rotation to my four-year-old, and it has given us both insight into the challenges and inequities that Nova Scotians of African descent faced.
Businesses and organizations can also take this time to examine their practices. VANSDA offers a Transition to Employment Equity program that provides training in employment equity and the development of positive attitudes toward a diverse workforce. In addition, VANSDA recently released a 30-Day Racial Equity Challenge designed to support individuals and groups working to achieve societal racial equity. It offers numerous ideas for people who want to increase their understanding and to advance the work toward justice at every level—in systems, organizations, communities and society at large. The challenge is $10 and can be purchased on VANSDA’s website (vansda.ca). Finally, a very simple and delicious way to support the work of VANSDA is to purchase Just Us! Coffee Roaster Co-op’s Legacy Series coffee, available at Just Us! Café locations and Sobeys. VANSDA claims, “our goal is to bring history into homes and offices one cup at a time.”
As my time with Browning wrapped up, I imagined how a spirit might get hardened over time when faced with a lifetime of roadblocks. But Browning’s resilience, deep respect for life, and love for humanity is enduring. “If nothing else,” she tells me, “be kind.”
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