Updated: Feb 1
My first robust awareness of Black History Month came in 1992.
I wasn't introduced to it by learning about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks or even Malcolm X. I don't even really recall it being presented by my mother, Minnijean Brown Trickey who was a veteran of the Civil Rights movement as one of the Little Rock Nine. Black History Month was brought to life and blossomed in my heart courtesy of my brother, Isaiah. It's a long windy journey but my heart is moved to walk you through it.
Isaiah is my oldest brother. We are 6 years apart so when I was 12 he was 18. We lived in Ottawa, Canada at the time with my mother, brother's Isaiah and Sol and my little sister Leila. To my recollection, my brother Sol moved away for a while, so it was down to a trio of siblings.
Let's snap back in order to spring forward! Prior to moving to Ottawa in 1991, Leila and I had always gone to the same school even though she's two years younger which meant 2 grades below me. Upon arrival in Ottawa we immediately began looking for a school that went from k-12 so Leila and I could once again be together in the same school. One warm September morning my mother, Leila and I gathered up a few newspapers and community school catalogues and searched for schools in our new neighborhood. We spent the whole day searching...walking to different schools, making phone calls and by the time that day came to an end we were totally exhausted.
I took one final glance at the school catalogue and said, "wait a minute...there's a school that has both grades." I was bursting with excitement and looked over to see Leila slumped over. "Look, Leila it's right here," as I showed her the concrete evidence. My mother took the catalogue and confirmed that I was right. Finally! How did we miss that? And then a soft peep came out of Leila whose head was bowed. "I saw that way earlier, but I didn't want to tell you." "What? why not?" "Because I wanted to finally go to school all by myself." I gulped. Here I was trying to be a protective big sister and she wants to roll solo. She went onto explain that it wasn't personal, she merely wanted a fresh start and independence at the mature age of 9. We deliberated for a while and finally decided that Leila could handle going to the same school as her big sister after all.
On the first day, my mother walked us to school and registered us in the office. It took a while to complete the paperwork, so class was already in session. I said goodbye to my mother and the principal said our teachers would get a student to escort us to our classes. Leila's escort came quickly but I had to wait a while longer. As I said bye to Leila my heart began to thrash against my chest and butterflies invaded my stomach. What was probably a short 3 minutes felt like an eternity. But when the girl arrived my heartbeat slowed down, and I began to breathe again. Her name was Brianne. She was a tall white girl with reddish brown hair and a friendly smile. She wore her hair in a part and dressed like a "hippie" - which comforted me since I came from a hippie family! Even though I was terrified, Brianne's warm demeanor helped to melt my fear. She was very pretty, and her energy was so pleasant. Never before had I experienced that combo. The pretty white girls in my earlier years were the popular girls, so in order to impress the boys and keep their gaze focused I was ridiculed and marginalized by them. But today was different. I liked Brianne already. Then she said she liked my name and inside I melted with joy. We were off to a good start! My relaxation was lived briefly until we arrived in classroom #7-1.
I peeked my head inside the classroom as Brianne took her seat. I dreamed that we would be sitting together but that wasn't the case. My eyes went into rapid scan mode which I had become accustomed to doing. In a nanosecond I surveyed the room...not one Black face...no mixed kids...my eyes locked in on a brown Asian kid...then I noted a chubby kid...and a couple of "nerds." The findings of this survival mode technique brought the numbers down, but the degree to which I would be "othered" in this class remained very high. To sprinkle salt on an open sore, then came the introduction. When my teacher introduced my name "Spirit" a rousing burst of laughter and cackling drenched the classroom. I shrunk, but then remembered that Brianne liked my name so at least I had that to hold onto. Brianne was always a friendly person whose warmth comforted me in this difficult year but we it wasn't until later in the year that we developed a great friendship.
Although Leila and I were at the same school our classrooms were on different floors. At lunchtime I caught a glimpse of her and our next-door neighbor who happened to be in her class. I headed toward them in an attempt to eat lunch together when her friend said, "sorry 5th graders and 7th graders aren't allowed to eat together." She wasn't just being a brat. That was the rule. 6th grade and below ate inside and 7th & 8th had to eat outside. My stomach tingled when she said that because I didn't know what to do...where to sit...who to eat with. My world dizzily spun a few times as I tried to swallow the lump in my throat and suppress the anxiety of being a new student, a new brown student...with no friends. I finally found a table and sat with some nerdy looking girls hoping they'd welcome me in. No such luck. I just pretended I was waiting for someone the whole time - it was the old skool version of pretending to be on your iPhone to curb an uncomfortable feeling when you're alone. That was one of the longest hours of my life. I was happy when the bell rang because at least I had an assigned seat so you couldn't tell if I was a loner or just in my seat.
As the days went by things got a tad easier. More Black and Brown children enrolled in sporadically during the school year - Somalian, Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese. I later learned that many of the students lived in a housing complex solely for immigrants and refugees. Their presence soothed me by their blackness and brownness, their imposed otherness. It helped me but it wasn't a cure to the looming, ever-present white norm that permeated my school.
This year was a winding rollercoaster ranging from a positive awakening to new cultures, finally some budding friendships - all along having to fend off bullies teasing me, punching me in the arm and whipping hard snow balls at my face. There were two boys in particular who would call me a ni**er with a straight face, just as nonchalant as if they were saying hello. I didn't understand how they felt so comfortable being so evil to me. This one boy would punch me in the arm so hard that it took everything in me to stop my bottom lip from quivering and fight to hold back big tears from dropping from my eyes. Then if there were no other kids around, they would be nice like nothing happened. It was such a confusing time.
One day, one of the bullies from my class decided to follow me all the way home, which was very far from our school. He followed close behind me calling me names and teasing me the whole time. It was pretty twisted because I think the kid actually liked me but couldn't admit it to himself let alone me. So, his harassment came in the form of calling me a ni**er but with a great big smile simultaneously stretched across his face. I was used to it but today turned out to be different. As I made my way up a great big hill a few blocks from my house I looked up and there stood my big brother, Isaiah. My eyes grew big and bright and I turned to the kid and with urgency said, "that's my brother." The kid scoured as if he looked up into the face of a lion. Isaiah looked like a superhero. He wasn't doing anything special, just being. He may have been on guard for me or may have just been getting a samosa from the Indian corner store, but he saved my day nonetheless....and every day thereafter.
The bulling nosedived, downright flattened after that day. When I returned to school the next day the boys were like "I heard your brother is huuuuuuge, don't fu*k with Trickey (or "Turkey" as they called me). In my head I was like YEEEEAH. Back up! I began to idolize Isaiah and come to find out so did everyone else in our city. I loved the new-found respect that I earned from being Isaiah's little sister. I loved watching people stare at him when we walked into the Rideau Center, the mall in our city. I'd hear "Yooooo, he has red Ewings....and a triple fat goose..." And, at this time he was working out 24/7 and eating all the food in the house so he looked like a beast. The tides began to turn as the bullies backed off and I was able to relax into myself.
When February rolled around, I came across a book in my classroom called "I Dream a World" with my mother's name in it. This cracked the door open for my later understanding of her role in civil rights history, but on a more immediate level we had a celebration coming up - Black History Month!
Isaiah asked Leila and I to go to a Black History Month celebration with hip hop and poetry at St. Nicolas High School a few blocks from our house. He lured us in by saying that there would be hip hop and kids performing. We were excited because we loved hip hop by osmosis from my brothers. By the time I was 12, I already had a lifelong obsession with Ice Cube brewing but that's another story. When we arrived at the school for the Black History Month celebration you would've thought a King walked into the room. Isaiah said what's up to his friends and we found good seats. The auditorium began to fill up...with Black people. Young Black people. Old Black people and everyone in between. Every seat filled with beautiful Black people. This was new to me. This was cozy. I was, for once, at peace.
My eyes sparkled with excitement and I was bursting at the seams by the time the first act took the stage. I was quite shy in public at that time, so I wasn't actively bobbing to the music, but I had a whole entire party going on in my head. The beautiful performances were intersected with a historical overview of Black History Month, followed by poetry to honor Black heroes and sheros...soul piercing singing, hip hop and even kids rapping!!!! Rap back then was a bit different. It had a conscious flavor across the board. A deep feeling of upliftment and unity washed over me. Don't get it twisted, I was introduced to 2Live Crew at an early age so not all rap was on that wavelength. But there was nothing but love and pride in the place. If I were to somehow rise above my brother Isaiah, myself and Leila in that auditorium I would be looking at a trio of young brown kids, who whose hearts were tender from racist hateful daggers to a beautiful enlightenment - where they freely absorbed their heritage, identity, love and people - an illuminated unspoken bond, experience...a one ness.
It felt like the sky opened up and showered gold over my heart. It took weeks to reign in the smile on my face but the feeling that was planted in me still lives on. I blossomed that year like no other because of this experience, because of Isaiah and because of Black History Month. It became our staple event, something I looked forward to year after year. There was no turning back. There it was. This piece of my heart. This celebration. This homecoming. Our Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X...and many Black Canadian artists and heroes - we honored them - we, young and old celebrated. Standing tall with heads held high. It's not what you'd expect - my introduction to Black History Month - especially as a daughter of a civil rights icon. But it was there that I gathered pieces of my heart, of my life's puzzle which sparked a lifetime of seeking...my roots, my family story...mySELF. It was much more than hip hop and poetry and singing. Black History Month became a beautiful platform from which my activism blossomed.
I worked with Leila in subsequent years to host assemblies, curate art around our high school and head up the Black History Month Committee. Black History Month is interviewed in my own awakening. It is also a symbol of honoring my brother, Isaiah for being so sure of himself, confident, so comfortable in his own skin, so proud, so strong. I idolized him and he reached me in a way that only a brother could. I was safe now. The bullies couldn't hurt me anymore. They couldn't touch me. Not physically or my spirit. I had Black History Month. I had Black History. I had Black pride. I held my head a little higher that year. Isaiah Shanti Trickey whose middle name means "Peace Surpasses Understanding" gave me that gift.
Happy Black History Month.
*My brother Isaiah is currently a professional entertainment photographer in Toronto.