A fresh immigrant to Halifax, Nova Scotia (that will be me) is sent to Jackson, Mississippi. To attend a week long technical training course.
Coming from a somewhat privileged middle class family, I was fluent in English and had a swagger acquired from visiting Americans whom I used to meet through work.
In India, I had read Harriet Bleacher Stow’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn. A huge Twain fan, I memorized his quips to impress girls (making them believe these were mine), for instance “ A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
I had read Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, and works of other Southern writers – but I had no idea about the realities on the ground.
The fact that Mississippi was described by a historian to be the most “racially restrictive state” – the fact that the state had the highest rate of lynching – the fact that most of the many citizens of Jackson had probably never seen[ a brown person from India, the fact that average citizens of the city were poor and the blacks were the poorest of all – These facts were not on my radar.
Halifax, Nova Scotia of 1967 shared one characteristic with Jackson, Mississippi. Both were slow paced without the freneticism of a New York or Toronto. That is where the similarities ended. There were no ghettos in Halifax and no hint of overt racism. In the taverns of Halifax, a port city, whites, blacks, first nation’s people, brown and yellow people drank beer in tall thin glasses in harmony. Women could not enter a tavern without an escort. This was the only discrimination that I had noticed.
People I worked with, people I met on the streets of Halifax were mostly friendly and welcoming. The only[ hint of racism in we experienced 1966 – 1967 Halifax, was from three middle aged ladies who wanted to save our souls. We had welcomed them in our house, not realizing, they were preachers of sorts. They came in and sat and kept looking around. And almost in chorus, incredulously – they said “But you are so clean” – and repeated that sentiment a few more times before they left.
It was only after they were gone, that we began to realize they had been excepting a filthy house full of garbage, kitchen sink full of dirty dishes, bad curry smell all around. This was a most benign form of racism – not the full-throated version of Southern US version.
Consequently, arriving from Halifax into the hotbed of Jackson was eerily strange.
My course kept me busy 10 or 11 hours a day. And most evenings were spent doing homework – I never left the hotel to see the city or anything else.
The evening before I was due to head back to Halifax – I was free. I decided to go for a walk around the hot and dusty downtown. As I walked, in many ways it felt like India. Where the upper castes ruled and the lower caste folks were clearly segregated – identical to the white black divide in Mississippi.
After a while I felt thirsty and walked into a bar.
The bar had about 20 tables all occupied by white folk. Each table had an open bottle of bourbon, some almost empty. The people drinking at these table were not exactly the upper class Southern gentlemen, to say the least. I did not see any women at all. In my travels in India and Canada, when alone, I had developed a habit of walking right to the bar and order my drinks. As I was walking towards the bar stools – I felt 50 pairs of eyes drilling holes on my back.
The bartender is polishing a glass with a piece of cloth, holding it in front of him. I climb up on the stool and sit. The man sort of freezes and keeps looking at me. After what seems to be n eternity – he says “Yes?” I respond “Please give me a scotch, one ice and soda on the side.”
After another long pause – the bartender says “ But you are not black!!” – I reply, “I certainly am not white” – he answers “No, no, you don’t understand – you have to SAY you are not BLACK, only then I can give you a drink”. In other words, I must pretend to be superior to the blacks and bow down to white supremacy of the land. This I felt would be disingenuous of me and so I declined.
ust pretend to be superior to the blacks and bow down to white supremacy of the land. This I felt would be disingenuous of me and so I declined.
I did not get my drink and walked out, shaking my head in disbelief. This had never happened to me in Nova Scotia or in Montreal, only two places in Canada I had been to at that time. Only challenge I had faced in Canada, much to my chagrin, was being constantly asked for my ID at bars and taverns of Halifax. Apparently, I looked like a minor.
I was better dressed than rest of the customers in that bar in Jackson. I was clearly better spoken. But no drink for me.
I got to the street and sought out a bar for black folks. After a while I found one on a seedy side street.
Again , I am greeted with thundering silence as I walk into this smoky, dark, cavernous place.
Someone was playing beautiful jazz. But all stopped and it became eerily quiet.
Everyone is looking at me, some with their jaws dropping. Some eyeing me with malevolent suspicion. Some stand to have for a closer look, some recoil. They know there are only two kinds of people, clearly white and purely black. Here is someone in their midst who just does not fit.
Here is a strange brown guy, who was dressed like a white man and spoke almost like a white man and he is in a black bar.
After a few minutes of awkward silence – I walked out.
In this strange twilight zone – no drink for brown people in 1967 Mississippi.