A Truthful Interaction
The authors of As We Have Always Done and Policing Black Lives talk about writing on their own terms.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In spring 2018, two of Canada’s leading writers met each other for the first time. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, the author of As We Have Always Done, and Robyn Maynard, the author of Policing Black Lives, spoke together at an event Maisonneuve hosted in Montreal. They discussed what Indigenous and Black movements have in common, whether in writing, activism or history, and the ways the two movements can bolster one another.
With the Black Lives Matter uprisings on many people’s minds this summer, Maisonneuve is printing a portion of their talk—a condensed and edited version of the audience question-and-answer period. Here, they faced another common moment frequently shared by Black and Indigenous leaders: questions, especially from white people, about who they’re speaking or writing for. As one audience member told Simpson, “I realize I’m not the audience for” her books. But, the same person asked, “I was just wondering … what that means to you.”
One Indigenous person in the audience, on the other hand, asked if it’s possible to escape that entire question, to “retrieve some kind of traditional discourse” without reacting to “mainstream” expectations at all.
A printed version of the rest of the talk is available in the book Until We Are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter in Canada, a collection of writing about Black organizing and community-building, published by the University of Regina Press in January 2020.
SIMPSON: I was here in Montreal when I was very young, in my early twenties, speaking on a panel around traditional ecological knowledge. I remember Cree leader Ovide Mercredi was on the panel and I was the “youth” or the “woman” rep on the panel [laughs].
We’d all done our presentations and it was time for the question period. A white man got up in French, and instead of asking a question he yelled at me for not speaking French, and he shamed me in front of the audience. He isn’t the important part of the story though. What happened next was all of these Cree hunters got up from the audience and they went to the microphones and for the next forty-five minutes they spoke in Cree at the microphone, one after another, while the mostly white audience just sat there.
It was a pinnacle moment for me. Because of those Cree people, I went from feeling badly I couldn’t speak French to feeling proud that I was Nishnaabe, and feeling a sense of solidarity with the other Indigenous people in the room.
Since then, I’ve really tried to think about making space for that “other”—the otherness, the other worlds, the alternatives that are based within Indigenous thought. What are the other worlds operating right now that whiteness and heteropatriarchy and transphobia erase?
I don’t think of Nishnaabeg thought as something that’s in the past and I don’t think of it as something that I’m trying to retrieve. My ancestors are right here with us right now. In As We Have Always Done, I talk about it, in the word biidaaban, literally meaning “dawn” or “first light.” But if you split the word apart into its smaller root words, biidaaban is this idea that every moment is a collapsing of the future and the past, and what we do now gives birth to that next moment.
In some ways, I think that my generation is pretty lucky. We’ve still got language speakers, we’ve still got Elders, we’ve still got people that are living inside of those worlds. I think that our knowledge is not dogmatic and it is not singular. It’s rigorous, it’s robust, it’s complex, it’s nuanced, it’s diverse.
I think of our knowledge as something that’s continually being regenerated. I also, in As We Have Always Done, talk about how—just go back two or three generations—my family, my ancestors were getting up every day and they were making things. They were makers. They were making their political system, they were making their leaders, they were making their stories, they were making their food, their transportation networks, their shelter, their education system, their healthcare system, and if they didn’t make it, it didn’t exist. And if they didn’t make it well and it collapsed that day they had to get up and do it again the next day.
My ancestors were living in a really powerful way, aligned with our creation stories, continually in this mode of production, in this mode of creation. In my life, I can live very easily as not making anything. I can go through my day and just consume things. What happens when I’ve outsourced that process? What happens when I’ve outsourced those relationships? What happens when I just buy things?
You can’t buy a movement, you can’t buy a mobilization, you can’t buy an alternative future, you have to make it. You can’t retrieve it from the past; you have to live it. Black Lives Matters is doing this just so powerfully right now.
MAYNARD: You know, even in trying to write the book that I did about anti-Blackness in Canada, the book is also about the Black diasporic experience, the carceral dimensions of it.
I don’t mean to suggest that anti-Blackness is the whole of our experiences as Black peoples globally—it is not, not by far. But carceral and anti-Black state controls are part of Black people’s lives in Canada and this is a reality in every place that Black people live in this world.
This is not just contemporary. If you look back to the history, even, of state technologies like the passport, this, like so many other practices that emerged under the trans-Atlantic slave trade, was bound up in controlling free Black movement, as [Black studies scholar] Simone Browne’s work shows us. My book, Policing Black Lives, takes up the way that the surveillance, the policing of Black life has been embedded into law enforcement, the criminal justice system, the border regime, school systems and child welfare.
My newer work looks at how much of controlling Black people’s movement under slavery was really a precedent to the mechanisms put in place to prevent our movement today—as we are being continually displaced today from our cities, from our countries of origin, for example. When you think about how much international effort goes into keeping Africans on the continent and keeping, for example, Haitians out of the United States, Canada, out of the Dominican Republic. These are part of controls that exist worldwide that continue to restrict Black people’s freedom of movement everywhere—this is the reason that there are Black people dying trying to cross into Europe and so many other places.
I think so much about placelessness. This is how empires and states have positioned Black peoples for half a millenia now: since the 15 to 20 million Africans who were kidnapped and made captive between the fifteenth and nineteenth century, extraction and other colonial legacies have displaced us en masse. This continues, in old and new ways, into the present moment.
We have been made out of place everywhere we land, unwelcome citizens in any country in the world, even as the global elites continue to be enriched by stealing Black people’s land, labour and lives. Even though we make places for ourselves continually, contesting every form of confinement with our own liberatory practices.
Because of course, we are more than the conditions imposed upon us, and have always been more than the meanings ascribed to Blackness, to Black peoples. The multiple traditions of Black radicalism attest to how we have refused, every step of the way, the way that state mechanisms have worked to maintain Black captivity, creating new systems of meaning, of life, of living at every turn.
In terms of our conversation about Black and Indigenous solidarity, something I have written about is the US-Canada border: the fact that there are so many Haitians, for example, crossing into the United States from Canada—but that that border is not only a site of violence for Black people, but it also cuts through the community of Akwesasne, which [Mohawk scholar] Audra Simpson writes very well about.
What if we were to actually reimagine what it means to live on this continent in a way that didn’t give that ethical priority to settler states, or even to nation-states more broadly? What would it mean to our relationships to the places we’re in and to our relationships to each other, our relationships with Indigenous communities whose lands are still being occupied?
I am thinking about another way to imagine justice that goes beyond asking the state for citizenship rights—since we know that for Black people, citizenship is not a protection from being killed or from any other form of violence. So I think it also allows us to think differently about what we’re fighting for if we’re not fighting for inclusion within a state that has never wanted us to be here in the first place.
SIMPSON: I think it’s okay that you [white audience member asking the question] are not the audience. You guys will be okay.
I think my experience of being a young reader was continually reading books where I wasn’t the intended audience. So I did want to flip that and I did want to write for Nishnaabe first, and Indigenous people.
But if I had just wanted to do that, there are other ways I could have reached my community. So I did publish it so that it would reach a wider audience—Black folks, people of colour and, yes, even white people. I wanted to reach you on my own terms, though, right? I wanted to write the way that I felt was most ethical and most truthful to me and I wanted to write in a way that someone like Lindsay [Nixon, the Cree-Métis-Saulteaux writer and moderator of the talk] might be able to read my work and feel affirmed and come out of it feeling maybe better than they went in.
So I wasn’t concerned around what the white experience of reading my book would be. I didn’t think about that. I didn’t allow myself to think about that because I didn’t want that to influence what I was writing. I didn’t want it to influence me artistically or politically or intellectually. I wanted to centre this other influence.
When I went to get it published, that was the majority of the conversation between me and all my publishers because, of course, white people buy lots of books: “The white people aren’t going to know what this word means; the white people aren’t going to get this joke.”
I was able to advocate for the work because I don’t think that it’s a fair assessment, nor do I think that we need to dumb down Indigenous writing for white people. I don’t think that we have to cater to whiteness. My experience has been that there’s folks like you that are here today supporting me and celebrating my work and I didn’t have to compromise. It feels like a more ethical and more truthful interaction. That’s really, really valuable.
I also think that not translating the words in my work puts the onus on white people to do the work to find meaning, to maybe think about how have they been living in my territory for four centuries and not know four or five or twenty words in my language? The Ojibwe people’s online dictionary is a great resource for that.
Now, the amazing people at the publishing house Memoire d’encrier have translated and published several of my books in French, using the most brilliant translators who took the time to understand the politics and the interventions my work tries to make. They have opened my work up to the French-speaking world, and I am so grateful.
I see the next generation of Indigenous writers that’s coming up is taking that idea of shifting the language and the onus and going in all kinds of amazing directions. I think it’s really generative—and I think it’s creating different relationships with different audiences.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is a scholar, artist and writer who has taught across North America. Her sixth book, Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies, was just released.
Author and activist Robyn Maynard is a Vanier Scholar at the University of Toronto and a frequently sought expert on racial discrimination in Canada.