Valerie Mason-John, Independent Scholar
What is fair and just in the world that we live in today? The conflict that flourishes in this world, within each of us, in our families, at work and out there in the world is proof enough that people do not feel they live in a world that treats them impartially.
Who am I to talk on this subject when you could look at my life and count the privileges I have had on more than one hand? Winner of several awards, including an honorary doctorate for the research and writing that I have contributed to the African and Asian diasporas, a home owner, and someone who has lived and worked in three different continents and visited numerous places in the world.
My world became a kinder place when I stopped being a victim; when I moved from being a victim of my race, gender and sexuality, and became a survivor and then finally someone who could live comfortably in my skin and in the world that I had created for myself.
Research I conducted in India 2006 and now published as a nonfiction book in 2008, Broken Voices: ‘Untouchable’ Women speak out, changed my life forever. I came back from living seven months in India among the Dalit community, some of the poorest people in that country. Poor because a caste system has rendered them unfit to be included in the caste system; considered polluted, not fit enough to drink water from the same fountain as anyone else from a higher caste, and born to do literally the shit work. Still today this attitude prevails.
Being born a woman and a Dalit, perhaps is considered the worst curse, as the Manusmirti, one of the sacred Hindu texts states that women are born to serve their fathers, their, husbands and their sons.
After listening to story after story of women killed in dowry burnings, women beaten by drunk husbands, women forced into marriages with men 20 or more years their senior, women trafficked, women living on the streets as beggars, women living in slums I came back to the United Kingdom with less complaint. I realised that my life was pretty okay. Not to say I hadn’t suffered any oppression, but I knew if I had lived my life in my country of origin on the Africa continent, or in India, my life may have been very different.
How fair is that?
Since my visit, India has chosen its first woman president, Smt. Pratibja Patil, who is an advocate of the empowerment of Dalits and especially the masses of poor women. A year ago India’s parliament also unanimously elected its first woman Speaker – a Dalit – Meira Kumar to the Lok Sabha, the lower House of Parliament.
This is all a wakeup call to remind me that the majority of the women in the world are still domestic slaves. Many of us in the west live a life that often negates these women’s experiences, through our ignorance and our need not to want to look back and to carry on fighting for the equality and humanity of all women in the world.
Living in Canada has brought it home to me much more. As a black queer woman living my 20s and 30s in Brixton, a black borough in South London, I could not be out on the streets, through fear of being attacked, raped or beaten. And to walk down the road with my white lover hand in hand – forget it. It was bad enough walking down the road with a white male colleague, and receiving all the insults under the sun from black men hanging out on the streets. I was in their eyes sleeping with the enemy, and from their point of view I could see how they could think this, as to be a black male on the streets of London has no fairness at all.
My life as a black queer woman is totally different here in Canada; there is a professional acceptance, and an acceptance on the streets from the black community. However, working with youth in the education system, I can see that although there is an overwhelming tolerance of queerness, there is still much hatred and intolerance within some of the fundamental religious communities, so all is not bliss.
And in the mainstream Canadian community I still have to navigate racism. It is masked in by the fact that my status has gone up a notch living here. I am no longer at the bottom of the pile; it is the First Nations people who are visibly and overtly discriminated against. However, as a black person in Canada I can feel invisible. There is this unspoken notion that I should not complain; that it is the First Nation people who are oppressed.
I know this is not the whole picture. I have no idea what it would be like to be black in Canada and not have the language English or French. What I do know is that many people think I speak such brilliant English, and I must be extremely clever. The sensible Canadians realise I am British.
Navigating my life as a black queer woman in Canada also has its issues. It is not the first identity I would refer to myself as. But as I have left a body of work behind me, author of the only two books to document the lives of black and Asian lesbians in the United Kingdom, author of one of the cult plays in the UK Sin Dykes, a story about three black lesbians and three white lesbians and sexuality, and once the artistic director of London Mardi Gras Arts Festival and host of the biggest women’s club in Europe for a while, and much more, it is hard to throw off this label. Named a Black Gay Icon, chapters and papers written about my work, it is hard to step sideways from a label that others put on you.
Admittedly once upon a time, my race, gender and sexuality were at the centre of my life. I grew up as an angry young black woman because of growing up in orphanages, living on the streets at 14, incarcerated at 15, sexual abuse, racism and homophobia.
At the age of 19 when I attended Leeds University, I found the lesbian feminist separatist community which I believe saved my life. It was the beginning of a healing journey within a community where I could talk about the abuse in my life without being judged. However, I left and became a journalist reporting stories about the underdog. Black deaths in custody, Aboriginal land rights, Nicaragua, South Africa, the Black Riots in the United Kingdom.
When I wrote my first book on lesbian issues, I was dumped by the black British media. I had gone from giving talks with John Pilger, offered the chance to interview Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister, though her office later reneged, to being silently shunned. But I was young and I didn’t care on the surface. I needed to protest, shout out aloud for my rights.
I am a contented human being now, who has found the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha and has found perhaps my Prozac to survive in the world: Meditation.
Listen to Valerie Mason-John’s Loving Kindness body meditation.
I continue to write, but who I write about continues to change. My master’s in creative writing, education and the arts revitalised the researcher in me. Since then my research has led me to writing a book about hatred, anger and fear, to the caste system in India, the rebel war and indigenous religions of Sierra Leone.
Most recently I am beginning to research the slave trade in Canada, my new home. I descend from a long lineage of slaves. And so it is apt that I should be embarking on such a project, especially as in Canada there is a link between slavery, Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone.
Meanwhile, if I am to aver an identity that encapsulates the essence of equity and social justice, it would be Buddhist. But of course once we begin naming, we are moving into unfairness, exclusivity. I try to live my life observing an ethical practise, one of not harming life, taking the not given, aware of my speech, intoxicants, sexual misconduct, hatred, covetousness and ignorance. It is the best I can do.
As Gandhi said, ‘we must be the change we want to see in the world’.
Valerie Mason-John is an educator, writer, poet, playwright and performance artist in Edmonton.