Remembering my Black Students

On Sunday, August 10, 2008, a major riot took place in Montreal North (also known at the time as Montréal-Noir), a neighbourhood populated mostly by Black Americans and Spanish speakers—one of the first incidents of typical American urban violence in Montreal.

A Lost Cause

Some considered the “ Montréal-Noir” neighbourhood a societal sore. However, I was not one of them. My Black American students were curious and intelligent. I couldn’t imagine what it meant for them to succeed at the college level, coming from an underprivileged environment—where juvenile delinquency was rampant. The college cafeteria represented a microcosm of their struggle. They’d gather in isolation in the cafeteria. When by the end of the day, the vast majority of students had left, a group of Black American students would linger. Why were they there? I wasn’t sure. Perhaps it was safer here.

I had seen the Canadian singer and songwriter Corneille perform. I had overheard the comedian Dieudonné interviewed behind me at the terrace of Les Deux Maries in the summer of 2009. And after watching the French director Pierre Laflargue’s amusing film Black, one thing became evident: French Blacks seemed happier than their North American counterparts. The lyrics of their songs bared witness to this. Why is that? A scene from a Spike Lee movie, Do the Right Thing, came back to me. Where a revolt breaks out in the Black American neighborhood, a Chinese guy comes out of his convenience store that some Black Americans want to trash and shouts: “I am black here!” For Europeans, the Africans are the Arabs. What difference does it make for the Blacks? The role they playe in the social organization chart.

Six Rats and Israel

Boutique Chandel, on St-Denis west, south of Mont-Royal

Boutique Chandel, on St-Denis west, south of Mont-Royal

Bernard Werber, a French science fiction writer, who is sometimes imprecise but always interesting, explains how a minimalist rat society works. In a situation where it’s possible to appropriate the food collected from other rats, three distinct social roles (rat groups) are formed (the distribution of food is essential to its political state). (1) The dominant rats steal food from the dominated, who brings it back. (2) The outsider (the independent rat) works alone and keeps its food. (3) The loser rat picks up the crumbs left by the others. These social structures generate two dominant/dominated couples for each outsider/looser couple. If more rats are added to the city, then a new six-pack takes shape. Same goes for human civilization.

To blame Israel—comparing the Hebrew state to the Nazis, is to criticize an ex-loser rat for becoming a dominant rat in a new six-pack setting (roughly speaking). Whether you put six outsiders or six losers together, it doesn’t matter, four of them will go to fill the vacancies in the social organization chart. In short, being a loser is as natural a role as being dominant or any other. And in order to free oneself from this role, one must conceive of oneself differently.

The black side of ideology

But we are not rats, you may say. True, we are monkeys. And like them, we live in groups, equipped with an ideology: a way of judging our role, relative to that of others in the group, including the reasons for accepting the inequalities in place.

The Spartacus TV series (2010-2013), though fictitious, reveals the incredible prejudice of nobles regarding slaves—for them the equivalent of tools. The Romans talk among themselves and fuck without worrying about the slaves, whose gaze lingers on the void—they who dare not to protest. This makes the masters blind to their inhuman treatment of the slaves. The noble-slave relationship and all its inequalities is only possible because those dominated, accept the will of the dominant—for whom this power relationship seems normal (same thing with the series Roma).

Le Balatou: a Plateau institution

A classic example of this master/slave ideology can be seen at work with a slogan that trade unionists had to fight: Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. The union activists had to make the workers understand it was their docile submission that allowed the bosses to control their wages and thus their food.

It’s difficult to counter the dominant white ideology and promote education among people of color. Some still carry a slave mentality, the result that they denigrate education and cultivate political indifference. The preachers who proclaim that the Lord takes care of his flock do not help the young people to take charge and educate themselves. But some educators fight, and the Hollywood weapon sometimes helps them.

In the Ark:

Coach Carter, by Thomas Carter, U.S. film, 2005 (based on an event at Richmond High School in California).

Coach Ken Carter (not the director!) benched his undefeated team. He even padlocked the gym because his players had unacceptable academic records. The coach’s philosophy is condensed into a beautiful line as he confronts the school principal, who has become the spokesperson for angry parents:

“But this basketball final is going to be the most important event of their lives!”

“That’s the problem, ma’am.”

Le neg’, by Robert Morin, Quebec film, 2002

To understand the provocative title, you must see the film. Irritated by having seen a plaster statue of a Black man in overalls, a young Black breaks the icon. For the people of the hood, a lost suburb populated by white morons, it’s an act of vandalism (the racist vision). The young Blackman is shot on the road because he’s said to be dangerous. The police investigation reveals the truth under layers of lies and the contained rage of a simpleton (devoid of prejudice). I was ashamed to be white. Only then did the relevance of the title strike me. It was write in black and white.

Malcolm X, by Spike Lee, US film, 1992

Young Malcolm X finds himself in prison and discovers enlightenment: one can live free and proud while being black. He does this by keeping white people out of his life once he’s released. The scene of mass membership in Mecca is impressive. A religion of the people in industrial mode. But among Black Americans too, power only gives way to freedom in dribs and drabs (the film made me understand the superhuman effort required for Luther’s Reformation).

American History X, by Tony Kaye, American, 1998

Edward Norton plays a character named Derek Vinyard who lives in a small town in South Florida and is simply monstrous and racist. I wonder how a Black American spectator handles the scene with Derek’s foot behind the head. Once in prison, Derek renounces his neo-Nazi group because he believes in strict racism, an attitude that is not viable in a prison environment. The young fanatic finds himself isolated and develops a friendship with a Black American, saving his life. Upon his release, Derek is shocked to find that his younger brother, Danny, has been corrupted as he had been and decides to deprogram him. Young people, both white and of color, are subjected to a racial hatred propagated by vengeful preachers who, through their clans, program their youth. The result becomes a school assignment that the cadet will never hand in to his teacher, a Black American who insisted that he reflect on the problem of racial hatred. But who defeats with the sword …


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