By Sister Jolaine States
Since I first learned to read I have wanted to create word pictures of my world from my perspective, my voice. I have longed to create a space of intimacy, truth and possibility through writing and storytelling. In my early teens I selected a pen name to grace my poetry writing – Ebony Etchings. I choose this salutation to entitle this writing effort. I choose it because Ebony resides in my innermost being and is that inner voice that helps me know and speak my truth. It is from that innermost space that I offer my side of the conversation as we, as a Congregation, explore the reality of racism; both personal and systemic. I invite each of you to join me in my exploration of my home space, my heart space, my God space where I live my truth as an African Nova Scotian woman and a member of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent DePaul, Halifax.
So let us begin with some background information. My name: Jolaine Christine States. I’m 67 years of age and a retired clinical psychologist by profession. I’m the second eldest child in a sibship of ten (eight living) and the eldest female. I am the first and only child in my family to graduate from university and only the second African Nova Scotian to earn a doctoral degree (1994).
When I recall my childhood I have only pictorial snippets of my life before starting school. I hold much stronger sensations of feeling safe, excited by life, filled with wonder and being loved. My first solid searing, vivid and traumatic memory is that of my first at school. I suspect that each of us has at some point, experienced an event that seared itself into our hearts and minds. Much like the conversion of Saint Paul—there is a clear demarcation between life before falling off his horse and life after. Such was the case with my first day of school:
September, 1960- my first day of school has arrived at last! I can hardly contain this exciting tension as I wait for class to begin. Finally! The bell rings and the teacher walks into the room. To me, she seems very tall. She has blonde hair and a very pale, white face. She looks very stern and serious as she begins to walk about the room. The room becomes very quiet. She stops, points at a boy sitting at a desk and tells him to stand up, pick up his pencils and papers and wait. She does the same to another child, and another, and another and so on…until she nears my desk. I lower my head hoping she’ll pass me by. No! Like the others I am summoned to stand by my desk and await further instructions. Having completed her circle of the room she tells us to go stand at the back of the room. We did so.
Two long, low tables sit at the back of the room. She instructs several of the children sitting at the tables to pick up their belongings and to go sit at the desks we had occupied only moments before. Next, she tells us to go sit at the tables. With the completion of this process we find only White children seated in desks and only Black children seated at tables.
While I cannot quote her, her message to the Black children was that we were stupid, bad and we didn’t deserve to sit at desks. Crestfallen, and greatly confused I struggle to understand her message to us; to me. I do not understand everything she says to us but I understand bad. I search and search my mind trying to figure out what I could have done that the teacher could consider bad. I came up empty.
Over the next several months I tried so hard to be good. I listened for clues that would let me know what I needed to do to be considered good. I worked so hard at trying to earn a seat at one of the much coveted desks. It did not happen with this teacher.
Here you have an account of my first conscious encounter with prejudice, discrimination and racism as well as an assault to her dawning self-identity and self esteem. I share this experience with you because it was and is pivotal to my self identity and a template to my engagement with larger, White and seemingly, inherently hostile world. It cast the template through which I analyzed, interpreted and understood my interactions with the White other.
No longer was my world filled with infinite possibilities and endless wonder but became much smaller and more circumscribed. I learned that my circumstance of birth—being born Black placed limits, judgments and controls on me and what I might accomplish not to mention others expectations of me. It was years later that I learned to question and/or revisit prejudice and injustice.
On September 14, 1980 I was formally accepted as an “associate” (formerly a postulant) with the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent DePaul, Halifax and so commenced living my life as a religious.
I first met Sisters of Charity when I began my undergraduate studies at Mt. St. Vincent University in 1974. I met sisters in administrative roles, as professors and cohabitants in residence halls. I came to know some sisters more intimately when I befriended Sister Theresa McCarthy (RIP) as a sister student. When I converted to Catholicism during my studies Theresa acted as my sponsor during my instruction period and baptism. We remained close friends until her death in 2017.
Race and racism surfaced when I first applied to enter the congregation. Race was not mentioned overtly during any interviews or interactions connected with the application process. However, a co-applicant contacted me a short time before we were to learn the Congregation’s decision regarding our application. This co-applicant expressed distress at being asked about her comfort with living with me a Black woman. It was implied that were she uncomfortable I would be refused entrance. It was further suggested that I might be more comfortable applying to enter one of the three African American religious congregations in the U.S. I responded that should I be rejected because of race I would consider discussing the legality of such action with the Human Rights organization. There was no further discussion initiated regarding this matter and I was accepted to begin my journey toward full membership in the Sisters of Charity.
I learned later that my experience was in no way unique. Several members of the National Black Sisters Conference shared similar accounts of their efforts to enter a White Congregation. Many were outrightly refused admission. For those accepted they necessarily developed coping strategies to deal with the racism they encountered as an integral part of their spiritual journey.
So too my journey has been marked and marred by many experiences of prejudice and discrimination within the Congregation and society at large. I will not offer a list of affronts but ask that you trust the veracity of my perceptions. Rather than examining each experience minutely I would like to discuss the emotional and psychological impact of coping in an environment that limits your personal sense of growth and wellbeing. In short, it is traumatic and traumatizing.
Much like a child physically, verbally (emotionally) or sexually abused or a person in a domestically violent relationship, one’s response to the trauma and violence is complex. That same source of pain and injury is at other times a source of comfort, care and joy. Leaving that relationship requires heroic effort, determination and resolve. This is especially true when the good times are so enriching.
Various times I have expressed my pain, my sorrow and sometimes my anger publicly to and at my Sisters in an effort to garner empathy, support or a change in current behavior. Mostly, my public outcries have met with public non response. Privately and individually sisters would (and still do) speak to me on a one to one basis to say she agrees with or affirms the sentiment I expressed, another might apologize for the community, another might express confusion or a misunderstanding of the point I made while yet another might challenge the veracity of my statement or call to account the timbre, intensity or merit of my perception of the event.
Typically I have allowed these private ministrations to assuage my pain, to ease or lessen the suffering and to alter or deny my perceptions as true. More devastating has been the fading of the hope and dream to belong and have a voice within the congregation. Early enthusiasm and eagerness has given way to reticence and peripheral surfing. Even so, embers of hope for a different present and future continue to spark and kindle. And so, in this time and age of reckoning I felt and feel compelled to speak in written form; to challenge and perhaps persuade you to enter into a public conversation. I hope that in your witnessing my experience you will feel engaged and compelled to enter the conversation. I want and invite you to share with me (in writing) your thoughts, questions, challenges or reflections so that together we might bring about greater racial justice here and now both personally and systemically. Again, opened wider when I learned to read. I again believed in infinite possibilities. What also resurfaced with learning to read was the desire for more and not have to settle for less than or for what the White other considered deserved. Much like the desk I tried diligently to earn, I found myself making life decisions that drew me further into mainstream society, into the White culture. As I reflect now, I subconsciously believed that I could convince (Whites) those in/with power of my value, of my worth, of my acceptability, deservedness and belongingness. Needless to say, most times my efforts fell short.
Over these same years I have held steadfastly to my belief in my intelligence. It served me well as I strove for and realized significant educational accomplishments in this larger, Whiter world. While I have been able to traverse this aspect of mainstream society fairly successfully education wise socially, where meaning, power and influence are lived I remain relegated to the periphery. The experience of racism both historic and contemporary reminds and reinforces the fact that I do not belong and cannot enter that center space.
This consciousness becomes most painful when I am confronted by racism in religious life. It is here my voice seeks an audience—to be heard in conversation as together we seek to know and do God’s Will.