Excerpt from The Hermit of Africville (or download the free PDF)
When Rocky Jones and his friends stepped off the plane in Halifax, Rocky’s jaw dropped. There were police everywhere. He looked behind him to see what celebrity, criminal or political leader had been on their flight, triggering the massive response of armed, unarmed, uniformed and uninformed officers that had taken over the usually quiet airport.
“Look at all the cops! I wonder who they’re here for,” he said as his wife and their friends went to collect their bags. His friend, an American named Stokely Carmichael, shook his head. Stokely’s wife, Miriam Makeba, shrugged her shoulders. The police cameras started flashing. They were all flashing at Rocky and Stokely.
“Oh shit, I think they’re here for us!” Rocky said. “Fuck. What’s going on?”
“I don’t know, man. Let’s just get out of here,” Stokely said, warily watching the cops watching him. Official faces followed their every move. The RCMP had been bugging Rocky’s phone for years and knew every step of the planned visit. Rocky and Stokely grabbed their bags, jumped in a car and headed for the city.
It was October 1968. Rocky Jones was a Black man born in Truro, Nova Scotia, who had long since left home and developed a global perspective on the racism he had been born into. Here’s how deep it went: when he moved to Halifax, he went to see a dentist because his tooth hurt. A Black man walked into the dentist’s office and hovered over young Rocky, tools in hand.
“Uh, it doesn’t hurt so much, actually. I think I’ll just go,” Rocky said, sliding out of the chair and out of the office.
Rocky had never seen a Black dentist. He couldn’t even imagine a Black dentist. He thought this man was an imposter.
So when Rocky grew up and learned how the world works, he became a big fan of Stokely Carmichael. Stokely was the honorary prime minister of the Black Panthers Party for Self-Defence. He birthed the idea of Black Power.
“It is a call for Black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for Black people to define their own goals, to lead their organizations,” Stokely explained after being arrested on a march with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1966.
Stokely introduced the world to the idea of “institutional racism.”
When Stokely Carmichael rolled into Halifax, Malcolm X had been dead three years. Martin Luther King Jr. had been dead six months. In the wake of King’s April 1968 assassination, race riots had burned across one hundred American cities. Stokely was at the centre of the Washing- ton, D.C., riot, which started with him asking shopkeepers to close out of respect for the slain civil rights leader. The fighting flared into April 5, when U.S. President Lyndon Johnson called in federal troops. Twelve people died and one thousand were injured. In South Africa, the homeland of Miriam Makeba, Nelson Mandela was four years into his long walk on Robben Island. In Halifax, Africville was in its death throes.
A lot of people saw Stokely as a new Mont Blanc, sailing into Halifax with an explosive cargo.
“Our grandfathers had to run, run, run. My generation’s out of breath. We ain’t running no more,” Stokely said in a 1967 speech quoted in a Life magazine article headlined “Whip of Black Power.” “Where in God’s name do we exercise any control, as a people whose ancestors were the proudest people who walked the face of this Earth? Where? Where, I ask you? Everywhere he’s gone, he controls our people. In South Africa, he steals the gold from our people, in the West Indies, he steals the material from our people. In South America, where he scattered our people, he’s raping us blind. In America, he rapes us. In Nova Scotia, he rapes us!”
He sneered at the ideas behind integration.
“We were never fighting for the right to integrate. We were fighting against white supremacy. ‘Integration’ as a goal today speaks to the problem of Blackness not only in an unrealistic way but also in a despicable way … ‘integration’ is a subterfuge for the maintenance of white supremacy.”
The Black Panthers were armed and led by a man called Huey P. Newton.
“My name is Huey P. Newton. I’m minister of defence of the Black Panther Party. I’m standing on my constitutional rights. I’m not going to allow you to brutalize me. I’m going to stop you from brutalizing my people. You got your gun, pig, I got mine. If you shoot at me, I’m shooting back.”
That’s how Newton, the “baddest motherfucker ever to set foot in history,” confronted corrupt cops in the ghettos of America, according to his friend and fellow Panther Bobby Seale in his book Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party.
Stokely agreed. Rocky agreed.
“You name the weapon and I’ll meet you,” Rocky would say. “If you want to have a spelling bee, well, I’ll be there spelling to challenge you. If you want to be intellectual and debate, I’ll be intellectual and debate. But if you want to go to war, I’m prepared to put my body on the line and go to war.”
When Stokely and Rocky met at a Black writers’ conference in Montreal in the fall of 1968, they clicked.
Jones took a look at the besieged, passionate, articulate intellectual and realized one thing: the man needed to chill out.
“You need to take a break from all of the real action,” Rocky told Stokely. “Why don’t you come to Halifax to chill? Halifax is a pretty laid-back place. It’s like Boston. We can go fishing. You can stay at my house.”
Stokely wasn’t sure. Rocky sold him on the blue water and green fields. Come to Nova Scotia. Come to life. Bring your wife.
His wife was Miriam Makeba, the world-famous South African folk singer and anti-Apartheid civil rights fighter. They had just gotten married. Her U.S. record deals and concerts had just been cancelled.
Stokely thought it over and agreed to follow Rocky home. On the flight, Rocky told him more about schizophrenic Halifax. It looked peaceful, but racism roiled under the surface. The racism was overt and it was covert. There was a huge race problem, but most people thought there was no race problem. “You guys can stop by Preston. Meet some folks who would be honoured to know you,” Rocky said. “Check out the fishing holes. Nothing political.”
And then the police met them at the airport. Stokely checked out the tree-lined view as they sped into town, cop cars in tow.
“Hey, brother,” Stokely said. “We can’t organize a revolution around a car accident.”
Rocky puzzled it for a moment. Slowed down.
Another fleet of armed cops was waiting for them at Rocky’s house. “Let’s go out,” Rocky suggested after they’d settled in. “Let’s get a drink and something to eat.”
Stokely nodded. “Sure. Where to?”
“I know the perfect place,” Rocky said. They headed to the Arrows Club. Rocky knew the owners. When they pulled up, the police were already there – plainclothes cops sitting in cars outside, uniformed cops standing on the sidewalk and squad cars riding by. Police snipers patrolled nearby roofs, rifles out.
The fear in the city was palpable. The fear, Rocky thought, was the knowledge that its Black people were mistreated. The fear was that Black people may retaliate for that mistreatment. As Rocky saw it, the carefully crafted language of urban renewal, of social improvement, of integration, was blown away, revealing the race struggle at the heart of the destruction of Africville.
In the streets of Halifax, some white people imported guns from the States. Just in case.
The Jones party of four made its way into the packed Arrows Club. Word had spread and everyone wanted to meet the legendary leader who had so stirred up Halifax. It was a mixed-race club, so white and Black people came to say hello, to tell Stokely what they thought of his ideas. It was cordial, but non-stop.
“Can you please keep these crowds away from us?” Stokely asked the owner, Billy Downey. Billy was clearly stressed out.
“Look, we’re just chilling. Don’t worry – we’re not here for anything other than to have a drink and a bite to eat and just meet the people,” Rocky said. Billy roped off a section for them. People kept crowding in, sharing their thoughts.
Eddie Carvery entered the club and walked over to listen. He’d heard about Stokely and wanted to see him for himself. People told Stokely he was just what Halifax needed, or he was the last thing Halifax needed, as he ate his dinner.
They talked about King and “Beyond Vietnam,” the landmark speech he made on April 4, 1967. It moved his mission from civil rights to poverty, workers’ rights and a call for an end to the war in Vietnam.
“Martin Luther King begins to look at the garbage workers,” Rocky said. “He begins to realize that the civic workers – which are not just Black workers, but all workers – that they have power and that they need to exercise their power. That’s when he became dangerous and had to be killed. He began to move from viewing things strictly as a Black-white issue into looking at, ‘Oh, there are some class issues here.’ Well, here’s this man that’s got this huge following, this huge appeal, and now he’s really prepared to take on American hierarchy with a whole different viewpoint. ‘Boom. Up against the wall, motherfucker.’ He had to go. That’s why Malcolm X had to go.”
“How do you feel about King’s non-violence?” a man asked.
“There are a lot of people who grew up in the ghettos of North America who couldn’t just turn the other cheek. They didn’t know about Ghandi’s philosophy of non-violence, about Martin Luther King’s philosophy of non-violence, nor did they buy into it,” Rocky answered. “That’s not to say it’s racist towards white. It’s a reaction to an oppressive state power.”
“So can white people help you?” a white woman asked.
“If you want to help me, don’t come into my community to do things for me or to give me advice. Go to the person who’s got his foot on my neck, talk to him, fight with him, because that’s where you’ve got to be,” Rocky said. “Don’t bother me and my Black community. If you’re white, you’ve got to take the struggle into the white community. If you are truly revolutionary, if you really want to do something in the struggle, then you got to go into your own community and organize. If I’m on the ground and someone’s kicking the shit out of me, don’t talk to me! I’m on the ground. Go to the person who’s kicking the shit out of me and grab him!”
“Say, Miriam, will you sing us a song?” a man asked in a lull in the conversation.
She was hesitant. This was supposed to be a quiet break. She exchanged glances with Stokely.
“Okay,” she agreed, smiling. Local legend Lottsa Poppa joined her for a song. Then another. The entranced crowd wanted more. Forty minutes later, Miriam Makeba and the band Four Hundred Pounds of Soul left the stage to thunderous applause from the Black and white crowd.
Stokely did a quick radio interview with a Dartmouth reporter. The story was all over the airwaves. The Black Panthers were in town.
Eddie listened for a bit, then headed back outside, glancing up at the police snipers who were glancing down at him. He noticed nearby businesses had been boarded up. Just in case.
“No,” Eddie said to his friend as they headed back to Uniacke Square. “This is Canada. That’s not the way we do it in Canada. We need to integrate. Don’t kill Whitey. Go to bed with Whitey and we’ll have mulatto children.”
His friend laughed.
Stokely left the next day after an eighteen-hour stay. Back at the airport, a newspaper reporter caught up with him. “We recognize all the problems of Halifax that Black people have and we wanted to begin some co-ordination so that we can move against racism and capitalism,” he told the journalist before catching a plane back to the States.
Halifax breathed out.
The city hadn’t burned down.