In September 2018, I arrived in Fredericton from my native country of Trinidad and Tobago. I was amazed that Fredericton International Airport was roughly the same size as the A.N.R. Robinson International Airport on Tobago. However, that was where all references to home ended. Anticipated reality did little to prepare me for actuality.
I felt like a single black dot on a white T-shirt and for the first time I was conscious of my Blackness. I expected to be different. A Black woman, Trinidadian accent, clearly new to the environment, of course, I would stand out in Fredericton. What I did not anticipate were my futile glances in search of someone remotely resembling me. Butterflies aggressively swarmed my stomach. Anxiety against uncertainty, fear against excitement, but pride won the war.
I was about to embark on a journey that would turn my dreams into reality and empower me to change my community forever.
I grew up in a small rural fishing village on the North Coast of Trinidad. Isolation and neglect often place my community at a disadvantage in education and economic opportunities. The constant grappling with social challenges did not prevent me from being the first in my community to obtain a masters’ degree and, in the near future, a doctorate.
Upon arriving in Fredericton, I brought with me the identity of a survivor of poverty, rural isolation, and gender-based discrimination. Never before had I considered race or ethnicity as a contributor or hindrance to my success. Thus, throughout my educational path, my Blackness had never signified privilege or marginalization.
A reason for my lack of Black consciousness can be credited to the fact that Trinidad & Tobago’s population comprises of 98% dark-coloured descendants, of which 40% are of African heritage, 40 % Indian heritage, and 18% are considered to be mixed.
The 0.6 % white population is perceived to be the most powerful ethnic group —a legacy of colonialism. This is in contrast to citizens of African heritage who primarily reside in the impoverished areas of the country, consist of most of the prison population, and comprise an estimated 72.3% of the country’s convicted murderers.
A January 2019 newspaper article, entitled “Afros must do better in Trinidad,” highlighted the pleas of my country’s prime minister for Black improvement. Regardless of such statistics, I would often gloss over local activists’ calls for an awareness of Black identities, such as David Muhammad’s Black Agenda Project. I paid little attention to social issues that systematically marginalized Blacks. Instead, I resorted to the philosophy that awareness of Black identities should be replaced with national awareness. I was misguided by the notion that, in a country where the majority of persons were of dark complexion, there was more need for promoting a national identity of ‘Trinbagoians’ and less need to recognize the Black identity of African descendants.
From Majority to Minority
In Fredericton, I find myself in an environment that is diverse yet lacking in inclusivity. The feeling of isolation is shattering—my physical characteristics stand out both on and off campus. The unavailability of foods, sports, or cultural activities similar to home fuels my feelings of isolation, and the constant awareness of stereotypical labelling exasperates my fear of being victimized. The lack of Black professors to serve as role models or counsel does little to raise my self-esteem as I struggle with this new identity.
In 2019, while attending the Creative Connections Conference in Fredericton, I was astounded as I seemed to be the only Black attendee. A feeling of uncertainty overwhelmed me as I grappled with a simultaneous sense of pride and confusion. I was honoured to be a representation of Black presence. At the same time, I was saddened as I was confident that there are many Black creative minds in Atlantic Canada. I, thus, felt my presence undeserving in comparison to those who should have been there in my place. Although disappointed, I had grown accustomed to being among the few, if not only, Black attendees at education conferences in Atlantic Canada.
My internal strength that had driven me to overcome obstacles in my homeland stepped in as I opted to replace my feeling of isolation with activism. I was pleased to learn of Black champions like Viola Desmond. My passion for exploring my Blackness as a means of empowerment encouraged me to work toward awareness and empowerment of Black people at the University of New Brunswick, where I am a doctoral student.
The need to speak out about issues of equity and inclusion encouraged me to join several communities within UNB with the hope of raising consciousness and promoting Black communities. My advocacy for Black inclusion was heightened when I was asked to conduct a series of cellphilm (cellphone + film production) workshops with Black identified students. These workshops were aimed at stimulating discourse on issues concerning Black students at UNB, St. Thomas University, and the New Brunswick Community College.
My experience at UNB has allowed me to embrace my identity and purpose. I am privileged to learn of New Brunswick’s rich Black histories. I acclaim my colour as one that is resilient and continues to stand the test of time. More so, I now reflect on my fellow Afro-Trinbagoians and ways in which social challenges have both hindered and strengthen citizens. I welcome knowledge of my country’s African heritage and the promotion of awareness that leads to Black empowerment. I am no longer merely a woman who has overcome poverty, gender-based discrimination, and rurality. I am a Black woman who has overcome such obstacles.
As New Brunswickers celebrate Black History Month, I reflect on UNB’s purported aims toward inclusion and equity. I commend the many visions and initiatives that have been proposed. However, as the saying goes, “actions speak louder than words.”
I, therefore, look in anticipation toward a more inclusive environment where Black students feel less isolated and where issues surrounding privilege and oppression become topics discussed throughout the university.
For these visions to become realities, as Black students, we need to accept the power that is innate in our lineage and, in so doing, become proactive partners in rewriting current realities. Nelson Mandela urges Black peoples to lead their quest for transformation. It is, therefore, our duty as Black activists to learn of our heritage and, consequently, educate others on the impact that Blacks have made on the growth and development of New Brunswick. We must be proactive in instilling change. We will be the authors of our collective destiny.
Alicia F. Noreiga is a second year doctoral student at the University of New Brunswick’s Faculty of Education in Fredericton.
Note: Alicia Noreiga will be speaking at the Couch, Coffee and Covos event in Fredericton on Feb. 19.