When Pancouver asks Shayna Jones how she came up with the idea of honouring rural Black voices, the award-winning B.C. folklorist has a simple response.
“I am one of those voices,” Jones replies by phone from a Vancouver coffee shop.
The storyteller, singer, and actor lives on a mountainside on the west side of Kootenay Lake. After growing up in Vancouver, she migrated to this mostly white region nearly a decade ago, living for a while in Kaslo.
“Kaslo was too much of a booming metropolis,” Jones quips. “It has 800 people. So, I actually moved. I live north of the town.”
Even though she shares this tale in a lighthearted tone, there’s a serious message underlying her Black and Rural project. On her website, she describes it as a nationally funded inquiry into the thoughts and feelings of Black people living in the countryside.
Through this project Jones highlights individual stories. In addition, she challenges widespread assumptions that Black people only live in cities in Canada.
“I want to honour this path that is not commonly brought to light and not readily celebrated,” she says, “but also to inspire recognition that Black folk are not just urban. We are not confined to being urban dwellers.”
On March 3, Jones performed at the Pi Theatre-presented Black Space Jam at the Biltmore Hotel. From March 31 to April 15, she will be on-stage at Pacific Theatre for Pi Theatre’s guest production of Black & Rural. She’s based her one-hour show on interviews with rural Black residents in Canada.
That’s not all. Jones also partnered with heritage and museum organizations to create a gallery exhibition. Furthermore, she released a video and book called Black & Rural Saskatchewan.
Black history underscores relationship with land
When asked why she prefers rural life, she immediately cites the mountains, trees, and appeal of the land.
To her, this trumps “the beautiful and not-so-beautiful experiences of being in a small, tight-knit, mostly white community”.
“One of the things I feel most passionate about is the fact that I am a deeper black-skinned woman,” Jones declares. “I have jet black hair and I am speaking a story about retreating into the wilderness for wellness and healing.”
Then she asks: how often do people actually witness this coming out of the mouth of a dreadlocked Black woman?
Moreover, it raises another important question: why is that so surprising when Black people living in West Africa have always had a deep connection to the land?
This is where Jones becomes philosophical. And she notes that the alienation of many Black people from the wilderness is ridden with complexity.
Furthermore, Canada has a rich history of Black people living in rural areas, including on Salt Spring Island in B.C. and in many other provinces.
Yet she says that for many, including members of her own family, moving to the city represents progress. They were sharecroppers—descendants of slaves who worked as tenant farmers in the Deep South. Sharecroppers often went deeply into debt after paying their harvest as rent.
This, in turn, led to the Great Migration from 1910 to 1970. It involved many millions of Black people moving from the Jim Crow South to northern and western cities to escape violence and improve their economic prospects.
“Being in the city is having made it off the plantation fields,” Jones states.
Video: A crash course in The Great Migration.
Seen and unseen
Then Jones points out that she was born on this side of the world because of the slave trade, which is part of her family history. People from West Africa were taken as cargo across the Atlantic Ocean. Her ancestors were enslaved in the U.S. Deep South.
She reveals that her great-grandmother—the daughter of slaves—was a root doctor. This is an unlicensed form of rural medicine, relying on natural remedies. It remained popular among southern U.S. Black people for generations.
According to scholar John J. Beck, root doctors and root medicine originated from the folk beliefs of West Africa. This is another testament to the historic connection to the land.
“And yet, the narrative given to us today cuts us off from that,” Jones says, “unless we are willing to peel past it and dig deeper and to value and honour that we too have a place on the land. And if we were displaced onto this land, let us come to know this land we’re on—and benefit from the healing it offers.”
As part of her research, Jones came across some common themes among Black people living in rural areas of Canada. She mentions the notion of “being seen and unseen”. By this, she means that Black people are so highly visible yet so easily overlooked.
Another rural Black resident expressed concerns about going into the forest, where no one can witness what might happen.
Video: No Witness—Black and Rural Project by Shayna Jones.
Stress in a small town
After sharing these comments, Jones offers a reminder of how Black bodies were often found hanging from trees in the Deep South.
“That keeps us away from being in the forest,” she adds.
Other quotes from rural Black folks are on BlackandRural.com, such as: “You will never be close to whiteness. It’s a futile aspiration that’ll result in heartache.”
Or this one: “Originally, my desire to get out of town, to get out of the city, was my desire to be away from police officers.”
Meanwhile, in small towns, Jones knows what it’s like to be constantly reminded of one’s race. Jones recalls being in rural Saskatchewan and finding it viscerally stressful because she “stood out like a sore thumb” and nobody knew her.
Moreover, she wonders what it would be like for a Black man to visit small towns doing the same type of research. She suspects that he would face greater danger because unlike her, he might not be able to disarm people with a nice smile.
“It could all be projections in my head,” Jones concedes. “But the fact that I have these projections at all are an indication of some dis-ease within the whole system.”
Pacific Theatre will present Black & Rural by Shayna Jones as a Pi Theatre guest production from March 31 to April 15 in Vancouver. For tickets, visit the Pacific Theatre website. To learn more about how Shayna Jones is honouring rural Black voices, visit BlackandRural.com. Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.