An Excerpt from Relic by Kate Foster
Mrs. D. came up the stairs, her forearms moving up and down, her hands fluttering. She landed in the open space in the middle of the small community office. “Rhonda!” Her voice was a song sparrow, at once urgent and sweet. “The newspaper’s coming.”
Rhonda pushed herself up from her desk and hurried out of her office.
Mrs. D.’s circular pacing indicated the arrival of a reporter wasn’t good news. Unlike the announcement during Black History Month that Mrs. D. was receiving an honorary doctorate from the university. This for a woman who could never afford university, who had travelled across the city to finish high school.
“What is it, Mrs. D.?”
“Somebody hung a noose on Carleen Upshaw’s classroom door last month. Found it first thing in the morning.”
“Lord,” Rhonda uttered. The ends of her mouth spread downward. She turned her head slowly, levering it side to side.
“The school found out who did it,” Mrs. D. continued. “The principal disciplined the student, but nobody from the school said anything about it. Carleen told the school board, but they didn’t do nothing either. So she emailed the paper. We’re just finding out now.”
“What are you going to say?” Rhonda raised her fingertips to her short Afro. She’d cut her relaxed hair off in the middle of her divorce and kept it that way ever since. Small patches of dry skin on her palms felt rough against the softness of her hair.
“Some people will act surprised, like this don’t happen here. Call it a prank.” The pitch of Mrs. D.’s voice rose. “How many times have we been here before? I’m gettin’ too old for this. The school missed a chance to talk about the past. I’ll have to go through my repertoire. Bring me our community file on this stuff, Rhonda,” Mrs. D. sighed and adjusted her hair. Rhonda hurried to the filing cabinet and returned with a thick folder. She laid it on the catch-all desk in the centre of the office. Mrs. D. rapidly turned the pages.
There was a light knocking at the office door. Rhonda and Mrs. D. turned to see a young brown woman opening the glass door. “Missy! Are you the reporter from the Advertiser? I thought they were sending Mr. Scott over. Are we ever glad to see you.”
“I finished journalism at King’s, Mrs. D. I just got on with the paper here. Staying with my Mom for now.” Missy was the black daughter of a white single mother. She grew up knowing her father, but it was his sister and mother who had helped raise her. Mrs. D. had once helped both Missy and her mother find work. “How’s your mother? I don’t remember getting a call about your graduation,” Mrs. D. teased.
“You must be the first black reporter we ever had from around here, isn’t that right Mrs. D.?” Rhonda announced before Missy could reply. Rhonda grappled her into a bosom-crushing hug. Missy laughed while extricating herself from Rhonda’s grasp.
“I’m writing about the noose at the school and I want to put it in context. That’s why I came to see you, Mrs. D. You know the history of the black community here better than anyone . . .”
“I could tell you some stories, Missy. Make your hair straight,” Mrs. D. laughed. “How much time you got?” Mrs. D. clapped her hands once and became serious. “Let’s get to work, then. Come sit here with us.”
Missy pulled her phone out of her jacket pocket. “Carleen texted me a photo. She said the principal wanted to keep it quiet. But she wanted people—inside the school and out—to know what happened.” Missy opened the photo on her phone and passed it to Mrs. D. while Rhonda leaned in.
“Horrible. See how it’s tied, just like a lynching rope.” Mrs. D. squinted through her glasses at the image on Missy’s screen. “What kind of rope is that?”
“Looks like some sort of marine rope, Mrs. D.” Missy set her phone on the table and turned it on. “Do you mind if I record our conversation?”
“It reminds me of . . .” Rhonda closed her mouth.
“Of what, Rhonda?” Missy asked.
“Oh, never mind. Mrs. D. will tell you all you need.”
“Has anything like this happened before?” Missy asked.
“Of course. Too many things over the years. There was the hanging of a black statue in a furniture store.” Mrs. D. spread the file in front of Missy. “Last year someone spray-painted the n-word on Kim Sparks’ car. Giant letters all over one side. The police investigated, but never found who did it.” Mrs. D. held up a newspaper clipping. “There was the burning cross on the front lawn in Windsor. And the town councillor who said ‘I’m not your nigger!’ at his delivery job. Said he was sorry for using the word, but that it wasn’t ‘an obscenity’. He’s on the police board.” Mrs. D. flinched when she said the word.
“How does this incident compare to past racism in Nova Scotia?”
“Hard to separate the past from the present. This noose tells me we’re still dealing with the past.” Mrs. D. removed her glasses. “You know, when I was growing up in Preston, it was hard to get past grade eight. I had to go to high school in Halifax where I was the only black girl. One time, in home economics class, we paired up to practice manicures on each other. Well, my partner wouldn’t touch me. And wouldn’t let me touch her. I just wanted an education. I couldn’t even learn in a beauty class. I was so humiliated. And embarrassed. It still hurts. That rope hanging on the classroom door—that’s a line right back to our ancestors, how we got here, from slavery to segregation to now.” Mrs. D. paused. “How some people still think we’re less than. And sometimes treat us that way.”
“Do you think it was a threat?”
Mrs. D. sighed. “Hard to say. It might not be a threat of violence. But that’s what it represents, isn’t it? We don’t have the same history of lynching here like the States, but we do have a history of race riots and profiling. It’s out there in the minds of people—police officers, shopkeepers, everyday people. We’re still getting stopped and followed too often. Hard not to see that rope as terrorizing. It’s more than just a relic.”
Kate Foster is an avid reader who lives in Dartmouth, NS with her family. Her writing has appeared in Room and The Centennial Reader.