21 QUESTIONS FOR THE WHITE MAN IN PONOKA – Makambe K Simamba
The author in her milk outfit.
It was the summer, and I’d found myself at the County Fair of Ponoka of all places. I was there by circumstance, not choice. I’m a theatre artist, so between gigs, I do wacky jobs to help make ends meet. This wacky job involved driving to all major outdoor events in Alberta in a milk truck, giving away free milk while encouraging social media engagement…and oh yeah, did I mention that I had to dress as a 1950s milkman?
Safe to say, I was not living my best life, and grumpy Makambe had officially entered the chat. I hated this job, and on top of that, being the only Black person I could see for miles made me uneasy. I always feel uncomfortable in all-white spaces, especially if I don’t know the white folks I am sharing space with. But, I tried my best to smile as I handed out milk and talked about Instagram to a cluster of fair-goers the truck had attracted.
My mind flooded with all of the worst racist and sexist things he might have been thinking about me.
As my co-worker and I pushed through the day, I spotted a 60-something white man out of the corner of my eye, staring at me. I’m used to being stared at in small towns in Alberta, so I just ignored him and continued working. When to crowd dispersed, he was still staring. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. My mind flooded with all of the worst racist and sexist things he might have been thinking about me. As he approached, I braced myself.
“Where are you from?” he asked. And for the record, I hate this question.
“No, but where’s your family from?” he insisted, as if it was any of his business.
“Zambia,” I said. “My family is from Zambia.”
I’ve had this conversation more times than I can count, and every single time it makes me feel I have to explain the anomaly of my own existence.
“I once knew a girl, and she was even darker than you,” he said.
How on earth am I supposed to react to that? Darker than ME? Oh no, sir! We better go check on her!
“She was darker than you,” he said, “and we were in love.”
I stopped in my tracks.
“I wanted to marry her,” he revealed. “And she wanted to marry me too. Neither of our families approved, but decided we were going to do it anyway. The last time I saw her we stayed up all night, holding each other, crying.”
“What happened?” I asked, and what came out of his mouth just about broke my heart.
He went on to explain that they decided to call off their wedding. They were okay with being chastised for their interracial relationship—they were strong, they could handle it. But they didn’t want to bring children into the world who would suffer the same fate. They felt it wouldn’t be fair, so for the sake of their unborn children who would never exist, they chose to part.
I could not believe that this was the conversation we were having.
“Aw, you should have gotten married anyway,” I offered. I still don’t know if that was the right thing to say, but as a person who had a white boyfriend at the time, I absolutely hated the idea that two people who loved each other that much couldn’t be together because of what other people thought about race.
The old white man and I looked at each other. The moment was brief but weighted. In my vulnerability, I offered him some free milk, which he understandably declined.
“Are you sure?” I asked, not knowing how else to express care in my moment of shock. He shook his head and walked away.
That was the summer of 2015. In the summer of 2020, Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the globe, and this old white man’s story visited my consciousness for the first time in years. To my surprise, I prayed for him. After that prayer, my mind flooded with questions:
Here are 21 Questions for the White Man in Ponoka:
Do you tell this story to every Black person you meet, or was I the first?
Do the people around you know that this about you, or do you keep it a secret?
Before you saw me at the fair, when was the last time you saw a Black person?
Do you know that when I saw you approach I felt frightened?
How long had you been standing there?
How often do you think of her?
Who did you come to the fair with?
Do you have a white wife and white kids?
If you do, are they somehow a disappointment to you?
Do you compare every woman you’ve ever met to her?
Do you listen to Black music?
Do you know who John Ware is?
If you could do it all again, would you still let her go?
Do you feel a type of way when you see mixed-race children?
Do you also approach them, and put the weight of this pain on their shoulders?
Have you ever attended a protest?
Do you know who Breonna Taylor is? Or Regis Korchinski-Paquet?
Do you support the Black Lives Matter movement?
When you hear people say “Black Lives Matter,” what happens in your body?
Did you feel hurt or healed after our conversation?
I know that after we spoke, you thought about yourself. I know that you thought about her. But did you think about me? How I was feeling, and what you had left me with?
Here are 13 Questions for the Black Woman in This Story:
I think that man from the fair carries you with him everywhere he goes. Do you also carry him everywhere you go?
If you could say one thing to him today, what would it be?
Did you marry a Black man and have Black kids?
Do you encourage your kids to do date whichever race they want, or do you give them the same advice that you received?
Do you have the same fears as your parents?
When is the last time you laughed so much that it hurt?
Do you think it’s possible that you and I have met? Perhaps at an event, or maybe even smiled at each other as we checked the firmness of Roma tomatoes in the grocery store? I find that thought extremely comforting, and I don’t know why.
What was it like growing up Black in small town Alberta in the 70s?
The year 1911. Is your lineage that of the Black folks who came up from Oklahoma around 1911, and settled in places like Amber Valley?
Do you know who John Ware is?
Do people ask you that a lot?
When you hear “Black Lives Matter,” what happens to your body?
This man at the fair —when you were with him, and you experienced racism and told him about it, was he the kind of white person who truly listened, and tried to understand? Or did he dismiss you and tell you not to make too big a deal about it? I am asking because I have known and loved both of those types of white people and I’d like some advice.
Here are 7 Questions for the Land on Which They Stood
Do you remember the night these two cried in each other’s arms, holding on so tightly and for so long, that the moon turned into the sun?
Did you soak up their water, and then store it under your surface, in a secret special place for the tears of the heartbroken?
The year 1911. I recently learned that in 1911, the “Alberta Hospital for the Insane” opened in Ponoka. This Hospital was a major center where the Eugenics Board of Alberta enforced sexual sterilization. The “Alberta Hospital for the Insane” handled around 60% of the board’s cases. So in this special place soaked with tears of the heartbroken, who else’s heartbreak are you holding?
Are people surprised when the learn that “Ponoka” is a word in Blackfoot?
When I say the names “Chantel Moore” or “Joyce Echaquan”, what happens to your body?
Can you forgive those of us who have taken this long to show up for you?
I believe that land knows all our stories. In Canadian theatre, there is a practice of doing a land acknowledgement before every live performance. When settlers say the names of your original caretakers, but do not tell the stories of those caretakers on that same stage, what happens to your body?
Makambe K Simamba is a Dora Award-winning playwright and actor. She is the Urjo Kareda Artist in Residence at the Tarragon theatre for the 2020/21 season, and her intention as an artist is to be of service to her community through her ability to tell stories. She spends her time arting between Mohkínstsis (Calgary) and Tkarón:to (Toronto).