Rocky Jones was a most courageous warrior and inspiring teacher for anyone willing to pay attention, like author Jon Tattrie
I got to interview Rocky Jones two times. Once it was so he could tell me about the time he brought Stokely Carmichael to Nova Scotia in the 1960s. The second time was after the then-new Africville church museum hired a white woman as its first director.
When he talked to me about Carmichael (later called Kwame Ture), he welcomed me into his home. He told the most gripping story of revolutionaries, police surveillance, guns, and the origins of his great vision for our province. The funny thing is, I sat on the edge of my seat, eyes wide – and he kept dozing off. He had taken time on a rare “off” day to talk to me, had just flown in from somewhere and was about to fly somewhere else. He was nearing 70 and he was bone tired. He knew I wanted to include the visit in The Hermit of Africville, the biography I was writing about his friend Eddie Carvery, and so he made time.
As a white guy who sometimes writes about Black history, I’m self-conscious about my ignorance, worried someone will challenge my right to write. I asked Rocky what white people did well in the 1960s, and could do well today, to oppose anti-Black racism.
“If you want to help me, don’t come into my community to do things for me or 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,” he told me, recounting the advice he had once given a white woman. “Don’t bother me and my Black community. If you’re white, you’ve 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.”
It was superb advice that fit right into my brain – no doubt as Rocky intended. I wrote Hermit in that spirit, and took the same advice with subsequent books dealing with colonialism and racism. It’s a permanent part of my brain now, and when I work with (and against) the city to take down its awful statue of the white man who issued a scalping proclamation against the Mi’kmaq, Edward Cornwallis, that’s my effort to grab the guy who’s kicking.
In 2011, the Africville Heritage Trust hired and soon fired a white woman from Ontario as its first director. She was fired because she lied on her resume, but the racial angle made national news. I did a radio documentary about the church museum for CBC and asked Rocky about the white director.
“You would never get a man hired as the executive director of a women’s organization,” he told me. “Yet to have a white person as the executive director of a Black organization seems appropriate to some people. I disagree.”
He replaced heat with light in a patient, confident voice.
And now his voice is back in a warm, funny, intelligent and enlightening autobiography called Burnley “Rocky” Jones: Revolutionary. The book comes from taped conversations Jones had with his friend James Walker. They planned to turn it into an autobiography, but Jones died with the work unfinished.
Walker finished it.
We learn that he grew up as the son of Elmer and Willena Jones – and that meant something. Life in the Marsh near Truro was poor and happy, filled with family and friends. But the anti-Black racism keeps drifting in.
One day his grandfather dies mysteriously on a trip to Halifax. Was he mugged and killed? Was he targeted because he was Black? No one ever knew for sure.
Rocky’s father was a great hockey player. “People said if it hadn’t been for racism, he’d likely have been an NHL player,” Jones writes. “Nobody would pick him, that’s for sure.”
People in the Marsh always gave a room to Black strangers – because no place in Truro would rent to a black person. There were no “whites only” signs around, but everyone knew which barber would cut Black hair, where Black people were supposed to sit in the movie theatres, and which companies might hire a Black person.
Rocky delivers natural parables. He writes about a time he needed to see a dentist and was stunned when a Black man started examining his mouth. “I think to myself, ‘Hold it, I’ve never seen a Black dentist before,’” Jones writes. “I knew right away I was not letting this man do anything to me … Because this is the first time I’ve ever seen a black dentist. I’d never seen it. I’d never heard of it.
“I couldn’t get out of that chair fast enough and get down the street. This is what my life in Nova Scotia has done to me.”
Rocky casts himself as the racist, showing how internalized such ideas can be. He’s also describing the way a lot of white people might have felt about a Black dentist, and helping us explore our own biases.
He does the same when writing about his first political action. He stumbles upon a group of white people in Toronto protesting the way Black people in the U.S. are treated. He decides Black people should be there too, so he returns with his wife Joan and their baby Tracey. The press turns up and suddenly he’s “Canada’s Stokely Carmichael.”
Once again, he’s gently showing white people how they can help fight anti-Black racism.
He lays out the problems caused by anti-Black racism with the story of when, as a boy, he went to the Truro pool hall with his white friends, but the white hall owner told him he couldn’t play. He could watch his white friends play, though.
“Here was someone who has power over me, he’s got physical power, he’s got the power of the state because he owns the place. He’s got all this power and he’s exercising this power over me. I was helpless,” Rocky writes.
It’s not so much racism that causes problems – it’s when the racist has power to harm your personal life, your ability to get a job, or how you’re treated when you go shopping at Sobeys.
“This is the strange nature of Canadian racism. There are these little pockets of openings that are making people feel better who are exercising power, exercising discrimination,” he writes.
In my 39 years, it has never once crossed my mind to wonder if a Nova Scotia business would serve me because I’m white. I just assume I can go where I like. And when I watched the Heritage Minute on the Underground Railroad, I felt good about being Canadian.
It took an education from Rocky Jones, and others, to make me wonder why in that Canadian Heritage Minute, “Pa” had to stay hidden in the church pew, even once he was in Canada. It took an education to make me wonder why white Halifax destroyed Africville, and why that wasn’t presented as “a part of our heritage.”
Rocky Jones made it clear to me that we must tackle racism as it lives in white brains like mine. The destruction of Africville is usually told as a part of Black history. It’s not – it’s white history. White people bulldozed it.
In Nova Scotia, 95 percent of us are white. In New Brunswick, about 98 percent of us are white. In PEI, it’s 97 percent. Newfoundland and Labrador is 98.6 per cent white. Statistically, therefore, in our region, more than 95 percent of racist minds must live in white bodies. So white people should be doing 95 per cent of the work to combat racism. We haven’t achieved that yet.
When I researched an entry on Rocky Jones for the Canadian Encyclopedia, I was struck by his solutions-focused approach to fighting anti-Black and anti-Mi’kmaq racism in Nova Scotia.
When he realized Halifax didn’t have a place for young Black and white people to meet in the 1960s, he helped create Kwacha House. The National Film Board of Canada made a short film about the lively discussions between white and Black youths at the interracial social club.
While studying at university in 1970, he saw too few other black and Mi’kmaq students, so he helped create Dalhousie University’s Transition Year Program.
After the Donald Marshall commission exposed rampant racism in the justice system, he decided Canada needed more non-white lawyers. So he helped create the Black and Mi’kmaq Initiative at Dalhousie Law School. And then he enrolled in it, became a lawyer, and won famous victories against racism. (Including at the Supreme Court level.)
Every single time I saw him speak publicly, someone would tell him he’d touched their lives. White people. Black people. Mi’kmaq people. Young, old.
He touched me, too. He told me a story about someone kicking the shit out of him and it became my writing compass.
So if someone asks me why I, as a white guy, am writing about African Nova Scotian history, I’ll tell them because Rocky Jones was a cool guy. He was smart, funny, brave and kind. And he was a great Nova Scotian.