This London man is finally talking about being Black and he's not going to stop

Devon Cornelius grew up in a white suburban neighbourhood in Burlington. He attended a high school with 700 students. He was one of seven Black kids. He's never felt comfortable talking about his Blackness, until now.

Devon Cornelius attended London's Black Lives Matter rally. Now he feels inspired to speak out.

Devon Cornelius, pictured with his family, grew up in a white neighbourhood in Burlington, Ont. (Submitted by Andrea Bartholomew)

It's been an emotional couple of weeks for London's Devon Cornelius. Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Cornelius felt inspired to write about his experience as a Black man. He called his blog post Speaking My Blackness. He joined Rebecca Zandbergen on London Morning to talk more about it.

Why did you break your silence?

There was something stirring in my spirit. I knew I had to post something. I had to write something. I didn't expect it to get the response that it's gotten, and I'm used to 20 people, my mom and her friends reading my blog, but this has really taken off. I feel like these words aren't just mine, they're not my own. They're not my own ambition, it's really coming from my heart and soul, but also other people's stories that have come out. 

You talk about looking to your parents, and the era they lived through. How did they shape who you are?

My parents were both born in the West Indies, Jamaica and Antigua, and coming through countries that were owned by the Brits and then going through England, through the States and into Canada. They would have seen and experienced some things that they didn't really talk about much. You knew there was pain, you knew there was frustration, but also a determination to move beyond it, and to provide their kids with a better life, or a safer life.

So when we grew up, it was in Burlington and it was a calm quiet, but this white suburbia was very difficult in some ways.

Difficult that you lived in a mostly white community?

Yeah. You look around and there are no other kids who look like us. There are no other families who look like us. There are unique challenges when you're the only one. So in high school, 700 people in a high school and there were seven Black people. 

What was it like for you when you saw the murder of George Floyd?

I watched it. It was hard. It was emotional. It was numbing. It evoked a lot of emotion. It's really hard to realize that someone was murdered, and we watched it. I'm used to history where you see the pictures of the aftermath, pictures of lynchings, pictures of riots and protests in the past, where dogs are attacking Black people, where they're being sprayed by fire hoses. This was something different, to watch someone's life drain from them. 

Devon Cornelius attended the Black Lives Matter rally with his daughters. (Submitted by Andrea Bartholomew)

You went to the protest in London that was largely in response to that murder. What was that like?

I took my daughters. They're seven and four. We stayed in the car just for COVID concerns. It was hard but it was good. It started off, for me it felt awkward. It was uncomfortable at first. Growing up in that white city, I was used to hiding or subduing my Blackness. Not really speaking about it, not being proud about it. And so, to see people with their fists in the air chanting and signs that are speaking about Black Lives Matter, it was hard for me. And there are people who are so supportive and looking for eye contact, which is rare for me in some ways. Just taking that all in was really difficult.

And my girls in the back, they started their own chant, 'Black Lives Matter. You matter! I matter! We matter!' It was this beautiful moment of just realizing that this is a good thing. The world is shifting, hearts are opening, people are listening.- Devon Cornelius

So I'm sitting with my daughters and explaining what's going on and why it's going on. My seven-year-old, she's awesome. She's deep. She's pensive. She's like, 'What's Black lives matter? I don't get it.' I explain Black lives and you're a Black life and you matter. We're having this incredible conversation and she goes silent and she's listening to the chants and she's reading the signs and she turns to me, "All of these people are here for us? That's amazing." 

It was deeply emotional. So we're taking it all in, we're driving around to different spots and just watching what's going on and eventually I could get into it and realize how important that moment was and it meant a lot to me to see the city of London rally around Black people to say we matter. And my girls in the back, they started their own chant, 'Black Lives Matter. You matter! I matter! We matter!' It was this beautiful moment of just realizing that this is a good thing. The world is shifting, hearts are opening, people are listening. 

You said 'I struggle to get people to look into my eyes.' What do you mean by that?

I think in our world, we're all so busy or occupied. Or just caught up in our own stuff that we don't necessarily pause to look into someone's eyes to say, 'I actually value this conversation.' It felt new to me, other than generic with people. This was different. This was an intent to connect. People just looking to say, I see you. I don't know it just felt different. 

In your blog post you highlight the difference between racism sparked by hatred versus ignorance. Tell me about that.

Racism was borne out of that white supremacy, out of that hatred. But then there are these systems that are built around it. People who are born into that system don't know why that system is a certain way. There is this ignorance. They just don't know that some of these things that they say or do are inappropriate. For Black people who have felt dismissed or ignored for so long, there's this righteous anger that's built and everything starts to feel like hate. When really some of it actually isn't fuelled by hate. If we're able to pause the emotional reaction and hear what's going on, and actually understand where that person is coming from, you may realize they just don't know that it's not okay to do that. And if you're able to step into that and have a conversation about the thing and not the person, it allows that conversation to actually be heard. You can actually bring some understanding there.

Do you think you'll be talking more about your Blackness now?

I feel like I'm called to do this, to step out and speak more. It's hard, but I think some of the best things we do in life are the most difficult ones. The things that really do scare us, are the things that we're actually being called to do. So there's a part of me that needs to be faithful in that and obey what I'm supposed to be doing and speak my truth.