Cicely Belle Blain explores Black identity and history through their powerful poetry
Cicely Belle Blain is a poet and activist from British Columbia. They founded Black Lives Matter Vancouver. CBC Radio named them one of 150 Black women and non-binary people making change across Canada in 2018.
They are also the author of the poetry collection Burning Sugar, which explores Black identity, history and the impact of colonization on Black bodies. Burning Sugar illuminates how systems, society and culture are all structured to reinforce racism. But it also explores and celebrates the nuance and joy in life.
Blain spoke to Shelagh Rogers about writing Burning Sugar.
Travelling the world
"One of the greatest joys and privileges of my life is being able to travel. It's something that my parents gave me the opportunity to do from a young age. But as I grew up, I started to realize that while I had the privilege of travelling with a British passport — being able to go anywhere and having the funds to go anywhere — the actual experience on the ground is drastically different from my peers. Being in different places around the world, being on different lands in my body, being perceived the way that I am and the microaggressions that I experience. Recognizing the some of the dark histories of a lot of places — especially when I'm in North America or in in West Africa — and seeing the present day legacies and repercussions of a lot of trauma and violence that's happened. It drastically transformed what for some people may just be a holiday, but for me it is so much deeper than that. I wanted to put that down into words.
If you stay still long enough, you can feel the things that have happened there before.
"I've always had this strange relationship with time and place. I always feel time is moving through us. If you stay still long enough, you can feel the things that have happened there before."
Visiting the American South
"I had gone for a Black organizing leadership retreat. They called me before I went and asked, 'Is this experience going to be applicable to you?' Vancouver's so far removed from the American South. And I was saying anti-Blackness is global. It shows up in different but similar ways everywhere. I'm so glad I got that opportunity to meet with other Black activists, specifically Black American activists, and learn about their experience, their teachings. That retreat, being on a former slave plantation intentionally — a historic site has been reimagined to offer refuge and experiences for Black activists — is so powerful. Especially when you think of how many former plantations are wedding locations and how problematic and interesting that is. To actually see a whipping post right there. As I describe, it's sort of innocuous and just a piece of wood, but it's a piece of wood with so much meaning. It was such a powerful experience.
I was somewhere where I felt that more and more deeply that a lot of places, the things that have happened, the colonialism and slavery.
"Literally walking on on sidewalks where, not that long ago, slaves would have been sold there. I was somewhere where I felt that more and more deeply that a lot of places, the things that have happened, the colonialism and slavery. Seeing a sign that was like, 'We love the police,' and simultaneously they're thinking about the histories of anti-Blackness and racism. There's always been a recent a recent unlawful murder of a Black person."
Racism in Canada
"Growing up in England, the type of racism that I experienced and witnessed were much more overt and explicit than what I see here in Canada. I think that means that people think that racism doesn't exist. But we still see so many issues here, the over-incarceration and over-criminalization of Black and Indigenous people. There are so many ways that these things are showing up.
Canada has built a lot of its image around being peaceful and inclusive. It's hard to chip away at that narrative and help people to recognize the racism that's actually right in front of you.
"But because it's so deeply embedded in our systems and it's nuanced and there's so many microaggressions. Canada has built a lot of its image around being peaceful and inclusive. It's hard to chip away at that narrative and help people to recognize the racism that's actually right in front of you."
"As a satellite arriving here in Canada and having no idea about Indigenous experiences here or the history of Indigenous communities, it's not something that we're taught, especially in Britain. Where we're taught about colonialism, we're taught about how great we were and how successful we were and how the British Empire was one of our greatest triumphs. To come here and to realize the reality and the repercussions and the violent legacies of that is, it's a lot and it is something that I've taken very seriously.
What I've learned from Indigenous communities is how the relationship with land is so much more important than the ownership.
"That sparked my interest and also responsibility to unpack every land that I visit and to recognize that Indigenous folks are still fighting against colonial violence. Not just Indigenous to North America, people all over the world. And what I've learned from Indigenous communities is how the relationship with land is so much more important than the ownership."
Cicely Belle Blain's comments have been edited for clarity and length.