Valerie Mason-John knows a thing or two about black history. She has one of her own.
The 57-year-old Gibsons-based poet, playwright and inspirational speaker – who will be part of Black History Month celebrations at Gibsons Public Market on Saturday, Feb. 15 – was born and raised in the U.K. and learned of cultural and institutionalized racism firsthand.
“I was brought up in the British education system, which said that because intelligence was innate and that black people were inferior to white people, women were inferior to men, that therefore we needed a tripartite school system,” Mason-John said in an interview. “I went through the system where I was going to be fit for nothing.”
But Mason-John was fit for plenty. She would go on to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree and a theatrical performance diploma at Sussex University, and later be awarded an honorary doctorate from East London University. She’s also an ordained Buddhist teacher and, in addition to her published poetry and plays, has written and lectured internationally on a Buddhism-based addiction detox program she co-developed, called Eight Step Recovery.
Mason-John, who moved to Gibsons from Edmonton ten years ago, has managed to endure racism, casual and official, without the self-destructive turmoil that can come with it. Her views and methods are evident in non-fiction books she’s written, like Detox Your Heart. But she still calls out bigotry and racist violence where she sees it. “Black people all over the world, indigenous people all over the world, have been oppressed. Wherever I go, I’ve had to deal with the racism,” she said.
Her latest volume of poetry, I Am Still Your Negro, is being published this month, with a foreword by Canada’s seventh poet laureate, George Eliot Clarke. The book contains mostly new work largely inspired by recent events. “You remember two years ago, it was relentless, hearing about black people who’d been killed by police. It was, like, every time you turned on the news,” she said. “I was quite traumatized and really impacted. In a way, this book was a response to that trauma, that collective trauma.”
Mason-John will be reading from her new book at the fifth annual Black History Month celebration, in cooperation with Gibsons and District Public Library. Following an official kickoff by Mayor Bill Beamish at noon on Feb. 15, there will be Nigerian music and dance, African food tasting and demos, short film screenings, a talk on the history of B.C.’s black population with Dr. Handel Wright, and at 4:30 p.m., Mason-John’s book launch. From 5 to 6 p.m., an African Happy Hour is promised, with more food tastings and demos.