Points North: Walking a Mile with Mifflin…

Points North

By James Fife

There’s an old saying that is very apropos these days: to truly understand someone, you have to walk a mile in their shoes. I’ve experienced the truth of that saying multiple times in my life. In fact, I have always felt that this principle was the basis of my credo that travel is one of the best things a person can do to improve and expand. Actually seeing and experiencing other life styles is the source of genuine empathy and understanding.

That same growing understanding from exposure is also the basis for some of my revelations reported here, as I learn from experience more things Canadian and how my recently-acquired compatriots think and act. One recent example occurred in Victoria that I would like to see replicated by other political figures, especially in Home South. This was when Mayor Helps visited the oil sands communities to learn first-hand Albertans’ point of view. In the end, what she saw did not change her view on the issues, but it was a refreshing alternative to the red-faced shouting match that the entire pipeline controversy has become.

I treat our transition to life in Home North as one great episode of experiencing others’ perspectives. But I think the most personal eye-opening of this sort in my life derives from what I have learned from being married to Marilyn.

Growing up in California’s Orange County, I was just never demographically confronted with African-Americans or their way of life and attitudes. What I ‘knew’ had the same source as what I ‘knew’ about life in, say, China: what I saw on TV. I knew only a few African-Americans from school and they were not particular pals. Just by sheer numbers, my friend group included many more Latinos or Asian-Americans than blacks. So, it was opening a door to an unknown world when I met, and became fully engulfed in a relationship with, Marilyn, an African-American. Among the many, many things I learned from knowing her was an appreciation of traditions, outlooks, and experiences that are unique and characteristic to black people in the U.S. It was revealing and, as such knowledge always does, it created a genuine empathy for that perspective that I lacked before.

For instance, it was only after meeting Marilyn that I realized the underlying sense of public ‘otherness’ that black people can feel in white America. Early on in our relationship, we made a road trip together that involved a stop in a former mining town in the eastern Sierras. It was a very isolated and rural area, but had no negative associations for me. For Marilyn, though, she had an instinctive suspicion based on awareness of centuries of hostility that blacks can encounter in such locales where few of her people ever ventured.

At first, I thought her anxiety exaggerated, but I since learned that it is (1) a genuine and universal perspective among most African-Americans and (2) unfortunately justified more often than I realized. It’s that innate sensitivity to public presence that I have written about as striking Marilyn being very different in her experiences in Canada. As I have mentioned, she feels less an outsider in Canada in some ways than in her own native country, ironically, and I, having learned now from years of sharing this with her, can finally detect that greater acceptance myself. By walking along with Marilyn for 25 years, if not exactly in her shoes, I have at least become more sensitive to how these public tensions can exist and how they may be manifested.

In this context, I was very excited to read how a commemorative plaque celebrating Mifflin Gibbs was installed in Irving Park in James Bay. Gibbs was an African-American who relocated to Victoria in the 1850s, served as a city councilor for several years and was an early promoter of confederation. I had read about Mifflin Gibbs sometime ago during my crash course into British Columbia history. I remember gleefully sharing his story with Marilyn as a sign that Victoria was indeed a welcoming place where she would fit in comfortably. After all, a city that welcomed and even elevated a black American in a time when race prejudice was in-bred certainly suggested a promising retirement home for Marilyn and me. It augured well for toleration and an accepting attitude. And the recent election of former Somali refugee Sharmarke Dubow to the Victoria council seemed like a modern-day re-affirmance that Gibbs’ election was not an isolated, historical oddity.

As I read how Mifflin Gibbs’ great-great-grandniece travelled from the U.S. to help dedicate the plaque on Michigan Street where the Mifflins once lived, I had a surprising feeling of satisfaction for such public acknowledgement. Surprising, because I think it affected me in a more personal fashion than it probably ever would if I had never known Marilyn, coming to understand some of her world. I had walked far enough in her shoes to change my perception.

I have written before about the effect of public monuments on those who encounter them, how what they commemorate can have different effects to different segments of our society. The fact that Victoria has officially acknowledged Mifflin Gibbs and his contributions in this public way has a very individual effect on me. I will look forward to the next visit when we can visit the plaque. Because I know that it will mean something a bit more personal to me and akin to how it may strike Marilyn. And that’s because I have walked that small distance in her’s and Mifflin’s shoes. And that gift of empathy is so needed in these days of growing withdrawal from a sense of communal interests. Seeing that plaque in the flesh will help me feel that, like Mifflin, Marilyn and I made the right choice to settle in Home North.

Points North

Walking a Mile with Mifflin…

By James Fife

There’s an old saying that is very apropos these days: to truly understand someone, you have to walk a mile in their shoes. I’ve experienced the truth of that saying multiple times in my life. In fact, I have always felt that this principle was the basis of my credo that travel is one of the best things a person can do to improve and expand. Actually seeing and experiencing other life styles is the source of genuine empathy and understanding.

That same growing understanding from exposure is also the basis for some of my revelations reported here, as I learn from experience more things Canadian and how my recently-acquired compatriots think and act. One recent example occurred in Victoria that I would like to see replicated by other political figures, especially in Home South. This was when Mayor Helps visited the oil sands communities to learn first-hand Albertans’ point of view. In the end, what she saw did not change her view on the issues, but it was a refreshing alternative to the red-faced shouting match that the entire pipeline controversy has become.

I treat our transition to life in Home North as one great episode of experiencing others’ perspectives. But I think the most personal eye-opening of this sort in my life derives from what I have learned from being married to Marilyn.

Growing up in California’s Orange County, I was just never demographically confronted with African-Americans or their way of life and attitudes. What I ‘knew’ had the same source as what I ‘knew’ about life in, say, China: what I saw on TV. I knew only a few African-Americans from school and they were not particular pals. Just by sheer numbers, my friend group included many more Latinos or Asian-Americans than blacks. So, it was opening a door to an unknown world when I met, and became fully engulfed in a relationship with, Marilyn, an African-American. Among the many, many things I learned from knowing her was an appreciation of traditions, outlooks, and experiences that are unique and characteristic to black people in the U.S. It was revealing and, as such knowledge always does, it created a genuine empathy for that perspective that I lacked before.

For instance, it was only after meeting Marilyn that I realized the underlying sense of public ‘otherness’ that black people can feel in white America. Early on in our relationship, we made a road trip together that involved a stop in a former mining town in the eastern Sierras. It was a very isolated and rural area, but had no negative associations for me. For Marilyn, though, she had an instinctive suspicion based on awareness of centuries of hostility that blacks can encounter in such locales where few of her people ever ventured.

At first, I thought her anxiety exaggerated, but I since learned that it is (1) a genuine and universal perspective among most African-Americans and (2) unfortunately justified more often than I realized. It’s that innate sensitivity to public presence that I have written about as striking Marilyn being very different in her experiences in Canada. As I have mentioned, she feels less an outsider in Canada in some ways than in her own native country, ironically, and I, having learned now from years of sharing this with her, can finally detect that greater acceptance myself. By walking along with Marilyn for 25 years, if not exactly in her shoes, I have at least become more sensitive to how these public tensions can exist and how they may be manifested.

In this context, I was very excited to read how a commemorative plaque celebrating Mifflin Gibbs was installed in Irving Park in James Bay. Gibbs was an African-American who relocated to Victoria in the 1850s, served as a city councilor for several years and was an early promoter of confederation. I had read about Mifflin Gibbs sometime ago during my crash course into British Columbia history. I remember gleefully sharing his story with Marilyn as a sign that Victoria was indeed a welcoming place where she would fit in comfortably. After all, a city that welcomed and even elevated a black American in a time when race prejudice was in-bred certainly suggested a promising retirement home for Marilyn and me. It augured well for toleration and an accepting attitude. And the recent election of former Somali refugee Sharmarke Dubow to the Victoria council seemed like a modern-day re-affirmance that Gibbs’ election was not an isolated, historical oddity.

As I read how Mifflin Gibbs’ great-great-grandniece travelled from the U.S. to help dedicate the plaque on Michigan Street where the Mifflins once lived, I had a surprising feeling of satisfaction for such public acknowledgement. Surprising, because I think it affected me in a more personal fashion than it probably ever would if I had never known Marilyn, coming to understand some of her world. I had walked far enough in her shoes to change my perception.

I have written before about the effect of public monuments on those who encounter them, how what they commemorate can have different effects to different segments of our society. The fact that Victoria has officially acknowledged Mifflin Gibbs and his contributions in this public way has a very individual effect on me. I will look forward to the next visit when we can visit the plaque. Because I know that it will mean something a bit more personal to me and akin to how it may strike Marilyn. And that’s because I have walked that small distance in her’s and Mifflin’s shoes. And that gift of empathy is so needed in these days of growing withdrawal from a sense of communal interests. Seeing that plaque in the flesh will help me feel that, like Mifflin, Marilyn and I made the right choice to settle in Home North.

Tax Topics with Fin: Death and Taxes

Edgy and Alive—a great place to grow!

Edgy and Alive—a great place to grow!