Sisters in the Struggle: Beyond Narratives of Resistance

“What are you?” “Where do you come from?” “Where does your family come from?”

Though I may be part of the same, I am recognized as other. Though I may be white-passing (whatever that means) perhaps it is my “black features” that betray me or the mass of curly not-quite-brown hair on my head or the “curviness” my body apparently displays upon second glance, second take — not typical of just a white girl.

“So what are you really?”

Expressed like it’s a fun game, excavating every contour that betrays my difference, dissecting each part as if these parts could be removed or isolated from one another – like Operation. A guessing game that others can join in on for fun.

“I’m part Negro too,”says a new American classmate. “I’m French-Canadian Irish. I’m mixed too!” says a new acquaintance, dearly departed from the blaring whiteness of Alberta, newly arriving at a blurred, but colourful Montreal. We all want what we can’t have, we all want to belong where we don’t, trauma we carry — although even this cannot be grasped by them, even if they want any claim for it themselves.

“You know what I mean, I mean what is your background? What is your ethnicity?”as if wording it differently changes what they mean in the end. In the end, it’s all the same.

My inescapable reality is ingrained on the surface of my skin that signals a ready difference even if that difference may be imagined. The incessant questioning and dissection of my identity based on the colour of my skin or the colour it betrays struggles to manifest this difference. I am all at once here, but not at all. The face of an imaginary multicultural narrative created in this place we call Canada. A rarity to be collected and displayed in family, friendships, workplaces… god knows wherever else I haven’t noticed or recognized. No doubt to block it out, save it to educate the privileged on what difference feels like. How it ruins your body and wastelands your mind without you noticing, because if you notice it must be dealt with, and if it can’t be dealt with, then what havoc does this wreak in a lifetime or over many lifetimes, or generations? I use this as a way of relating to the lifetimes of struggle that I now inherit. That, as a biracial woman, my coming into, has always been about becoming in a place where I repeat their beginnings — and so on, and so on.

Dionne Brand and Ginny Strikeman’s documentary film Sisters in the Struggle (1991) echoes this shared embodied experience of black women across Canada within the anti-black climate the country has nationalistically reimagined through a multicultural policy that appropriates diversity and difference while simultaneously wasting away those bodies — whether through institutional exclusion, academic gatekeeping, or financial precarity.

In the beginning sequences of the film, Leleti Tamu relates:

“I see in our history that black women before me wanted to know when is enough? When is the change going to come? And one thing that they’ve always ended with is; well if not in my lifetime then in my sisters lifetime; then in my children’s lifetime, their lifetime. The struggles that black women before us did, helps us to be in the struggle now…”

Thirty years after its release, Sisters in the Struggle conjures a near past where familiar narratives of black death, missing and murdered Indigenous women, racially targeted community displacement, and issues of (mis)representation haunt the present moment. Treading through the embodied histories and testimonies of the women in this film, who being black (or multiracial) in Canada, as if time travelling, past narratives and tensions of race, gender, and sexuality, manifest and repeat themselves now. The film introduces a diverse group of black women, who reflect on the participation and impact that black women have contributed to within politics, social justice movements, their communities, in the home across Canada, and their everyday encounters with the racist and sexist climate around them. These events of relating to one another become a shared experience and opportunity for catharsis; where (social) trauma becomes the site of communion and collective resistance, where we offer up our wounds to one another — to cradle, salvage, fan and burn, sink, rise. Sanctuary as resistance. In this space, the women speak freely but listen in equal intensity as they relive, recollect, and remember the burdens they carry — being both black, female and other intersecting identities within these realms of being. Sisters in the Struggle, however, characterizes and gives shape to the Indigenous and anti-black racism that Canada continues to exploit: their image, the colour(s) their skin reflects or projects while erasing their voices, lived experiences, and (re)animating those violent histories as different forms in the present.

Wading through the dizzyingly familiar experiences that these black women have lived through in their time, I continue to experience them now. What is crucial to realize from these particular moments is how they are played out or reimagined within the nationalistic narratives that our identities are negotiated against now. The conditions in which these black women lived through — survived through — are the same ones I experience in the present tense. As Akua Benjamin questions halfway through the film, “Where does diversity play out within the multicultural institutional policies?” It is only through the appearance or image of that multiculturalism or diversity that the Canadian institution employs and sustains — not just transnationally performed, but globally as well. The various examples of innocuous violence by the Canadian state range from forceful land unsettlement, various forms of destructive resource extraction, and the continued marginalization of BIPOC people through acts of exclusion justified through policy (or lack thereof) are sustained even now.

In the same way that Sisters in the Struggle traces institutionalized racism through memory, embodied experiences, and everyday encounters, I commune with them in this struggle. These narratives of resistance are played out through my embodied experiences now, throughout the film, as well as how the film is effaced through narratives of multiculturalism. A narrative, within a narrative, within a narrative.As a film genre, documentary has the potential to urge political action and collective resistance as a medium. What value or purpose does it serve when a documentary film is appropriated by or assimilated into the Canadian political and economic agenda? Or more specifically, what role does the documentary film play when The National Film Board of Canada (NFB), as a government-funded appendage (that archives, produces, and funds English-Canadian and Quebecois films in Canada), is implicated in this structure through its continual exclusion of black and Indigenous bodies while appropriating their voices into the imaginary narrative of multiculturalism and diverse inclusivity? As a national cinema recognized for its documentary-esque or realist aesthetic or style of filmmaking, the critique produced through the film on Canada’s performative multiculturalism is reenacted through its assimilation into the institutional body.

While the past, present, and future become immobilized — a repeated temporality of waiting — characterized by present BIPOC-Canadian experiences, gestures toward a lived reality that prevents us from living fully embodied in the world; a consequence of an imaginary multicultural narrative in a Canadian context. Waiting, living, existing in this repetitive cycle of deja vu, inherited by body after body within the confines of the same system, time after time… That, as a biracial woman, my coming into, has always been about becoming in a place where I repeat their beginnings — and so on, and so on… Sisters in the Struggle captures these intersecting narratives of resistance as survival but emphasizes moving beyond narrative, testimony, and witnessing by surviving through collective resistance that organizes and mobilizes the movement of marginalized bodies.