Comprehending my identity as an Inuk Jamaican woman

‘It’s time I understand what it means to be Black and understand my father’s family’

by Miali-Elise Coley-Sudlovenick

My Father and I. (Submitted by Miali Coley)

Contributed by Miali-Elise Coley-Sudlovenick

After May 25, 2020, everything I had considered about my identity came into question. It was suddenly more obvious that I was Black. I saw my father and our family represented in George Floyd’s death. Powerless and angry, I needed to know what I could do and to try to comprehend my emotions. 

I’ve been raised Inuk, to eat our food and love the land we call home. But like everyone else, there’s more to me — and I need to understand who I am and what I represent. I feel Inuk, but I look Black. 

It’s time I understand what it means to be Black and understand my father’s family.

My father, second from right, with his mother and siblings. (Submitted by Miali Coley)

Do I identify as being a Black person? Yes. Do I identify as being Inuk? Yes. Do I feel like this Black Lives Matter movement includes me? Yes. Do I understand the sense of oppression and injustice felt by those speaking out? Somewhat. Is it my responsibility to understand why this movement is so important? Yes.

Am I allowed to feel justified in the hardships Black people have known and continue to live today?- Miali-Elise Coley-Sudlovenick

So how do I reflect on this important time in history and lead my life knowing I am an Inuk Jamaican (and a wee bit Scottish)? Am I allowed to feel justified in the hardships Black people have known and continue to live today? I have to process these thoughts, and I have no more time to ignore them.

Growing up ‘mostly Inuk’

I grew up thinking that I was mostly Inuk. I spoke Inuktitut and was raised by my Inuk mother and our Inuit family members. My father was born in Mandeville, Jamaica. He arrived in Canada in 1968, moving to Toronto which was a big change from Jamaica. With his middle class upbringing, my dad would have expected to feel more connected when he arrived — only to find himself among white middle class families who were not always welcoming. Once he completed high school, he travelled to Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit) for a restaurant job and experienced even more changes from the city life he had grown to know.

My dad lived in my home town for about 3 years. During that time he was surrounded by my first language, Inuktitut. He became immersed by connecting with families like the Ipeelie’s and Tikivik’s who would take him out on the land.

When he was registered on my live birth certificate he was listed, in all caps, as BLACK.

Audley Coley is listed as ‘BLACK’ on this certificate of live birth. (Submitted by Miali Coley)

My mother, Elisapi Davidee has been the stable force in my life. She had her own struggles, especially with an unexpected move at 6 years old, when her family moved from Ukiallivillu, an outpost, to settle in Frobisher Bay. Her father, Davidee, was requested to stay here and work as an oil burner mechanic. Everyone had hoped to return to their camp, leaving all of their belongings. They never returned. My mother still feels the sense of longing for her birthplace. When I was 12, I saw my mother’s birth place. I walked on that land and only later understood the importance of that time.

Elisapi on the far left with her relatives Irralik (middle) and Napatsi at winter camp Ukiallivillu. (Submitted by Miali Coley)

Visiting Jamaica

At 22, the same age as my father when he had me, I visited my grandmother Doreen in Jamaica. I so desperately needed to fill a void in my life and hoped that Jamaica would fill it. We visited her family in St. Elizabeth parish and I met so many family members. It was a trip that I had needed. I saw my grandmother in her natural element.

Seeing my family in Jamaica was fulfilling, but it wasn’t the answer to the wonder I was still experiencing. It wasn’t the place that filled me, but created a wonderful experience that helped me to continue my search and seek connection. My grandmother has shown me nothing but acceptance and kindness, I am forever thankful to her generosity and love. The eldest girl in her family, she had two older brothers and 14 younger siblings. I have been blessed with connections to a huge family, many more who I hope to meet someday.

My father Audley George Coley with my grandmother Doreen Dwyer. (Submitted by Miali Coley)

Returning to the north

When my dad, Audley George Coley, talks about arriving in the north in 1979, he recalls knowing of only 6 other Black people at the time. He would come up over the years, but in 2016 he returned for Black History Month and had a chance to share his story to about 200 Black people in Iqaluit. It felt very timely and necessary, a chance where he got to share his stories.

It was important that people understand my story through him, because honestly, where I came from who and I am was a repeated conversation in town. I needed him here to tell people who he was and that would tell people “why I look Black, but speak Inuktitut”. I realized that my father telling his story helped people to establish my story. We had a chance to present together and he performed dance at local schools to celebrate Black History Month. Teaching dance was his legacy; to this day people will still ask me about him and ask if he still teaches dance, which he does, but now in Montreal.

For weeks and even months after his week in Iqaluit, people around town would ask me about him. It was really important for my dad and I to connect over Black History Month. This time, he helped me answer the many questions people had, which helped me to feel more at ease in my hometown. He’s always been there for me, even from a distance.

‘You should be angry’

As I reflect back on the times with my dad, on my family and identity, and on the death of George Floyd, I feel a burden to speak up, to write, to learn and educate. I have a new sense of responsibility to understand my skin colour and the stories and life that I tell, even before I say a single word. 

I can no longer ignore the injustices faced by Black people everywhere, I stand with you. As Maya Angelou put it: “If you’re not angry, you’re either a stone, or you’re too sick to be angry. You should be angry. You must not be bitter.” Perhaps I have been sick or mostly unaware of my own sickness and lack of knowledge. I don’t want to be a rock, I want to do my part. I have a responsibility and can no longer blame anyone else for anything I have not been taught. I want to work through the emotions and continue to process them, whatever that looks like. I will continue to put effort into understanding what I represent, who I am, and learn constructive ways to get my feelings out. Black Lives Matter. 

My father and I. (Submitted by Miali Coley-Sudlovenick)

Source: CBC News