Q&A: Shayna Jones, folklorist and performance storyteller

·4 min read

For over a year, in partnership with Heritage Saskatchewan, the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan African Canadian Heritage Museum, Shayna Jones has been collecting stories and interviews from Black people in rural Saskatchewan. This is part of her national storytelling project about Black and rural experiences in Canada.

Jones recently travelled around the province to share these stories in a series of performances. She spoke to the StarPhoenix about the inspiration behind the project, how she hoped to reach audiences, and the moments that have stood out to her from her work in Saskatchewan.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What inspired you to seek out stories from rural, Black Canadians?

A: I live rurally in B.C., outside of a teeny tiny town of 800 people. And two years ago in 2020, Black life was suddenly put on centre stage after the murder of George Floyd. Suddenly, Black life was the topic of the day for everybody. And I found myself reflecting, in my tiny little mountain home, on what my own heritage means to me. What does my own sense of being Black mean to me?

Tucked away in my little village as I was, I couldn’t help but reflect on individuals like myself, who have tucked themselves away in rural settings. How do they feel about what is being put in the media and what is being touted as issues that matter to Black life? And that got me curious to hear from other Black individuals who have chosen to live like I do, all across the country.

Q: What did audiences experience at your performances?

A: I hope that people have had the experience of their hearts being touched and perhaps their eyes and their mind being opened. The stories I’m bringing are meant to create a little bit of insight or understanding for people we would not have acknowledged or made room for had we not first heard their story. And so it’s my prayer that those who listened left with even a millimeter more openness towards honouring the myriad diverse voices that can exist in a rural town in Saskatchewan.

You know, we predominantly associate rural Saskatchewan with a white settler experience, but those are not the only voices in these towns. And until the other voices are acknowledged and are given space to be heard, it will be very easy to malign their stories or to consider them as not important and push through as if they don’t matter. I want to challenge that.

Q: What stands out to you from the work you’ve done in Saskatchewan?

A: When I did the first performance, the audience was, of course, predominantly white and predominantly over 50 in age. And I’m a Black woman in my 30s, and I’m telling these stories of Black experience in small towns. And what really hit me, that first day, was the vulnerability that I was feeling.

Now, I’m a performing artist. I’ve been doing this for more than a decade. And yet I could feel myself very, truly drawing upon some of the words of wisdom that I received from the interviewees of Black descent in rural Saskatchewan. I found myself drawing upon their words to strengthen me as I stood up to do my first performance of the series here in this province. And it almost moved me to tears, that I was drawing strength from the people that I interviewed in order to perform in their communities.

And that leads me to the second thing that has been most impactful to me throughout the interviews. Something that moved me so beautifully was how many of the interviewees spoke about being so proud to be Black in their small town. They talked about being so proud to be a rural Saskatchewanian. They talked about being so proud to be Black and rural, and the joy they found, and the strength they have found in standing strong in their own culture while also loving their predominantly white towns. And that really blew me away.

Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix

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