Read an Excerpt from Unsettling the Great White North

August 1st marks Emancipation Day, a day to reflect on the fight against anti-Black racism and discrimination. In this blog post, we are highlighting Unsettling the Great White North: Black Canadian History, edited by Michele A. Johnson and Funké Aladejebi. Keep reading for an excerpt by Barrington Walker below:

Critical Histories of Blackness in Canada

“This meditative paper considers how we might continue to go about the difficult task of writing critical histories of Blackness in Canada. Here I want to highlight the various issues at stake in thinking about historical scholarship as a critical practice by attempting to work through a number of themes in the space provided here. As we write our histories of Blacks in Canada, who, exactly, should we remember and why? If narrative is the process through which nations realize and imagine themselves, where do Blacks fit in with this project? Put another way, what, exactly, is the relationship between “Blackness” and this settler colony we inhabit, this space that has had many different names – including and originally Turtle Island – that we now call “Canada.” And more specifically, what is the particular positionality of Blacks within the history of settler colonialism and its ongoing modes of colonial governance vis-à-vis Canada’s Indigenous peoples?

In attempting to answer these questions – perhaps not quite in the order that I have presented them here – I will consider the existing historiography, much of which has been written with these sorts of critical questions in mind. In addition, I will consider the possibilities for the historiography that is to come – how we might envision the sorts of critical Black histories we will write in the future.

I argue that the writing of critical Black histories must continue to emphasize the move beyond simple storytelling that is all too prevalent during public historical commemorative events that characterize the typical Black History Month fare and, although it is rarer, can still also function as a kind of strategic retreat for some professional (university trained and/or employed) historians as well as their so-called “amateur” counterparts. Such a retreat tragically and needlessly cedes the ground of Black criticality to newer disciplines whose grasp of the complexity of Black histories in Canada is often superficial, bereft of historical or historiographical nuance. Part I of this paper deals with questions of historiography and sketches a few of the major approaches that have shaped the field of African Canadian history over the past fifty years.

Part I: Historiography

I would like to begin my discussion with two early narrative history texts, both of which are important general surveys of Black Canadian history. These are classic texts, but their importance has certainly not diminished with age. The first is Robin Winks’s The Blacks in Canada: A History, first penned in the late 1960s and republished in the 1990s by McGill-Queen’s University Press. The second is Dan Hill’s The Freedom-Seekers, a textbook that was written in the 1980s. Winks’s book, all five-hundred-plus pages of it, is a work that has inspired mixed reactions. This book, though based on an astounding research effort, seems to have been met with what only can be described as a resounding thud by the Canadian historical profession when it was first published. For a book that essentially formally opened up a “sub-discipline” in Canadian history, the response was rather curious. It did not spark the sort of intellectual ferment or create institutional spaces within the Canadian academy that might have been expected. This was the case for two reasons. First, Winks was writing into a scholarly void that existed precisely because of the overwhelming Whiteness of the Canadian historical profession and its blindness with regard to a critical engagement with Black histories in Canada. The writing of the history of Blacks in Canada, although it had a relatively long history (I will say a bit more on this later) was simply not deemed important or worthy of serious study when Winks published his book. I met this sort of attitude head on when in the early 1990s I was on the cusp of completing a master’s degree at the University of Toronto. At that time, I was rather generously granted a meeting with a leading historian of Canada in one of the country’s most respected departments. In response to my query about the possibility of pursuing a doctorate in his department and writing a dissertation in Black Canadian history in partial fulfillment of that degree, I was politely informed by my well-meaning host that writing such a dissertation would prove difficult because the history of Blacks in Canada was virtually non-existent and, by extension, irrelevant. I was thus encouraged (and it is not the first time I would be met with such advice) to perhaps broaden my research to include other non-Anglo Celtic groups in Canada. Winks’s book received a somewhat chilly reception for another reason. When Canadians did think about the history of Blacks in Canada, it was in the vein of the celebratory histories written by an earlier generation of historians, most notably Fred Landon.

Landon was a University of Western Ontario–based historian and librarian who was also a member of the interracial board of London’s civil rights organization – the Canadian League for the Advancement of Coloured People – and a prolific historian, having produced some three hundred publications, many of which were on the history of Blacks in Canada. Indeed, Landon is regarded by many as the “founder” of the field of Black Canadian history. Landon’s work was foundational in the sense that he was one the first to professionalize the study of Blacks in Canada by disseminating his research in professional journals. Landon’s work on the history of Blacks in Canada (he published widely on the history of Ontario beyond Black history) was solid, and it was based on the systematic and conscientious use of primary sources. One of my main bones of contention with Landon, however, was that much of his work – not all – mirrored some of the worst excesses of ideas about the Underground Railroad that were proffered by White abolitionists. As many readers undoubtedly know, the numerous publications that White abolitionists produced tended to rely on a number of rhetorical strategies with which we are still saddled.” (Landon, 1948).

First, there was a tendency to trade in rather graphic accounts of the harsh treatment that was inflicted upon the bodies of slaves in order to generate empathy on the part of the intended (White) audiences of these pamphlets. Sadiya Hartman has argued brilliantly in her work Scenes of Subjection that the discourse of empathy, the identification of the observer with the slave, ultimately reinforced White supremacy while it facilitated the erasure of the subjectivity of the slave (Hartman, 1997). Secondly, the abolitionists tended to relegate Blacks to the status of those acted upon rather than the central actors in their story. The agency of Blacks, the role that they took in seizing freedom, was often missing in the work of the abolitionists. Third, their work tended to highlight the notion that Canada was a more or less pure haven from slavery. This work was mobilized to support a foundational historical narrative of White Canadian beneficence. It is the creation of a narrative arc that contributes to the making of the nation, and this process sits at the intersection of knowledge (i.e., the archive) and power. Landon’s work did not engage in the voyeuristic excesses of his abolitionist predecessors, but it was quite resonant with it on the last two fronts.

Winks’s The Blacks in Canada was the first critical response to the tradition that Landon and his White abolitionist antecedents represented (Winks, 1997). Winks’s tome was an archival tour de force. His meticulous research was instructive from the standpoint of doing the important work of excavation for writing critical histories. His work shows us that often the first step in writing good critical history is premised upon the importance of empirical archival research, not as mere recovery and retrieval but as a first step en route to critical practice. For Winks, the key to debunking the long cherished myths of Canada as a haven from slavery and a promised land lay in the manuscript sources – what we historians also call primary research. As many others (including myself ) have written elsewhere, stories of benevolence via the Underground Railroad and Canada as a welcoming terminus where Blacks enjoyed freedom under the British flag tell only a part of the story. Winks’s work smashed those myths with astonishing surgical precision. First, he highlighted the central role of slavery in New France and the Loyalist era (Marcel Trudel had also done this earlier in his seminal study of slavery in New France) (Trudel, 2013). After charting the various factors – economic, political, legal, and perhaps even social – that caused slavery to peter out, Winks went on to show us that the “afterlife” of slavery in Canada was far from idyllic. In fact, quite the contrary; the single most important contribution of Winks’s work was that it made the case that while Blacks enjoyed formal equality, they were subject to pervasive patterns of social and cultural discrimination. This took the form of residential segregation, separate (and inferior) schools, political and economic marginalization from the mainstream of political life, episodes of mob violence, and a popular culture that made the denigration of Blacks one of its central preoccupations. And these cultural products were both home-grown and imported from the torrent of such images being produced south of the border.

So, while Winks’s empirical work freed the study of Blacks in Canada from romantic myths about the nation, in other respects his work failed to live up to critical scrutiny. The Canada that was narrated in Winks’s book, which was a bald rebuke of the “promised land” narrative, also served to inscribe a narrative of Black subjection and abjection that denied Black Canadians their humanity. For all of its success in shattering the myth of Canadian racial tolerance, there is an unfortunate undercurrent of White (and liberal) supremacy in that book that makes many of us uneasy. This is why many scholars no longer teach this book and why, even among the handful of students who have made their way to my university to undertake advanced study of race in Canada or Black Canadian history under my supervision, fewer and fewer seem to have grappled with this book. Winks’s portrayal of Black Canadians was at times condescending, even insulting. To cite a famous example, in his chapter on the Black Refugees of Nova Scotia Winks wrote that

the Refugee Negroes were a disorganized, pathetic, and intimidated body who seemed unable to recover from their previous condition of servitude, their sudden voyage up the Atlantic to Nova Scotian shores, and their persistent lack of leaders. They unwittingly fanned the sparks of a more conscious, more organized, white racism than Nova Scotia had known, just as the last vestiges of slavery were passing. These new arrivals clasped their freedom to them, willed themselves to do well, did not want to leave their new found land – and yet failed utterly.”

This is but one example in a tome that is rife with these sorts of statements and sentiments. Winks essentially concluded that Blacks in Canada were unsuccessful because by almost every objective measure they were unable to match the successes of Blacks in the United States. Where US Blacks were led by charismatic figures, Black Canadians seemed leaderless. While these charismatic American Black leaders embarked on a variety of programmatic responses to confront White racism in the United States, ranging from Garveyism to civil rights, Blacks in Canada seemed to lack a coherent organizing philosophy and when these ideo-logical currents did manage to trickle across the border, they failed to take root in the shallow soil of Black Canadian life. It is also evident that Winks’s construction of Blackness was deeply rooted in the perspective of his own position as an American and influenced – at least in part – by ideas of American exceptionalism.

A number of scholars crafted critical responses in response to Winks’s work. University of Waterloo historian James Walker criticized Winks for writing the history of Blacks “as an issue in white Canadian life” rather than “the history of Negro life in Canada.” I have always only partially agreed with Walker’s assessment of Winks’s work regarding this issue. I do not think you can disentangle Black history from White supremacy or its connection to the idea of race and the emergence of the racial state, because the history of Blacks in the West is inextricably bound with each of these things. It is a fact, nonetheless, that Winks’s history tends to reproduce the logic of racism by positing Blacks as the passive recipients of White racial abuse. Indeed, in his preface to the second edition of The Blacks in Canada Winks rather strangely remarks that one of the oblique stylistic interventions of the book was his decision to write the chapter on what he called the “nadir” of the Black experience – essentially his narrative account of what we would now call Canadian anti-Black racism – in the passive voice. Given Winks’s dim view of Black life, one doubts whether he was merely being even partially ironic.

I have devoted this much attention to Winks because although it is a text that many in our field would like to see dead and buried (about a decade ago a colleague criticized me for devoting time to a text that was over thirty years old at the time) its influence continues to loom large, although this is often unacknowledged. After Winks, much of what followed in the writing of the history of Blacks in Canada built on his important excavation of White supremacy in Canada while providing a critical response to many of the underlying assumptions in his book around the place of Blacks in shaping their own history – which, Winks claimed, was minimal. James W. St. G. Walker’s The Black Loyalists was first published shortly after Winks’s work appeared. Walker’s influential book highlights the role of Blacks in forging their own freedom during the American Revolution. They were neither the “flotsam and jetsam” of imperial contests nor the passive beneficiaries of British colonial policy. Walker argued that Blacks forged their own freedom by seizing the opportunities that emerged during the war. They were not “freed” but rather they exercised their “agency” by freeing themselves (Cahill, 1999). Other works written in the aftermath of Winks’s work also endeavoured to place Black Canadians at the centre of their own history. Daniel G. Hill’s The Freedom-Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada explicitly argued that freedom was not something that was conferred upon Blacks in Canada but some-thing that they actively sought out and forged for themselves. This is most poignantly illustrated in the culminating chapter of his book, “The Freedom-Seekers,” which provides sketches of eighteen Black Canadians, central historical figures who were the movers of early Black Canadian history (Hill, 1981). In a similar vein, C. Peter Ripley’s 1986 collection, The Black Abolitionist Papers, sought to focus explicitly on the contributions and his-tory of Black abolitionists via an extensive introduction and a rich compendium of primary sources. The work is, in essence, an archive of Black emancipatory thought and practice in the nineteenth century, one that seeks to highlight Black abolitionist thought in Canada as part of a larger movement that spanned Britain and the United States (Ripley, 1986). The emergence of agency as a central theme in the history of Black Canadians has been key in subsequent work that emerged in the 1990s and beyond. During this period, the decentring of Black men in Black Canadian history took hold as scholars such as Afua Cooper, Adrienne Shadd, and Maureen Elgersman (to cite just a few) devoted works to Black Canadian women’s history (Elgersman, 1999). While much of the work on Black women’s history somewhat ironically reproduced the recovery mode of writing that characterized much of the male-centred work they were writing against, there is evidence that the latest generation of Black women’s history is moving away from that. It is somewhat more attuned to theory, interdisciplinarity, and “a nuanced and audible and resonant conversation between the past and the present.” (Reid-Maroney, 2018).

Thus, for at least two decades now, much of the scholarly writing of critical Black Canadian history has moved largely beyond the simple story and the mythologizing of Canada as a haven from slavery and dis-crimination (though some recent publications have seemed to return to it in a noteworthy post-revisionist turn that, though avowedly atheoretical, is in fact heavily imbued with certain theoretical and ideological precepts) (Reid-Maroney, 2013). What historians have turned to now is centring Blacks as the agents of their own history, but there are other issues that we need to consider when writing critical histories of Blackness in Canada as well. I am thinking of three things here: first, how we move beyond histories of “firsts” and the sorts of celebratory histories that often result; second, how we think about Black peoples’ relationships to settler colonialism in Canada; and third, how the methodology of the historian can take up the methodological insights born of Black feminist intersectional theory and praxis and the Black modernist chronotopes that emerge from slavery and its aftermath.

Much of the writing of Blacks in Canada has been preoccupied with excavation of the archives to unearth Black “firsts.” This is perfectly understandable given the history of White supremacy and the denigration of Blackness that pervades so much of the lived experiences of Black folks in the past, in the present, and very likely into the future. The focus on heroes in the writing and public dissemination of Black histories is thus a predictable response to White supremacist assaults on Black aesthetics, intelligence, and accomplishments. Thus, boilerplate Black History Month celebrations typically feature stories of Black heroism or Black accomplishment in a range of fields including arts, law, science, literature, and even athletics (though typically in the pre–World War II era, as barriers to Black participation in professional and elite-level sports have been torn down outside of a handful of vanilla sports such as golf and hockey). It is understandable too that these sorts of conventions would have found their way into some of the historical scholarship as well, where there has been an inordinate focus on exceptional elites, in large part as a result of the challenges presented by finding sources that might point the way to lesser-known figures.

While it is true that much of the preoccupation with Black Canadian elites has to do with who has produced and left behind documentary evidence of their lives, there is also more going on in the decision that many historians of Black Canada have made to focus on elites. If Blacks are the agents of history, there is also a belief among many historians – both explicitly stated and not – that Black elites, or those who are otherwise particularly accomplished, are the movers and creators of Black Canadian history. This is essentially the Du Boisian “talented tenth” conception of Black history, a holdover from older ideas of history and historical practice that emerged in the nineteenth century and the whiggish preoccupation with ideas of teleology and historical progress (Du Bois, 1965). Writing critical histories of Blackness entails not eschewing the history of elites but thinking more carefully and critically about their role in history. A critical approach to history alerts us to the fact that elites are a product of a given social, cultural, and economic context. Moreover, a critical approach to history demands that we also move away from our preoccupation with exemplary historical figures to look at the lives of everyday Black men and women – most of whom were engaged in various sorts of legal and illicit work – to get a sense of how they shaped the contours of modern Black history. Though we have a few excellent studies of slavery in Canada, very few studies of the Canadian Black working class exist, not to mention the Black underclass or lumpen proletariat. Nor do we have many studies of those Blacks who were enmeshed in the criminal justice system, which, again, is understandable given the historic power of dominant stereotypes of Black criminality and historians’ discomfort with and resistance to engaging with them. The few historical studies that do exist (sociologists and criminologists have been more likely to take on these issues) are either met with a stony silence or criticized for reifying or trading in negative stereotypes, responses with which I am familiar (Walker, 2010). But the criminal justice system and the mass incarceration of the prison industrial complex have played an inordinate role in shaping Black life after slavery. Indeed, we need more work that explores the genealogy of the prison and policing in Canada in the Middle Passage and slavery.”

Read more of this excerpt here:


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