Black History Month: The Wandata Trial

This year for Black History Month I will be examining Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950 by Constance Backhouse. Please read the preamble post if you haven’t already. Part 1 of this series is here.

It is either appalling ignorance on my part (if you wish to blame me) or abysmal historical instruction from our public school system (if you want to blame society) or both (if you want to be accurate) that made me completely unaware that, for the better part of a century, Canada outlawed aboriginal dance. I suppose it should come as no surprise that a country that would make a language illegal wouldn’t restrict that chauvinism to only one method of cultural expression, but for whatever reason I didn’t connect those two dots.

Backhouse invites us to acknowledge that dance is not simply a cultural quirk or an exotic way for aboriginal people to show off aspects of their heritage – they are an intrinsic part of how aboriginal people live their lives, participate in their history, and express their existential relationship to the land and their beliefs. Beyond that, the Grass Dance of the Dakota people was also a vital component of their economic and familial tradition and practices. Far from being an ancillary (but still important) method of artistic expression as is the European tradition, dance occupies a much more central niche in many aboriginal communities.

It is with this in the background that we turn our attention to the town of Rapid City, Manitoba in 1902, and the arrest of Wanduta, a Dakota elder (“Heyoka” is the title they used) for participating in a Grass Dance (also known as a Give-Away dance, due to the profligate exchange of gifts that occurs as part of the ceremony). The Dakota had been invited to perform their dance as part of hte Rapid City July Fair – a practice that was common. White settlers enjoyed the spectacle and exotic flavour of aboriginal dance, and paid handsomely to see it. While most dances were performed on reserves in cultural context, the Dakota outside of Rapid City were not averse to being part of the spectacle of the Fair. [Read more...]

Movie Friday: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Other America

There are few things that get me more irate than people who selectively quote Martin Luther King Jr. as their ‘trump card’ for their argument. While I think Dr. King had some fantastic ideas in his time, he was looking at reality through a theological lens without the benefit of scientific training; furthermore, the world he knew is now more than 50 years old. To suggest that disagreeing with Dr. King in 2013 means that your argument is incorrect is a naked appeal to authority that happens far too frequently.

Even beyond that though, most of the quoting I come across is sliced out of a single speech (the ‘Dream’ speech), without even the courtesy or intellectual rigour to quote the lines in context of the rest of the speech:

But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.

If someone wants to try and reconcile that passage with the idea that Dr. King was colour blind, they’re welcome to waste their time doing so. Also everyone is invited to evaluate whether or not the conditions that prompt that speech are radically or even meaningfully different than they were in 1963.

The fact is that Dr. King wrote more than one speech, and his beliefs went beyond simple platitudes of “colour of skin vs. content of character”. Failing to appreciate this not only gives us a skewed and wildly inaccurate view of both the man and his contribution to history, but it robs us of the wealth of thoughts he did contribute. So today I invite you to brew a cup of coffee, sit down somewhere comfortable, and watch the video linked here. [Read more...]

Black History Month: Re Eskimos (1939)

This year for Black History Month I will be examining Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950 by Constance Backhouse. Please read the preamble post if you haven’t already.

The first case that Backhouse examines is a Supreme Court decision regarding whether or not to classify “Eskimos” (now properly known as Inuit) as Indians under the Indian Act.

The case concerned a conflict between the province of Quebec and the government of Canada, regarding the status of Inuit people living in northern Quebec. The disruption of their way of life (subsistence hunting and fur trading having been made all but impossible by the encroachment of European settlers and the disruption of the migratory patterns of carbiou) had created a dire situation for the Inuit, and there was some dispute over who had to foot the bill: the federal government or the province. The relationship between the British Crown (i.e., the Canadian government as a representative of the British Crown) and aboriginal people was codified by a legislative act, meaning that the Crown had certain fiduciary duties toward ‘Indians’, but not to non-’Indians’. [Read more...]

Crommunist marks black history month 2013

Well folks, it’s February once again, which means that it’s time for my annual observance of Black History Month. For those of you who are new to the blog, every year I produce a series of posts about black history as I work my way through a particular theme. In the blog’s first year, I released a number of the posts that underpin its central dogma when it comes to race:

In the second year, I took a broad-brush approach to Canada’s black history, highlighting stories from Canada’s different geographic regions:

Last year, I took a more focussed approach and walked through a text on black Canadians, with both historical and contemporary flavours, giving a sort of ‘guided tour’ of a book by sociologist Joseph Mensah:

“Why isn’t there a white history month?”

One of the staples of black history month is legions of white people generating faux outrage in an ever-expanding variety of media wondering why there isn’t a “white history month”. There’s a black history month, the argument goes. Isn’t the goal for everyone to be equal? Why can’t we celebrate white history? Is it because you’re racist? I think it is!

The rejoinder that I and many others usually give (at this point it’s nearly perfunctory) is that the very existence of black history was denied for generations. Either by omission or by naked assertion, the possibility that blacks had contributed not only to American history but indeed to world history was precluded from contemplation, let alone taken seriously as scholarly pursuits. It is only very recently that this area has been considered worthy of academic exploration. As a result, we have a hole in our cultural understanding, requiring a special effort to acknowledge the role that a previously-excluded group of people played in our heritage.

The same cannot be said for white people, which is why there isn’t a “White History Month”. [Read more...]

Historical projection

One of the things that blogging has moved me to do more often is to learn about history. I am somewhat ashamed to say that between, let’s say, grade 10 history class (which was in 2000) and the founding of this blog (in 2010), I was not exactly what you might call ‘a student of history’. Sure, I picked up things in fits and snatches from newspaper articles and what I gleaned from just generally being a person who was paying attention to the world, but it would be a rare occurrence indeed for you to catch me studying history for its own sake. I have since learned the critical role that understanding history should play in our daily lives.

I think history is kinder to liberals than it is to conservatives (although these labels break down once you reach more than 30 years back). While there have been, and technically continue to be good conservative arguments to make about things, the political ‘left’ has moved to more or less occupy what was once the centre, while the right (particularly in America) has steadily moved to the extreme. As a result, American conservatives lionize Ronald Reagan – a man who was a terrible President and a terrible influence on the world – a man whose policies they would demonize as Satanic socialism were he living today. They don’t really have many other icons to boast about, nor major policy positions they can hang their hats on. They have become the less-clever Statler and Waldorf of policy – having nothing substantive to contribute, but always lobbing criticisms.

And it is a combination of their own lack of laudable history, and the same failure to learn actual history that I have been guilty of, that leads them to accept shockingly ahistorical statements like this: [Read more...]

The accuracy of the elephant’s tail

If you want to make sense of a lot of what it happening in US national politics, I’ve found Chris Hayes’ show Up! to be a consistent source of diverse and thought-provoking analysis. As an avowed and unashamed ‘man of the left’, he manages to break issues out of the left/right divide and instead field panels with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, from a Wal-mart striker to the CEO of Bain Capital. I consider him to be an indispensable voice in political discourse, and his show is a regular watch for me (and when you consider how little time I have to watch TV these days, that’s saying a lot).

One of the things that I like most about his show is that, whether consciously or not, consistently puts people of colour at the table to discuss things that aren’t “the black perspective on” whatever issue is being discussed. It’s a refreshing change from how I am accustomed to seeing black folks being involved in discussions – as though their (our) race was the only relevant topic about which we could speak intelligently. In the face of this unfortunate trend, Chris (and, seemingly, the other producers at MSNBC) books his panels in such a way as to occasionally make white people a minority presence around the table, even when not discussing a race-specific issue.

It is with this in the background that I take issue with a recent segment in which he showered unreserved praise upon Tony Kushner, writer of the screenplay for the movie Lincoln. Chris was glowing in his praise for the script and the movie itself, and Mr. Kushner obviously did not object. The reason why this love-in was so disappointing is because I read a number of the critiques of the film from writers and historians of colour, and they consistently complained that the movie, in keeping with a long-standing Hollywood tradition, almost completely wrote out black people from the story. And so it was with more than a little joy that I saw Chris tweet a link to this article earlier today: [Read more...]

No noose is good noose

Hey folks! Remember that time that Clint Eastwood did something hilarious?

Clint Eastwood did end up stealing the show at Mitt Romney’s formal appointment as his party’s choice for the US presidential election but perhaps not in the way he or the candidate would have wanted.

The 82-year-old’s rambling gravel-voiced conversation with an empty chair – supposedly supporting an invisible Barack Obama – proved a bizarre and confusing warm-up act for Romney.

“Mr President, how do you handle promises that you have made when you were running for election, and how do you handle them? I mean, what do you say to people?” he asked. He berated Obama for not learning from the Russian experience in invading Afghanistan. It was George W Bush who ordered US troops into the country.

For your convenience, the word “hilarious” has been temporarily redefined to mean “sad and pathetically embarrassing”. Eastwood, in a fit of improvisational zeal, decided that it would be an effective strategy to bring out an empty chair to symbolize the President and then have a one-sided conversation with him/it in front of an international audience. Columnist Jamelle Bouie noted that the image of an old white man angrily lecturing an imaginary Obama was a perfect encapsulation of the entire Republican election process.

So that happened, and it was weird, and after a couple of weeks we all just kind of moved on from it. Well… almost all of us: [Read more...]

Today’s word-boner: Ta-Nehisi Coates

One of the great tragedies of my life is that while I love language, I can barely find enough time to write as much as I want, let alone read. There are writers out there like Teju Cole, Amanda Marcotte, Jamelle Bouie, Sikivu Hutchinson, Touré, Greta Christina, Tim Wise, and countless others whose ability to work the language makes me feel like a rank amateur, scribbling with my own feces on the wall of a cave*. From time to time though, I manage to get myself organized enough (or, more often, I decide to let another aspect of my life slide enough) to read the latest offering from my favourite writers, but more often I watch yet another masterwork sail past me, like I was a goldfish intently watching Shark Week.

Happily, today was one of those days when I managed to scrape together a few minutes, and I was rewarded handsomely:

But it would be wrong to attribute the burgeoning support for Zimmerman to the blunders of Spike Lee or an NBC producer. Before President Obama spoke, the death of Trayvon Martin was generally regarded as a national tragedy. After Obama spoke, Martin became material for an Internet vendor flogging paper gun-range targets that mimicked his hoodie and his bag of Skittles. (The vendor sold out within a week.) Before the president spoke, George Zimmerman was arguably the most reviled man in America. After the president spoke, Zimmerman became the patron saint of those who believe that an apt history of racism begins with Tawana Brawley and ends with the Duke lacrosse team.

The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government. In warring against that paradox, African Americans have historically been restricted to the realm of protest and agitation. But when President Barack Obama pledged to “get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” he was not protesting or agitating. He was not appealing to federal power—he was employing it. The power was black—and, in certain quarters, was received as such. [Read more...]