Understanding black history

This is the first in a series of posts I am writing in my annual commemoration of Black History Month. My inspiration, and source of historical material, is a book by Joseph Mensah called Black Canadians: history, experiences, social conditions. As I work my way through the book, I will be blogging my reactions and things that stand out.

Imagine for a moment that you were stranded in a lifeboat somewhere in the ocean. You have no way of knowing which direction the land is, but if you have any chance of reaching safety, you’ve got to start paddling somewhere, right? What piece of information would be useful for you to have?

Aside from “which direction land is in”, you would probably do pretty well knowing which direction you came from. You may be too far out to be able to paddle back, but you could possibly move forward in the correct direction. Simply paddling forward without keeping track of where you’ve been could have you going in circles indefinitely.

Such is how we have to understand our own history. We cannot (or should not) pilot a safe route forward if we don’t take time to reflect on how we came to be here. This is certainly true of all history, but it has a particular relevance to black history. After all, while the historical contributions and narratives of minority groups within Canada are generally under-represented in classical narratives of Canadian history, that may be no more the case than for black Canadians.

In his book, Mensah speculates (and I concur) that our blindness toward the history of black Canadians goes beyond the simple pervasive (and passive) force of white supremacy. He suggests that our true history stands in direct opposition to our contemporary view of Canada as a tolerant, inclusive place that has worked through and moved past a racist history. Contrasted as we are with the extremism of racism in both the historical and contemporary United States, we comfort ourselves in the knowledge that we have a much better history.

What is more accurately the case is that our history is no less fraught and abominable than our southern neighbour, but that the rarity of black Canadians (now and in the past) makes it possible to ignore it. Since the ‘lobby’ for accurate black history is so small, there is no real impetus to go overturning the quarry of stones that makes up our racist past. As a result, we have created an environment that is all but sure to entrench our national ignorance.

That would, perhaps, not be such a major issue in a country that was very different from Canada in the 21st century. After all, if we are all ignorant, we end up with an “After Dachau” situation where nobody cares and everyone’s happy. The mistakes of the past could be safely swept under the rug and we could just move forward happily, holding hands under a rainbow.

The problem is that the problems of the past speak directly to contemporary challenges. Canada continues to be a country that survives through immigration. As it has ever been, Canada requires a consistent influx of new Canadians with skills and education in order to maintain demographic stability. We continue to struggle to find ways to balance our search for national identity against the reality that who “we” are is in a constant state of change.

This is not a unique situation, however. The story of Canada is, in fact, the story of different groups trying to learn to exist alongside each other. These interactions have not been generally peaceful or smooth, and have often resulted in shockingly destructive actions that we cannot look back at without guilt. Whether it be the ongoing and repeated abuse of First Nations people, the internment of the Japanese during the Second World War, or the disgusting reception of the Komagata Maru, Canada has many low points that belie our pretensions at a tolerant and inclusive history.

The story of black Canadians seems to be a series of variations on a theme: an ad hoc ‘community’ of black people facing the arrayed forces of white supremacy, often backed by the force of legislation. Incumbent in this view of black history are the ideas of ‘blackness’, ‘whiteness’, and the difference between direct, intentional racism and the blind, systemic type we contend with most often today.

As I pore over the collected experiences of black Canadians throughout history, I can’t help but note the similarities between the challenges that Canada faced in dealing with its black population, and the ones we face today. This raises an important question in my mind: could black history be an especially relevant source of information in learning lessons about modern racism? Could we better understand the current racial climate in Canada if we had, as a people, a firmer grasp on the problems we’ve already faced (with varying success)?

I argue that a thorough exploration of our history – particularly of the parts of our history that do not flatter or reassure us of our own moral superiority – is the best way to devise methods to solve the racial dilemmas we experience now. Furthermore, insofar as black history is the story of a group colliding with white supremacy (and the reaction thereto on both sides), a proper grasp of black history will prepare us for the problems that will almost certainly arise in the future.

As different groups come into contact, either for the first time or importing old rivalries and hatreds into a new location, we as Canadians must learn how to cultivate an environment of respectful and constructive engagement. There is, to my knowledge, no surefire method to accomplish that goal. We are cast adrift within a sea of cultural collisions, with no clear path to a safe future. What we do have, however, is a rich history filled with failures. If we can learn to examine those failures honestly and without fear, we can navigate the way forward secure in the knowledge that whatever mistakes we are sure to make in the future, we need not repeat those made in the past.

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  1. F says

    I eagerly await your further posts in this series.

    If we can learn to examine those failures honestly and without fear

    This is so completely key. The resistance can be astonishing. People seem to develop a sudden tetchy personal investment in history which they don’t even know when problematic issues are brought forward.

  2. katie says

    As a fellow Canadian, I’m finding your writing and this series fascinating and important.

    But I think you need to watch more carefully how you’re portraying white ethnicity as a monolithic oppressive force. The truth is that within this ethnicity there is a diversity of cultures, classes, languages, and experiences in Canada. Polish Canadians, for example, have had an immensely different history in Canada than those of British extraction. These different factions have, at times, oppressed and enacted racist policies against each other.

    Admittedly, dividing lines between these different groups blur over generations after immigration–everyone “looks” the same. But my worry is that the narrative of a single “white culture” as an oppressive force is overly simplified and leads to an overly-dichotomized analysis.

    But then again, I was raised in an ethnic group that works very hard to maintain its own individual culture and language so I feel the differences between my own upbringing and “white culture” quite strongly even though we’re all “white”. I guess I wonder if it might be useful to think and/or write a little more about what “whiteness” in Canada means.

    I’m sorry if this doesn’t make any sense, and/or if I’m just speaking out of my own privilege.

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