Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Review: The Blacks in Canada

(Robin W. Winks. The Blacks in Canada: A History, 2nd Edition. Montreal & Kingston: Queens-McGill University Press, 1997. Originally published by Yale University Press, 1971.)

This book was the first attempt by an academic to write a comprehensive history of people of African heritage living in northern North America. Though the version I have is officially a "second edition," it remains unchanged from the 1971 version except for the addition of a new foreword by the author.

The book is massive, cumbersome, and not a particularly fast read. I shudder to think about the amount of labour that went into consulting archives and manuscripts and such, along with visiting most of the Black communities in Canada at the time and conducting interviews. The focus on maximizing the volume of "facts" extracted from primary sources and putting them into a more generally accessible form, and covering such a wide range of eras and locations, results in a rush of names and places and dates shooting by before you can really get ahold of them; inadequate attention to characterizing context for at least some of the times and places covered; and a very staid, academic writing style.

At the same time, I learned a great deal. One trap of privilege is a tendency to see oppressed groups as more homogeneous than they really are, and I had no idea that, even before the immigration of people of colour to Canada began to increase significantly in the 1960s and 1970s, the origins of African Canadian peoples was so diverse.

I also appreciated the effort at debunking the traditional Canadian self-satisfaction at having sheltered escaped slaves at the end of the Underground Railroad. While it did happen and it was important, even at the time there was a tendency among white Canadians to inflate the number of people who found sanctuary, and very little interest in hearing that being "safe under the lion's paw" wasn't necessarily as pleasant an experience as it was cracked up to be for the African American refugees in question. The exodus of Black people out of Canada during and after the U.S. Civil War wasn't just about returning to friends and family in the South.

I also thought it was interesting that over the course of the centuries covered, one common characteristic of systemic racism in northern North America was its inconsistency. For example, because slavery (which in the early years often involved Aboriginal people as well as African people) never really became a central economic institution in northern North America, its legal basis was often unclear, inconsistently applied, and really of little concern to most white people (in contrast, of course, to those enslaved here, as well as to both white and Black folks in the southern United States). And in the late 19th century, state-mandated racial segregation of schools not only varied between provinces but, where it had a formal legal basis, often varied significantly from community to community within that province. (Another interesting piece of trivia: the law enabling forced segregation of schools in Ontario at local (white) discretion was on the books until 1964, though only one school created under that authority existed after 1900).

I suppose it's true of anything we see or read, but while reading this book I was particularly aware that it should be approached with caution and a critical eye. Like any cultural product, it very much reflects the era (published in '71, written over the preceding decade or so) and social location (white liberal academic man) from which it was written.

For example, its age leads to the use of vocabulary and concepts about race and racism that have long been seen as politically inappropriate -- the most obvious is that, though the title uses the word "Black," that was a last-minute ammendment before the original printing to reflect the growing preference for that label among African Canadians, and in the bulk of the text the word "Negro" is used. There are other ways this is reflected, too, though I don't claim to have been able to spot all of them. An important one is the way that it impacted the standpoint from which the history was written. At times the story seemed to be more grounded in the social location of the white folks in a given era, with the Black people of that era an object to be investigated from that white grounding. While it is not surprising that many of the primary sources from the earlier times covered by the book had white authors, because of the importance of depriving those at the bottom of the social hierarchy of literacy skills as a means of maintaining control, it seemed that the author was often inadequately skeptical when relaying contemporary white opinions of Black people, their habits, their successes, and their failures, especially when those opinions echoed racist stereotypes that are still common today.

Not that the author was unwilling to name racism -- it just felt that, as with all of us who do not experience it, there were times when he didn't see it for what it was. For example, there were a couple of places where he made bland, unadorned statements observing the formal equality of African Canadians of earlier times in Canadian law (at times in contrast to the United States, or parts of it) and following that up with statements that obviously assumed that formal equality translated into functional equality. There's lots of evidence that formal legal equality in a systemically racist society (like presentday Canada) leads to racist legal outcomes -- it happens today, and it stretches the boundaries of credibility that it didn't happen in the 1850s.

A final example that struck me of the impact of standpoint on the way the book was written was its unshakeable assumption that integration, only and always, was the ultimate good. While there was some understanding of why people in an oppressed group might choose to come together to form separate institutions under their own control -- as African Canadians have done many times in many eras -- it was contextualized by this author as always a bad idea politically in the long term. In places it was even attributed the role of making things worse and exacerbating discrimination. It's a complex issue, of course, but I tend to agree with the perspective, in the words of U.S. academic Iris Young, "that segregation is wrong, but that social group differentiation and reactive separation are not wrong." It seems to me that the political advisability of building independent institutions versus working in and challenging mainstream institutions varies with context, and deserves analysis each time the decision is made; both can be important and powerful political tools.

Much work has been done on the history of people of African heritage in northern North America since this book was written, and it is essential for anyone trying to understand that history to turn to those newer sources, particularly those produced by African Canadians. But this is still an important collection of facts and details about some aspects of that history. It may not be the most riveting read among the histories I've consumed over the last year, but it was still an important milestone in the writing of the history of northern North America, and when approached with a certain political caution it can definitely educate.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


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Scott said...

Both of the above deleted comments were comment spam advertising. This time, I'm going to remember to turn on the feature that blocks such things.