Friday, August 11, 2006

Review: Towards Freedom

[Ken Alexander and Avis Glaze. Towards Freedom: The African-Canadian Experience. Toronto: Umbrella Press, 1996.]

Towards Freedom is an accessible, all-in-one look at the history of people of African descent in Canada. It is meant to be useful in high school classes that are seeking to probe beyond the Eurocentrism that still dominates the teaching of Canadian history in most places, and is alo a good introduction to the topic for the general reader. It begins with the arrival of the first Africans to northern North America in the early 17th century and traces the path of community history through ups and downs and the consistent struggle against racism to the promising era of the mid-'90s. In fact, it is difficult to tell if the somewhat optimistic tone of later parts of the book are a product of a deliberate political decision to emphasize resilience, opportunity, and strength, or if it is a relic of that time just before the worst of neoliberal change (with its concomittant disporportionate impact on racialized communities) hit Canada in the late '90s.

As could be expected of a book that covers 400 years in fewer than 300 pages, and one that aims to get itself used in highschool classrooms, there are points where this book presents a view of history that is somewhat simplified. Nonetheless, it adeptly captures the overarching dynamics of each period: the growth and accomplishment of the Black community in Canada in the 1850s, for example, and its shrinkage and experience of more targeted racism in the years after Confederation. The book outlines the involvement of African-Canadians in all of the important events and processes that tend to be assumed to be white-only in the Eurocentric liberal nationalist history that gets taught in most schools. Close attention is paid to the relationship among dynamics in the United States and those in Canada, and later in the book links are also drawn to historical currents in the Carribean.

Unfortunately, the book has some political shortcomings. On the one hand, this is to be expected and is not terribly worthy of comment: if it wants to get into schools and if it wants to introduce the realities, struggles, and successes of African-Canadians to a mass base of apolitical white readers (an important goal) it is going to have to make difficult political choices about how to frame its content. In many ways it successfully navigates this balancing act, by consistently naming racism and the particularities of various components of Black experience in Canada but at the same time grounding it in a framework that would not unduly alienate your average white Canadian reader any more than the naming of racism will inevitably do.

On the other hand, this leads to some outcomes that I find concerning. For one thing, it states, "The root causes of racism are ignorance and a lack of meaningful contact between different peoples," which many anti-racist activists and writers would see as a vast oversimplification. Similarly, its brief discussion of the history of racism as a phenomenon paints a rather simplistic picture.

Of more concern is its unproblematic embrace of the Canadian nation as a historical project. Throughout the book, it notes the many and varied contributions of Black people to this project. This is important history and deserves to be more widely known. At the same time, to do so while framing that project as uniformly positive is politically dubious at best. In particular, my attention was drawn to this by the book's very poor analysis of the history of indigenous peoples in northern North America, particularly pre-1867. It is quite direct about naming the racism of the post-Confederation Indian Act regime, but gives shockingly little acknowledgement to the immensely destructive, genocidal, and colonial process that went on in the centuries before that. It seems to fall for the white Canadian liberal nationalist myths of early contact dynamics. While it is important to recognize that "The first black in Canada [Mattieu da Costa] appears to have been a free nation-builder," it is disturbing that there is little recognition that it is fundamental to the building of that nation that 50 or so other nations had to be disrupted and destroyed (or nearly so) in order for it to come into existence. To a lesser extent, the celebration of Black contributions to "our" side in World War One also disturbed me -- it is a contribution that needs to be recognized, but it is troubling to do so in the absence of any recognition that what they were contributing to was one of the most idiotic and destructive enterprises in all of human history and that there is something deeply messed up about the mainstream celebration (which this book uncritically echoes) of that carnage as a defining moment for Canada as a nation.

Despite its shortcomings, this is a book that deserves to be read and discussed. People of African descent have been in northern North America for more than 400 years, and the conventional historical construction of Canada only recognizes their existence before the 1960s as objects benevolently saved by white Canadians from evil Americans via the Underground Railroad. As this book points out, even back in that era this was the beginning of the myth of the great liberal Canada, which continues to this day to help many Canadians avoid seeing the oppressive realities of Canada at home and abroad. It is equally worth remembering, for example, that in an era before the Underground Railroad, it was not uncommon for Black people in what would later be Canada to flee to the United States, because slavery had been outlawed in New England but still existed in Canada. So we definitely need more books that deal with our real history -- preferably those that go beyond inclusion in a liberal sense to one that can include a critique of the Canada that was and the Canada that is that will contribute in as broad a way as possible to undermining oppressive beliefs, practices, and structures.

It is also worth noting that this book is very similar to most of the relatively small spectrum of books that have been published on African Candian history: out of print. More work needs to be done, and we (consumers, writers, readers, people whose taxes go to support libraries) need to make sure that the valuable work done in the past is made more accessible to more people.

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

1 comment:

jahayiti said...

The miseducation of a negro !!!