Friday, December 15, 2017

Review: Policing Black Lives

[Robyn Maynard. Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present. Halifax NS and Winnipeg MB: Fernwood Publishing, 2017.]

I commented in some social media context or other before I had read this book that I thought it would likely be one of the most important books published in Canada this year. Having read it, I can now say so unreservedly.

Policing Black Lives was written by Robyn Maynard, a Black feminist writer and a long-time anti-authoritarian organizer based on Montreal – and, I hope, a future guest on Talking Radical Radio. (She has expressed interest, but so far the scheduling hasn't worked, though I remain hopeful that we'll be able to figure something out for the new year.) The book is a very straightforward presentation of exactly what it promises: a look at the trajectory of state violence, in particular anti-Black state violence, in the Canadian context from the early days of colonization – those long centuries in which slavery was as Canadian an institution as maple syrup and cold winters – to today. The book's importance and power derives both from its relationship to the context into which it is entering and from the way that it does its work.

The context is absolutely crucial to what the book is doing. Maynard quotes radical scholar Rinaldo Walcott (check out my interview with him and one of his colleagues here) as describing the experiences of Black individuals and communities in Canada as "an absented presence always under erasure" (4), and talks elsewhere about Blackness in Canada as hypervisible and oversurveilled yet resolutely and consistently denied space in dominant narratives of here. This means that despite the fact that there have been dedicated, mostly Black scholars, writers, and activists in Canada writing about and working on these issues for many decades if not longer, a common theme in the (admittedly quite plentiful and favourable) media and popular response to this book is to characterize it as completely new rather than as an important advance built on the solid foundation of all of that earlier work by others. Not sure whether this was intended by Maynard or not, but it does feel like the book is using the attention made possible by this sense of novelty to disrupt the erasure that is the basis for it. And to put it more in a movement context, part of why this book is so important is that, even granting all of the work done in decades past, most white-dominated social movements and communities-in-struggle in the Canadian context have a relatively shallow (and in some cases completely absent) understanding of anti-Black racism and its place in constituting "Canada" and in constituting us as white settler Canadians.

As for how the book does its work, it starts from a small number of powerful and important ideas, and carries them through a methodical, rigorous survey of both the history of anti-Black state violence in Canada, and key ways that state violence shapes Black lives in Canada today. The important ideas include a really thorough feminist commitment to paying attention to how other aspects of experience and identity intersect with Blackness; attention to the interrelation of anti-Blackness and settler colonialism that is not exhaustive but still more substantive than anything I've seen from the white left in this country; an expansive understanding of state violence that looks not only at the violence of police but also the less visible violence of other elements of the state like child welfare services and the social assistance system and schools; and a constant circling back to the ways in which the shape of anti-Blackness in Canada today has emerged from long histories originating in slavery here. Along with being quite open about the fact that more work needs to be done exploring the interrelated character of anti-Blackness and settler colonialism, the book also freely admits that it doesn't talk much about resistance – some, but not a lot. As well, part of the absented presence of Blackness in Canada means that there are lots of areas where data that considers racialized impacts just doesn't get collected, and lots of other areas where specific research that is done routinely in the United States is much more sparse or even absent here. Nonetheless, the book carefully collects and considers what has been done, and weaves it together in a theoretically rich and accessibly presented whole.

It is really encouraging to see how broadly this book is being taken up. Of course it is never a good idea to underestimate the resilience of white Canadian refusal to take anti-Blackness seriously – including on the left, including on the radical left – but I think this book is an important contribution to the upsurge of radical Black activism and organizing in this country in recent years, and (among other things) I think it's an excellent tool for those of us in predominantly non-Black movement contexts tool to inform the kinds of hard conversations that we need to be having.

I've also done a video version of this review. Check it out:

[Check out the somewhat out-of-date but still extensive list of book reviews on this site.]

1 comment:

D!ONNE Renรฉe said...


I also love that your post is accessible, providing both a written and an audio/visual component.