Black Canadian writers offer us vivid portraits of Black life — but we have to actually listen
'In this day and age, when we have so many resources at our disposal, we cannot realistically plead ignorance'
Shelfies is a monthly column by writer Alicia Elliott that looks at arts and culture through the prism of the books on her shelf.
Recently, Oklahoma Senator Kevin Matthews held a press conference to announce that the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre would be added to the school curriculum across the state. Back then, a mob of 10,000 angry white people attacked the Black citizens of Greenwood District — better known as Black Wall Street — killing hundreds, disappearing hundreds more, and razing the community to the ground. Matthews referred to this racist massacre as "Tulsa's dirty little secret" — something it remained until last year, when it was featured on the alternate history superhero TV show Watchmen.
One could look at this as proof of the power of art to educate and make change, of course, and you wouldn't necessarily be wrong. But to simplify this story to that narrative alone — particularly during Black History Month — is to ignore the reason the Tulsa Massacre happened in the first place, and to ignore how and why it was subsequently allowed by the white citizens who enacted and/or enabled it to pass into a sort of un-history, where all violent, ugly and inconvenient moments in a nation-state's history are locked safely away from public knowledge. James Baldwin spoke of this phenomenon — white people purposely and conveniently forgetting racist violence they have enacted on Black people — in his 1963 book Fire Next Time:
"[This] is the crime of which I accuse my country and countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it." (emphasis mine)
Quite simply, countries like the U.S. — whose first-world status and wealth were forged with Black death through the transatlantic slave trade — seem to believe not only that the ends justify the means, but that the means must never be brought up in anything but superficial ways. You can see this perhaps most clearly by looking at Canada.
This country, which has branded itself as "Canada the good," has a tendency to believe it is, in fact, a just, fair, diverse and inclusive nation, particularly in comparison to the U.S. This is strange, because while many Canadians will recognize the U.S. has an ongoing history of racism, sexism, colonialism and other forms of violent discrimination, they often will not recognize how similar, connected histories have played out in their own backyards. It is peculiar, for example, that most Canadians are aware that the Underground Railroad led to Canada, but are not aware that slavery was legal in Canada for years. It is peculiar that most Canadians are aware of the role the Ku Klux Klan played in American history, but seem unaware of how popular and influential the KKK were here in Canada. It is peculiar that Oklahoma is (very belatedly) incorporating the Tulsa Massacre into school curriculum, and yet the demolition of Africville, Nova Scotia — one of Canada's oldest Black communities — is still not being taught to Canadian children.
This selective memory is certainly not the result of Black Canadian writers, academics and thinkers. Rinaldo Walcott and Idil Abdillahi point this out in their 2019 book BlackLife: Post-BLM and the Struggle for Freedom, writing, "Black cultural workers write the same essay over and over again…repeating and recounting what should by now be shaping all our conversations about this place, this nation, this land, but still resolutely does not." Black writers have been putting their history on the page for decades and continue to do so today — but if most Canadians don't know this history, all that are left are stereotypes, which are continuously repeated and reinforced by elected politicians, then turned into policies that further hurt and criminalize Black communities. If we really want to get serious about justice in this nation, we need to stop asking Black writers to repeat themselves and start actually reading and reflecting on the wealth of work they continue to gift us.
While BlackLife is a slim book at 103 pages, it is full of insight and analysis, particularly in regards to Black artistic production in Canada. Walcott and Abdillahi trace Western notions of who constitutes a "human" — and therefore deserves bodily respect and autonomy — from their European roots to the shores of Turtle Island in 1492. This context is essential if we're to understand the state of race relations in Canada today. White state and religious institutions considered slavery morally and legally acceptable in the past because they didn't see the Black and Indigenous people who were enslaved as human; white state and religious institutions consider police and state violence against Black people a non-issue today because they still don't see Black people as fully human.
Of course, once Pierre Trudeau announced multiculturalism would become official Canadian policy in 1971, it changed the national narrative and, therefore, the national identity. For this identity to hold, Canada's history of anti-Blackness had to be forgotten, even as the same anti-Blackness was prevalent as ever. For example, this new "multicultural" branding didn't result in Canadian institutions making Black people and their important cultural and intellectual contributions central to art galleries, museums, universities, governments and publishing houses. In fact, as Walcott and Abdillahi point out, these institutions often didn't even "seem to find it necessary to speak directly to Black people about their collective well-being" — which meant "the pain that Black people are collectively with and under [remained] mostly out of view to others." To this day, Black life in Canada is still mostly depicted to Canadians from the perspective of non-Black people — people who most likely haven't examined their own inherited perceptions and stereotypes of Black people.
If we really want to get serious about justice in this nation, we need to stop asking Black writers to repeat themselves and start actually reading and reflecting on the wealth of work they continue to gift us.- Alicia Elliott
This is why it is so important for us to engage with Black writing, thought and art: their analyses of the world we live in makes it obvious that attempts at superficial inclusion or selective representation do not make Black people's lives materially better. All those halfhearted attempts do is feed the myth of multiculturalism — a myth that requires us to ignore the ways we continue to enable and encourage Black pain the same way we continue to ignore Black art and history.
Luckily for us, Canada has a wealth of brilliant Black thinkers doing this work. Almost as an answer to BlackLife, the anthology Black Writers Matter, edited by Whitney French, offers a wide range of nonfiction — 24 pieces spanning personal narratives to theoretical examinations to transcribed conversations and even a particularly heartbreaking quiz on hunger and anorexia by Rowan McCandless. Each piece shows the depth and range of Black talent and thought right here in Canada — something you won't necessarily see reflected on the bestseller lists or in the awards nominations in this country. The work featured is full of Black brilliance, and worth reading not only to fight national ignorance, but also to nurture critical reflection on what we can each do to make sure this land a place that, in the words of French, "offers Black people dignity."
If you're looking for more about how American Black culture influenced Black life in Canada, look no further than Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Black Beauty Culture in Canada by Cheryl Thompson, which ingeniously looks at Black history in Canada through the lens of Black beauty culture. Or if you're curious about how Blackness, immigration and queer identity intersect and impact the actual people living at those intersections, Angry Queer Somali Boy: A Complicated Memoir by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali is in stores now, waiting. So is Desmond Cole's just-released The Skin We're In, which follows a year of Black resistance and is as generous and generative a text as any you'll read this year. On March 31, Eternity Martis will be publishing They Said This Would Be Fun: Race, Campus Life and Growing Up, which examines what it was like for her as a Black student to navigate a predominantly white campus. And this is just a small selection of recent works, building on the canon that already exists.
In this day and age, when we have so many resources at our disposal, we cannot realistically plead ignorance of Canada's legacy of violent, continual anti-Blackness. The information and analysis is there; it has always been there, painstakingly repeated again and again by Black writers across decades. At this point, if non-Black people within Canada don't know this history, don't read these works and don't make substantive societal, political and cultural changes to stop ourselves from repeating that history, it may just be because we don't want to.