Books

Debra Thompson's The Long Road Home explores Black identity and the politics of race — read an excerpt now

The book is a finalist for the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. The winner will be announced on Nov. 2, 2022.

The book is a finalist for the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction

Debra Thompson is a Canadian author and scholar. (Alannah Morrison)

The Long Road Home by Debra Thompson is a personal story that blends family history and memoir to examine the nuances of racism in both Canada and the United States.

Thompson is a Canadian associate professor of political science at McGill University in Montreal, and one of only five Black women academics in a political science department in the country. She is also the Canada Research Chair in Racial Inequality in Democratic Societies and a leading scholar of the comparative politics of race.

When Thompson moved to the United States in 2010, she felt like she was returning to the land of her Black ancestors, those who had escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

The Long Road Home is a researched look at themes such as belonging and family history. The book explores Black cultural identity and activism in places such as Boston, Chicago and Shrewsbury, Ont., one of the termini of the Underground Railroad and the place where the formerly enslaved — including her grandfather's grandfather, Cornelius Thompson — found freedom.

The Long Road Home is one of five books shortlisted for the 2022 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. The $60,000 prize annually recognizes the best nonfiction book in Canada. It's the biggest prize for nonfiction in the country. The winner will be announced on Nov. 2, 2022.

You can read an excerpt from The Long Road Home below.


Many of the people that escaped to Canada on the Underground Railroad went back to the United States after the Civil War to find the loved ones left behind, stolen from them, or lost along the way.

But generations of those descended from Black American refugees from slavery still live in southwestern Ontario, including my father's family. Because the communities were rural and segregated, my kin have the most wonderful way of speaking, their southern intonations inflected with unambiguously Canadian accents.

Generations of those descended from Black American refugees from slavery still live in southwestern Ontario, including my father's family.

My father says, "thee-ater" and pronounces the "w-h" in "white." He talks in the same rhythmic riddles that characterize barbershop talk in African American communities and cultures.

He says things like, "You know, Debra, those politicians got nothing more than a nodding acquaintance with the truth." But he is also staunchly, proudly, fiercely Canadian and his accent appears plainly in words like "about" and "sorry." 

Cornelius Thompson followed the Underground Railroad to freedom in Shrewsbury, Ont. (Submitted by Debra Thompson)

Dad doesn't know where my grandfather's grandfather, Cornelius Thompson, or the others in the overgrown Shrewsbury graveyard escaped from. He thought he heard someone talking about West Virginia or Alabama once, "but Debra," he said, "you're looking for ghosts. You're looking for evidence left behind by people who were trying to hide, and whose lives depended on how well and for how long they could do it." 

When I decided to move to the United States a decade ago, I thought the ghosts of my ancestors would welcome me home. I felt like I was returning to the land of my ancestors' birth, the country they built, where they prayed, and sweated, and toiled, and were tortured, and resisted, and fought, and wept as their children were stolen and sold, and were traumatized as they were raped for profit and murdered for sport, the country where they died, the places they still haunt.

When I decided to move to the United States a decade ago, I thought the ghosts of my ancestors would welcome me home.

They escaped and I returned to lay claim to the opportunities and the humanity they were refused. I thought I was going home. 

I was wrong. But not in the way you might think. 


Excerpted from The Long Road Home by Debra Thompson. Copyright © 2022 Debra Thompson. Published by Scribner Canada, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now