What resistance looked like among enslaved people in Canada and the U.S.
'To love anybody ... was itself an act of defiant resistance,' says Charmaine Nelson
The life of a Black woman born into bondage, whose resilience and love was later chronicled by her granddaughter, provides a window into how enslaved people defied the oppression of slavery.
These are the histories of resistance that scholar Charmaine Nelson is highlighting ahead of Canada's second Emancipation Day on Aug 1.
Aug. 1 marks the day — 188 years ago — when the Slavery Abolition Act came into effect, freeing about 800,000 enslaved people in most British colonies.
Governor Edward Cornwallis is known to have arrived in Halifax in 1749 with about 400 enslaved people, according to the Nova Scotia Archives.
"For so many enslaved people, to love anybody, especially another enslaved person, was itself an act of defiant resistance," Nelson, founding director of the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery at NSCAD, told CBC Radio's Mainstreet.
Nelson points to an 1861 autobiography by Harriet Jacobs called Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Through her words we learn about the resilience of her grandmother Molly Horniblow.
Horniblow's life was marked by the physical and psychological brutality of slavery. She was freed for a time and fled to Florida with her mother only to be captured, sold back into slavery and separated from her family.
Later, when Horniblow had children of her own, they were divided up in a slave owner's will and taken from her.
To love anybody, especially another enslaved person, was itself an act of defiant resistance.- Charmaine Nelson
And yet, Nelson said she's struck by how Jacobs remembers her grandmother.
"She describes her as being such a positive woman, and having such a positive outlook and having a profound Christian faith, which she used to try to bolster her grandchildren who were in her care," Nelson said.
Resistance among enslaved people took many forms, Nelson added, including who they dared to love or how they showed anger and rage.
"In that case too, for me, it's an act of resistance in a world where slave owners were on the table about saying listen —when I look at you person that I own — I expect to see a smile on your face," Nelson said.
LISTEN: Charmaine Nelson joins Mainstreet for a series about slavery and resistance:
Part One: What resistance looked like for enslaved people
Part Two: How one woman's love for her children defied the system of slavery
Part Three: The economics of resistance
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet