Hello Ms Zellars,
There is obviously a deep misunderstanding between us. Perhaps, speaking off the cuff, I did not express myself clearly enough. But I reject your accusations, and as we seem to be so far apart in our understanding of the history of slavery in Quebec, I think it is pointless to continue this discussion.
On Monday night, February 16, I organized a panel that invited Frank Mackey, local historian on slavery in Montreal. His comments regarding the failures of Black Montrealers to document their own history and the distinctions between slavery in Quebec and elsewhere, as well as his insistence on the term, “the Blacks,” was stunning. I drafted this letter and sent it to him following.
Dear Mr. Mackey,
This letter begins with words of respect. Your commitment to studying and documenting Black life, history, and slavery in Quebec and Montreal, in particular, is for me, as a scholar, beautiful to witness. As I mentioned to you, I have invested many, many hours–weeks even–scouring your endnotes, sources, and re-reading sections of Done with Slavery. I have relied heavily on this book for its attention to detail and rich use of primary source materials, many of which are generously included in the book. Simply, the book is invaluable to those of us that study Black life and the history of slavery here. For this, I thank you.
On Monday night, during our panel, I spoke to you about my body, specifically how my body felt when you made comments about Black people bearing a responsibility for the erasure of Black history in Quebec. I want to remain with the body now as I write this letter, because my life’s work—both personal and academic– has shown me that my body is a perfect place to speak from, despite it knowing the boundaries of both destruction and joy.
“But the burden of whiteness is this: You can live in the world of myth and be taken seriously.”—Ta-Nehisi Coates
Last December, the long-time editor of The New Republic, Franklin Foer, departed from the venerable American magazine. A number of prominent writers quickly began to publicly mourn his departure, and one that did not was the award winning African-American journalist and writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Instead, he wrote a piece for The Atlantic, a subaltern version of the magazine’s history, quite Trouillotian, and reminded lamenting folk that Foer was, indeed, alive and well, as was the magazine’s ardent racism during his tenure. Then, the sharks began to circle.
My son is tall for his age. In fact, at 8, he looks 10 or 11. He is broad shouldered, skinny, but like so many other Black boys his age, muscular and six-packed. Gap toothed. He is so shy that I often have to remind him to look at adults in the eye who greet him in my presence. It is only in his silliness that his real age is often revealed. In our neighborhood, he has been one of two, maybe three other Black children in his school. After I moved him to a neighborhood alternative school, he was the only Black child in the school of 250. That is not completely true: My neighborhood, an old arts community now gentrified with million dollar triplexes and rents few can afford in a Montreal economy, has a good share of bright Black folk—folks who, back home, would easily pass the paper bag test and perhaps, pass completely. Here, there are generations of light, mixed-race parents who have married lighter or married so blonde, their children are signified Black only by a kind of center-crown kink every Black mother knows. My ex-husband is a deep, bronze brown, and so my children—many hues darker than my skin– are occasionally mistaken as not my own.
“I argue that enslaved women entered the [Civil] War already abandoned– as outside war. Despite pro slavery narratives of Black loyalty, Black women’s resistance to slavery had already marked them as inside war…as enemies of the state. The War elaborated that position. Their flight, fight did not go unmarked as Confederate forces targeted them for torture, massacre and re-enslavement.”–Duke historian, Thavolia Glymph
I have been thinking of these words, taken from a 2011 lecture, by historian Thavolia Glymph for the last few days. Speaking, she names three Civil War battles I know little about, save for their names, their memorials, their state parks—Mark’s Mills, Goodrich’s Landing, and Miliken’s Bend. Her words depict the landscape of violence that was these famous battles between 1863 and 1864, the gratuitous color of red nothing new, in particular. I imagine, through her descriptions, the families of Black plantation women and children at Goodrich’s Landing bolted inside of cabins for the sole purpose of live incineration. In this lecture as with the bulk of her work, she sorts out Black women, names them, then speaks of the ways in which their bodies were used and disposed during these campaigns or placed intentionally on plantations by Union officials who knew well in advance that Confederate soldiers would attack those same plantations with the intentions of either killing or re-enslaving Black women who had sought asylum and safety.
“I’ve got discipline baby/and I use it a lot.” –Keith Elam
It was hard today. So, I stuff myself full of that leftover silky chicken from that Portuguese spot on the corner extra sauce from the fat on the side perfectly fried hand-peeled French fries that make me feel whole for a moment. But, not too much. Fuck kale. On the way to the courthouse today, my daughter yelled from the back seat, “Momomomom, look at that huuuuuge kale growing there!” In the intersection, decoratively. I explained, distractedly, that some people use it as flowers, to make things look pretty. What a waste.
I still want to finish off the pint of Ben and Jerry’s sitting in the freezer. I started thinking about it three hours ago, right after I finished my McDonald’s perfect strawberry milkshake and L’s iced coffee she left in the car on the way back from the courthouse. I know to stop, though, because the ice cream could be a finger, a fuck, a shot of rum, a cigarette. Anything to stuff me pleasurable soft skin tongue saliva and put me back in order. I know this: That this pain is temporary. I will wake tomorrow with less anxiety, put on my jog bra after I brush my teeth, then run to the gym in self-celebration. I will love me there, and I will leave feeling more complete than I do right now.
I am currently working on an article that looks at both the legal and defacto policies of racial segregation within Canada’s public schooling system through the 1960’s. This curiosity comes from a larger, more pragmatic desire to articulate the relationship more clearly between Canada’s self-perception as one distinct from the racial traditions of its neighbor and the bottom line of Canadian anti-Black racism itself. Canada’s racism is felt, and its demographics and sociology tell me a familiar story.
I have been thinking about the bleeding geographical line of race that separates the US and Canada, particularly in relation to the way that Canadian abolitionist and media propaganda in the 1800’s harnessed early race discourses with an eye of blame towards and self-distinction from the US. Looking this week at the Separate School Act of 1850 in Upper Canada, it occurred to me that this law was enacted at the same time as the Fugitive Slave Act—the law that, as Eric Foner has described, gave slavery “extra-territoriality,” thus binding a nation to slavery and attaching the legal status of slavery to the Black body wherever it may travel. Here, I am thinking of Saidiyah Hartman’s gorgeous words about the Black body as white spectacle—this idea that the Black body, in its most brutalized historical moments, achieves a recognition, a kind of baseline humanistic agency, if you will, only through white veracity. The Fugitive Slave Act gave white folks the power to say what a Black body was, regardless of the extent or vigor of Black protest. Thus, Solomon Northup.