The bleeding line of geography

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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.

The 1850 US law spurred the migration of 20,000 fugitive Blacks in the US to Canada in less than a decade. I felt a familiar punch of violence of the distinctly Canadian kind—one that shrouds its own historical violence against Black folk by touting its historical distinctions from the US (no lynchings, no plantation slavery, etc), yet studies closely and responsively enacts its own policies it has beknighted as a kind of goodwill. So much of the (little) scholarship regarding this period was produced by Robin Winks, who is both a prolific and problematic scholar of all things Black Canadian. As one example, he opens his chapter on schooling in The Blacks in Canada, still the metatext on Black Canadian history, with this: “While nineteenth-century Negro leaders asked for equality of educational opportunity, generally they were prepared to accept the notion that separate education could be equal education.” He contradicts this statement over the next forty pages with records that show that Black parents in Ontario and Nova Scotia, both frequently petitioned the superintendent and brought case after case before the local courts asserting their right as taxpayers to send their children to common (read: white and better) public schools and contesting the defacto policies—gerrymandering, for example—that intentionally excluded Blacks from attending common schools. In addition to the record itself, this little chapter is a reminder of the frustrating, sometimes maddening process of engaging in the study of historical racism in Canada.  More…

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