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.
It is a body that has given birth three times and that has had to learn to live and to thrive despite the weight of violence, of poverty, and at times, self-loathing bearing upon it. The body is an important locating site in my mind, as well, because the Black body—its historical and continual defilement—is largely why I continue to study Black life. As my buddy Dr. Stacey Patton has told me, she studies what she studies so that she can project her work (currently, turn of the century images of Black children used in white pornography) back to their owner, to mirror the grotesqueness of their creators. A kind of “return to sender,” she tells me. For her, the production of scholarship entails a sacred act. This sentiment is also true for the dozens of Black historians and scholars who have mentored me over the last twenty-five years and for those whom I now call friends.
After you stated Monday night that the failure of knowledge and historical accuracy about Black life in Montreal was attributable to Black people, as well as historically disconnected, culturally diverse groups of Blacks in Montreal, my body reacted. I have thought about the absence of Black scholars for a few years in the context of the American Civil War, where white (male) historians are hypervisible in its 150-year old scholarship and they have crafted a narrative that focuses on the War as a series of murderous military challenges and ultimately, “as a kind of big, tragic misunderstanding.” In a well-referenced article from 2011 entitled, “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, our absent panelist and a civil war scholar himself, describes how Civil War scholarship became so “white.” In his article, he describes a revisionist history, intentional in its design. This deluding portrayal was erected through the flip-flopping historical positions of Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, in Ken Burn’s ambitious nine-episode PBS documentary on the War narrated by nostalgic Southern novelist Shelby Foote, and in Civil War historical sites and battlefields that narrate a tragedy of nationhood, a “Lost Cause”—and so, erase the right to own Black bodies as The Reason for the War. At the end of the article, Ta-Nehisi notes the importance of Black scholars taking up a greater study of the Civil War. He calls it, “the burden of summoning our own departed hands, so that [we] too, may leave a mark.”
With this in mind, I began my introduction on Monday night with a story about Dr. Thavolia Glymph, an elder Black female Civil War historian writing in an academic sea of white men, who documents the lives and bodies of Black women during the War. Her scholarship focuses on the bodies of Black women by necessity: Black women overwhelmingly, she explains, entered the War as “already abandoned—as outside war…targeted for torture, massacre, and re-enslavement.” She also describes, as in every lecture I have listened to, that her primary sources for her scholarship are consistent with those used for the last 100 years by all Civil War historians. How could the stories of Black women–the quotidian, stunning brutality inflicted upon Black women so superficial in the archives–be overlooked for the last century? Who is accountable for this absence? Is it fair to hold Dr. Glymph and other Black women accountable for the absence of our stories, our bodies, in Civil War literature? Or, are there more important questions about why we have been overlooked for so long?
As a scholar, I have been well-trained to look for historical nuance and opportunities for synthesis in historical analysis. I have also learned, with some cost of humility attached, that essentializing my subject will both suck the integrity from my scholarship and frankly, embarrass me in the end. In the context of anti-Blackness, I have learned that when I am tempted to streamline a rationale that hinges on the singular, I am theorizing from a conflicted personal place, rather than from an intellectual one.
Both Ta-Nehisi and Dr. Glymph represent, in my mind, the place one should land when we are tempted to blame the dead, or in your case, Black Montrealers generally. In stating that we are responsible for our own historical absence, you are overlooking the politics and histories of white domination and control of Canadian academic life and scholarly production. Charmaine’s points about the absence of Black students and faculty across the nation (and in a space like McGill), as well as the absence of an infrastructure of Black Canadian Studies, should raise your awareness about who has been authorized by the academy to speak at all and to speak for Black populations. In stating that we are responsible for our own historical absence, you excuse scores of white scholars who have largely ignored us or who have strategically appropriated our histories to further the ends of continuing to produce narratives that sustain white supremacy. With your words of blame, you scorn our dead. Most significantly, you forgo an analysis of the entrenched nature of white supremacy, which is coterminous always, with the control of its historical script. This is why it was possible for you to distinguish the histories of forced Christianization in New France from other regions as some kind of equalizing gesture between the enslaved and slave owner. To undertake such an endeavor, you must first ask a question which allows you to seek that conclusion as a correct answer. In distinction, Charmaine made it clear that another type of question, one that honors the enslaved, begins by asking what religions and spirituality the enslaved already possessed and further, to ask if they wanted to be baptized at all? You and Charmaine, you and I, and you and Darryl may draw from the same archives, but because we are attuned to a history of racist neglect that begins always with the problem of the starting question, we begin our research by asking different questions. Finally, with your words about Black responsibility, you spoke both scornfully and paternalistically: We–myself, Charmaine’s other graduate students, and a number of other Black scholars in the room on Monday night–are here, studying and documenting Black life in this city. Those were the voices of protest and dismay, young and old, that you heard yelling back at you from the audience on Monday night. Those were the voices of people who, like me, felt hot and angry and wounded all at once inside the body.
I had hoped that we would not descend into a place of ranking the distinctions between slavery in Quebec and the United States or the Caribbean. Your insistence on a distinction of kind and a temperate slavery in Quebec was painful to hear. Slavery is, if nothing else, a denial of humanity—an insistence on a racial caste, a permanent gash between chattel and Human. While the details of difference matter historically, they are harmful when they are discussed in a way that fails to acknowledge the ways in which Christianity itself was mobilized as an ideology of violence—rather than love–against the enslaved across the Americas. The details of difference matter far less when anti-Blackness is the subject at hand. And certainly, they are irrelevant when the people you are addressing yell out to tell you so. Those were the voices, again, of people who, like me, felt hot and angry and wounded all at once inside the body.
I want to express one final point, best articulated last evening, during a conversation with a Black woman, a mother, a daughter, who has roots in this city. “If a man who has written three books about Black people, has no will or energy to, at the very least, address people as people, then I do not have the will nor energy to listen,” she said. Black people are not “the Blacks” or “they,” but rather, “Black folks,” “Black Montrealers,” “Black scholars,” “ancestors.” We cannot be referred to as “problems,” as you did Monday night when I asked you to clarify a statement after you uttered a sentence that began, “The problem with the Blacks…” In my conversations with dozens of attendees over the last few days, this was the most dominant concern expressed by those who listened to you, repeatedly, misname Black people. It was degrading, and it must be named as such. As a woman who was raised, with the highest kind of love, by a white mother and at times by a white maternal family, I have learned that love and violence can be wholly compatible. I learned that kinship does not shelter or excuse ignorance, nor does it accept “good intentions.” If anything, my Black body has, at times, served as a familial tipping point, a “return to sender” as my buddy Stacey says, mirroring back the incredible burden of anti-Blackness in relationships with the people I love the most.
I await your response.