Saturday, February 09, 2013

Africville: Canada's Secret Racist History

My colleague, Jenny Ellison, posted a link to this story on the Canadian Studies student club facebook site:

Africville: Canada's Secret Racist History

It is well worth the read. But, it also begs questions to which I do not have easy answers. One of those relates to history and the contention that "Canadian history has written Africville out of the books."  A number of people who commented on this discussion/interview seemed to make the same point:  they did not know about Africville. I'll take it for granted, then, that Africville is not well known in popular culture and this is clearly a problem. To neglect the racializing dynamics of selective forgetting is to miss something important about the culture of history in contemporary Canada.

And ... yet, the idea that "history" did something as if history were a person is also misleading, perhaps in a serious way because "Canadian history" did not write Africville out of anything. I'm a Canadian historian by training and there are a number of great sources on Africville. Indeed, professional historians and other scholars have long devoted serious attention to Africville, the racism that affected it, and the injustices suffered by its members. The author of this discussion (which, I repeat, I really enjoyed) -- a person whom I don't know named Noah Tavlin -- is wrong on this point.  And, it seems to me we need to ask why. 

Let's assume -- I think rightly and not just for the sake of argument -- that Tavlin is well informed and sincere. In other words, he is not just asking himself if he knows much about Africville, deciding he doesn't, and then assuming that he represents everyone. I've certainly seen this type of thing before. Its a variant of "if I don't know about it, it can't be important, ergo no one must know about it, ergo we can say that history forgot." I think Tavlin is not involved in this type of problematic argument. 

Instead, what is going on here is an interesting and important disjuncture between the work of scholars and what is known of Canada's past in popular culture. If scholars have meticulously studied Africville, the racism that animated its demise, the mistreatment of its residents, and the injustices that followed it the wake of its destruction (among other things), their work seems -- judging by Tavlin's comment -- to have been ignored.  If scholars have made important efforts to look at how scholarship (the studies Tavlin mentions) itself become complicitous in racism, the context of the destruction of Africville, what happened to former residents, and other such matters, their work does not seem to have had an effect on popular historical culture, in Halifax or elsewhere. If it did, Tavlin -- and those who commented on his post -- would not have been surprised to discover the tragedy of Africville. 

For me, this raises a question because this is clearly not a case where Canadian history has made an effort to disguise or mystify Canada's past. Indeed, precisely the opposite. Animated by a concern for justice and wondering what made it possible for such draconian action to be taken, historians have made every effort to get Africville on the books, keep it there, and keep conducting research on it. Why then do otherwise sincere and intelligent people assume "history" has tried to cover up Africville? Why did they not check their sources before making a statement about history? Indeed, a quick key word search on an aggregator database or a library or even google books should have turned up a least some sources. 

I am not saying historians are noble. I am saying that there is a problem here because the work of historians is being ignored. It might be easy to fault Canadian historians for this. Who reads Acadiensis? Who reads the Journal of Canadian Studies? And, yet, should we do this? Should we fault historians for being scholars, for taking the time to publish their work in journals that will allow them to bring the weight of scholarship to their discussions? I'd argue the opposite. Historians could likely make a more determined effort to get their work "out there" but from what I know, the lack of historical knowledge in the wider society is actually not from historians' want of trying (for current and on-going efforts: 

Instead of faulting historians we need to ask other questions:

1. Why don't activists and journalists or even bloggers bother to check their sources before making a statement about "history"? 
2. Why is the work of historians so poorly known in popular culture? 
3. How could it make a difference (if it did make a difference) if their work were better known?

I have my own suppositions but, as an historian, I found it odd that history was being blamed for something it did not do. 

Here are some sources on Africville: 

Tina Loo, "Africville and the Dynamics of State Power in Postwar Canada" Acadiensis (Summer/Fall 2010)

Jennifer Nelson, Razing Africville: A Geography of Racism (UTP 2008). 

There is also a 1991 DVD directed by Shelagh Mackenzie called Remember Africville

There are, in fact, many more. Tino Loo's notes provide a lot of references to follow up and Nelson has a very interesting article in the Journal of Canadian Studies a couple of years ago that also addresses the issue of stereotyping and racism. 

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