Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Black History Matters

I was struck by the bold opening of Harvey Amani Whitfield's essay in the September 2020 issue of the Canadian Historical Review: "Slavery is the most neglected aspect of pre-Confederation Canadian history." 

Whitfield's article is a powerful and field-shaping contribution, based on the questions "Is there such a thing as “Canadian” slavery? If so, what is “Canadian” about “Canadian” slavery?" and drawing on his forthcoming work, Enslaved Black People in the Maritimes: A Biographical Dictionary of African and African American Slaves in Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, as well as his previous books on Atlantic Canadian black experience.

Professor Whitfield's opening declaration, "most neglected," while plausible, is unquantified, at least in the essay, and it's not hard to think of other topics that might be included with it in any shortlist. But it reminds me of an assertion I have put forth a few times: there is no subject in Canadian history that cannot be declared "neglected." Look at Tim Cook's argument that Canadian military history is sorely neglected -- military history! and of the Second World War, no less. 

Many historical fields start to escape from neglect when members of historically neglected communities take them up. The history of Ukrainian Canadians, as one example, blossomed as an academic field when Ukrainian Canadians began entering the academy some decades ago. (To the point that some aspects of Ukrainian Canadian ethic pride have become controversial.) Sikh-Canadian historians have begun to enrich the field of Sikh Canadian history, at least on the west coast. And I've never forgotten the late Louise Dechene saying that francophone history will never be very neglected in Canada because there have always been francophone historians -- though that she liked the creative tension that resulted from quite a few English-Canadians taking an interest as well.  

We need to encourage a diversity of historians to do justice to the diversity of Canadian history. We are starting to see more African-Canadian historians, Professor Whitfield notable but not alone among them, and Canadian history as well as African-Canadian history will be better for it. These days every piece of historical work by an indigenous Canadian seems transformative, because so little used to make its way to non-Indigenous audiences. No doubt these historians will continue to have grounds to advocate that their fields are neglected, even as they make the assertion less easy to prove.

Update, September 3: Alan McCullough of Ottawa comments:

The statement that a particular topic is “the most neglected subject in Canadian history” is so common that it can be treated as honest puffery. Professor Whitfield's article “White Archives, Black Fragments” doesn’t need puffery for justification; it can stand on its own. In any case, footnote 3 which identifies more than a dozen or so articles on slavery in the Maritimes from the last 30 years, undermines the contention that the field is the most neglected. What surprised me is that Professor Whitfield identifies two articles on slavery in the Maritimes from the nineteenth century.

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