Liv­ing Mem­ory

Cen­turies-old black ceme­ter­ies force us to re-ex­am­ine Canada’s past

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Char­maine A. Nel­son

Cen­turies-old black ceme­ter­ies force us to re-ex­am­ine Canada’s past

In the lit­tle town of Saint-ar­mand, Que­bec, near the bor­der with Ver­mont, there is, ac­cord­ing to oral his­tory, a ceme­tery known as Nig­ger Rock. Marked only by a black boul­der about 300 me­tres wide, the ceme­tery was used by free and en­slaved blacks in the eigh­teenth and nine­teenth cen­turies and sits on land that was then owned by a Loy­al­ist of­fi­cer. to com­mon knowl­edge, black men, women, and chil­dren had been forced to move north­ward to Saint-ar­mand with their own­ers af­ter the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion, which ended in 1783. If they had marked their graves, it would likely have been with wood in­stead of stone, so any ev­i­dence of the site has de­te­ri­o­rated over time. To­day, the land where the bodies are known to be buried is pri­vately owned by a Québé­cois fam­ily, as it has been for decades — and it is still be­ing farmed. In early 2010, I vis­ited the site with a group from a Mon­treal con­fer­ence about art and economies of ex­ploita­tion. Our in­ten­tion was to gather around the boul­der to pay our re­spects to the peo­ple who were buried near it, in­clud­ing the en­slaved blacks who lived on what is now Cana­dian soil. But the own­ers of the prop­erty at the time wouldn’t let us step onto their land; in­stead, with a neigh­bour’s per­mis­sion, we hiked across an ad­ja­cent field and stared at the boul­der’s face across the bound­ary. Just then, the ceme­tery’s landown­ers drove a truck right in front of our con­gre­ga­tion, tem­po­rar­ily ob­struct­ing our view. Later that day, we vis­ited a cave where fugi­tives had once hid­den to avoid re­cap­ture into slav­ery, and I re­mem­ber hav­ing to climb around branches that had been placed on the path to pre­vent cows from wan­der­ing away. Both vol­un­tar­ily and ac­ci­den­tally, lo­cals had thwarted our ef­forts to com­mem­o­rate re­gional black his­tory — and, since there was no of­fi­cial ac­knowl­edge­ment of the two lo­ca­tions, only a rock and a cave that we knew to be his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant, we had no re­course to protest their ac­tions. Though it is al­most never dis­cussed, the sep­a­ra­tion of black and white bodies in death has a long his­tory in the Amer­i­cas. Cen­turies-old black ceme­ter­ies, such as the one in Saint-ar­mand, have long been over­looked or dis­re­spected. An­other ex­am­ple ex­ists in Priceville, On­tario. An in­flux of white im­mi­grants pushed out the town’s free black com­mu­nity in the nine­teenth cen­tury, even though some of the black set­tlers had orig­i­nally been promised land and deeds. But, when peo­ple are forced to flee, the graves of their loved ones are left be­hind. Ac­cord­ing to Speak­ers for the Dead, a 2000 doc­u­men­tary by film­mak­ers Jen­nifer Hol­ness and David Suther­land, Priceville’s black ceme­tery, like Nig­ger Rock, was even­tu­ally taken over by apri­vate res­i­dent and sub­jected to des­e­cra­tion. Bill Reid, the land’s past owner, was ac­cused in the doc­u­men­tary of re­mov­ing tomb­stones from the grave­yard and re­duc­ing some to rub­ble, which he used to pave the floor of his stable. It’s im­pos­si­ble to know how many other black ceme­ter­ies ex­ist across Canada. But it is fair to as­sume that they can be found in New­found­land, PEI, Nova Sco­tia, New Brunswick, Que­bec, and On­tario: ev­ery re­gion of Canada that once par­tic­i­pated in transat­lantic slav­ery. The sites ex­isted out­side of gov­ern­ment sanc­tion — and so were de­nied the civic ac­knowl­edge­ments and pro­tec­tions that were stan­dard for white ceme­ter­ies. This lack of recog­ni­tion has had sev­eral con­se­quences, not least of which is the Cana­dian pop­u­la­tion’s over­all ig­no­rance of the ex­tent of our coun­try’s his­tory of slav­ery; few of us learned more in school than the in­evitable con­grat­u­la­tory lec­ture about Cana­di­ans’ role in the Un­der­ground Rail­road—the covert net­work of abo­li­tion­ists that helped en­slaved blacks es­cape north. In re­cent months, the ques­tion of whether pub­lic mon­u­ments to those who sup­ported slav­ery — mainly white

Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers, sym­pa­thiz­ers, and politi­cians — has sparked protest and even, in places like Charlottesville, Vir­ginia, vi­o­lence. It has led to heated de­bates about the na­ture of his­tory, how to com­mem­o­rate it, and how to reckon with it. In this con­text, black ceme­ter­ies pro­vide a fresh op­por­tu­nity to con­sider and ac­knowl­edge dif­fi­cult and com­plex his­to­ries.

North Amer­i­can land­scapes are spot­ted with mon­u­ments to a time, just a few cen­turies ago, when slav­ery was con­sid­ered jus­ti­fied. Many stat­ues and plaques cel­e­brate col­o­niz­ers and slave own­ers — such as, in Mon­treal, James Mcgill and Paul de Chomedey de Maison­neuve. Over the past cou­ple of years, ac­tivists, aca­demics, and politi­cians have in­creas­ingly ques­tioned the ne­ces­sity and va­lid­ity of these trib­utes. In Jan­uary, af­ter months of tense de­lib­er­a­tion, Hal­i­fax’s city coun­cil voted to take down a bronze statue of Ed­ward Corn­wal­lis, the founder of the city, who, in 1749, de­clared a bounty on the scalps of Mi’kmaq peo­ple. There have been sim­i­lar ar­gu­ments in the United States about the re­moval of Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments. On the one hand, these stat­ues are of­fen­sive re­minders of his­tor­i­cal op­pres­sion, and they are ac­tively used as tal­is­mans by white-su­prem­a­cist groups in North Amer­ica; on the other hand, it’s im­por­tant to ac­knowl­edge our com­pli­cated past. His­to­ries, par­tic­u­larly ugly ones, must be reck­oned with. Ne­glected black ceme­ter­ies of­fer an­other ma­te­rial trace of the past. In­stead of build­ing stat­ues of the men who sup­ported slav­ery, why not re­di­rect our at­ten­tion to the peo­ple who suf­fered from and re­sisted it? The com­mem­o­ra­tion of black grave­yards might al­low us to re­mem­ber his­tory in a more in­clu­sive way, one that could be used to ed­u­cate and heal. Treat­ing them as his­tor­i­cal mon­u­ments would af­ford us the op­por­tu­nity to find new an­swers to old ques­tions about our re­la­tion­ship to a deeply colo­nial na­tional his­tory. It’s im­pos­si­ble to know how many African peo­ple were trans­ported be­tween the fif­teenth and nine­teenth cen­turies to land that is now part of Canada, though we do know that slav­ery ex­isted here un­til it was abol­ished in 1834. There is a gen­eral lack of schol­ar­ship on slav­ery in the re­gion: im­por­tant pri­mary sources (such as the man­i­fests of mer­chant ships that trans­ported en­slaved peo­ple from the Caribbean to Mon­treal and Hal­i­fax) have never been lo­cated, and there was no uni­form sys­tem of tax­a­tion that would have forced own­ers to tally the peo­ple they en­slaved. But we do know, more gen­er­ally, that up to 15 mil­lion Africans were brought to the Amer­i­cas over 400 years. En­slaved pop­u­la­tions in Canada were smaller than in trop­i­cal re­gions be­cause the tem­per­ate cli­mate could not sus­tain a year-round agri­cul­tural econ­omy. While some were born in the re­gions that would be­come Canada, oth­ers ar­rived from more south­ern lo­ca­tions, and still oth­ers came as “cargo” on mer­chant ships, trans­ported along­side slave-pro­duced goods, in­clud­ing rum, mo­lasses, and sugar. Com­posed of African Cana­dian, African Amer­i­can, African Caribbean, African, and Indige­nous peo­ple, this cul­tur­ally com­plex en­slaved pop­u­la­tion spoke a wide va­ri­ety of Euro­pean, African, and Indige­nous lan­guages, and they were of­ten un­able to com­mu­ni­cate with one an­other. En­slaved peo­ple in Canada, es­pe­cially Indige­nous peo­ple, suf­fered from Euro­pean dis­eases, such as small­pox, and were the tar­gets of cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment, such as whip­pings. The bru­tally cold win­ters re­sulted in frost­bite and the loss of dig­its. Own­ers also ex­tracted all man­ner of phys­i­cal labour from their hu­man “prop­erty,” who were com­monly em­ployed as farm labour­ers but also some­times ex­pected to per­form house­hold du­ties, in­clud­ing cook­ing, clean­ing, and serv­ing at ta­ble. Black men tended to be­come skilled trades­men, while women made cloth­ing, cared for their own­ers’ chil­dren, and were some­times forced to be­come wet nurses. Even though some en­slaved peo­ple who ar­rived in Canada be­came free, they would of­ten take on paid work of the same na­ture. The lives of en­slaved peo­ple were gov­erned by the de­sires and whims of their own­ers, who con­trolled when, what, and how much they ate; when they got up and went to bed; what they wore; where they lived; and even their ro­man­tic and fam­ily life. Pre­vi­ous forms of slav­ery, such as the kind that ex­isted in an­cient Rome, were based on re­gional con­flicts, xeno­pho­bia, class dif­fer­ences, debt re­pay­ment, crim­i­nal­ity, and war­fare, but the unique­ness of transat­lantic slav­ery was its ba­sis in racial dif­fer­ence. It was the sup­posed bi­o­log­i­cal in­fe­ri­or­ity of Africans that al­lowed white peo­ple to treat them like chat­tel, trans­port­ing them on slave ships and sell­ing them as com­modi­ties in the “New World.” Schol­ars have tended to study slav­ery in trop­i­cal or semi-trop­i­cal colonies, such as Cuba and Ja­maica, where plan­ta­tion regimes dom­i­nated and the en­slaved even­tu­ally be­came the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion. Far less at­ten­tion has been paid to tem­per­ate re­gions, such as Canada, where the en­slaved be­came a mi­nor­ity. Given this lack of knowl­edge, Cana­dian his­to­ri­ans have se­verely un­der­es­ti­mated the im­pact of the cul­tural iso­la­tion that was in­flicted on en­slaved com­mu­ni­ties in the re­gion. White own­ers in­sisted on the so­cial sep­a­ra­tion of races, and this seg­re­ga­tion lit­er­ally fol­lowed black peo­ple to the grave.

While there is con­sid­er­able vari­a­tion across re­gions, Africans and their de­scen­dants in North Amer­ica took great care with the burial of their dead. Death was

In­stead of build­ing stat­ues of the men who sup­ported slav­ery, why not re­di­rect our at­ten­tion to the peo­ple who suf­fered and re­sisted it?

seen as a “home go­ing,” and the bodies of the de­ceased were of­ten wrapped in funeral shrouds. Rit­ual ob­jects and per­sonal items were of­ten placed in the cof­fin, which was some­times nailed shut. Spe­cific mu­sic, in­clud­ing what would even­tu­ally be­come gospel and blues, was usu­ally per­formed at the buri­als. Of course, en­slaved peo­ple’s abil­ity to prop­erly hon­our their loved ones was dic­tated by the whims of their own­ers, who may not have al­lowed them the time or free­dom to bury a rel­a­tive ac­cord­ing to their de­sired cul­tural norms. But black ceme­ter­ies also be­came sites where op­pres­sion was mo­men­tar­ily sus­pended, re­placed in­stead by com­mu­nal cer­e­monies that pre­served African cul­ture and spir­i­tu­al­ity. Be­cause of cul­tural pro­hi­bi­tions and en­forced il­lit­er­acy, en­slaved peo­ple were largely in­ca­pable of pro­duc­ing and dis­sem­i­nat­ing cul­tural rep­re­sen­ta­tions of them­selves and their com­mu­ni­ties; grave mark­ers would of­ten have been made by the mourn­ers them­selves — and so the few tomb­stones that re­main have value as ma­te­rial ev­i­dence of a com­mu­nity that was de­nied other forms of sel­f­rep­re­sen­ta­tion. In 1991, ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sur­vey­ors who were ex­ca­vat­ing the site of a planned fed­eral of­fice in New York City un­cov­ered the re­mains of more than 400 free and en­slaved Africans and their de­scen­dants. Politi­cians and ac­tivists im­me­di­ately rec­og­nized the lo­ca­tion’s na­tional sig­nif­i­cance. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists were given ac­cess to the site to re­claim its mys­ter­ies and pre­serve its legacy, and to­day, the African Burial Ground is a na­tional mon­u­ment, ad­min­is­tered by the US Na­tional Park Ser­vice, that in­cludes a vis­i­tor cen­tre with ex­hi­bi­tions, tours, and spe­cial events. Yet, in Canada, de­spite var­i­ous pe­ti­tions and let­ters from in­di­vid­u­als and groups, such as the Black Coali­tion of Que­bec, to branches of the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment and even the United Na­tions, the ex­is­tence of the black ceme­tery in Saint-ar­mand has elicited no sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal ac­tion. If the gov­ern­ment had as­sumed re­spon­si­bil­ity for the burial site years ago — a sig­nif­i­cant step to­ward ac­knowl­edg­ing the coun­try’s in­vest­ment in transat­lantic slav­ery — my fel­low visi­tors and I might have been able to see it with­out trou­ble in 2010. We would have touched the boul­der’s face and paid trib­ute to our an­ces­tors with­out de­fer­ring to a dis­grun­tled landowner. But the boul­der re­mains with­out of­fi­cial recog­ni­tion, and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ma­te­ri­als con­tinue to be lost or cor­rupted with­out nec­es­sary pro­tec­tions. One day, hope­fully soon, that will change — and per­haps the re­spect that was de­nied to early black Cana­di­ans in life will fi­nally be con­ferred in death. CHAR­MAINE A. NEL­SON is the Wil­liam Lyon Macken­zie King vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor of Cana­dian Stud­ies at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity. Her next book, To­wards an African Cana­dian Art His­tory: Art, Mem­ory, and Re­sis­tance, is out this spring.

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