Newfoundland in the Black imaginary

Black history in Newfoundland has been ignored for too long, says visiting poet and scholar.

When we think about Newfoundland history we typically don’t think slavery.

“It’s not a topic that most people are aware of,” says Afua Cooper, a Halifax-based historian and poet who will deliver the keynote talk at the New-Found-Lands exhibition at Eastern Edge Gallery in St. John’s on Saturday. “I think the thing with Newfoundland is that it has been left out of the black studies world. When people think black history, we think Nova Scotia and then we think going west.”

New-Found-Lands, which runs until Oct. 18, explores historical and contemporary connections between Newfoundland and the Caribbean diaspora. And that means exploring, among other things, black history in Newfoundland and the island’s connections with slavery.

“Newfoundland and blackness is a field that’s open to research,” Cooper explains. “Some of us know the story of the dried cod being sent down to the West Indies—and even after slavery that still continued, so much so that cod is Jamaica’s national dish—and then Jamaica sending rum to Newfoundland. I think many of us are familiar with this narrative. But other snippets are not known at all.

“I’m not saying that Newfoundland was a slave society as such. I’m looking at the place of Newfoundland in the black imaginary.”

That place took many forms. Newfoundland’s economy has in recent centuries been shaped by the fishery, and some of those brought to do the fishing off the Grand Banks were slaves.

“They fished so efficiently, and they would come to St. John’s to dry the fish, but they were so good at it that the whites banned them from coming to fish locally,” Cooper explains. “Because they were so excellent at it — and these were slave fishermen.”

Cooper has uncovered other tantalizing hints about Newfoundland’s role in black history as well. A purported conspiracy to launch a slave rebellion in New York in 1741, prior to the American revolution, led to the arrest of hundreds of slaves. While some of those accused were executed, others were transported to exile in Newfoundland.

“What did they do there?” Cooper wonders. “Were they in forced labour? Did they have to build public works?”

Much of Cooper’s work as a historian has focused on slavery in Canada. Her 2007 book The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal explored that legacy. The book examined the life and death of Marie Joseph Angelique, a 29-year old slave who was blamed for a fire in Montreal and eventually hanged for it, despite her protestations of innocence. The story of Angelique offers a moving and powerful depiction of a woman who resisted her life-long enslavement, but uses it as an entry point to explore the reality of slavery in Canada and the experience of black slaves. The hitherto little-known first-person accounts provided by Angelique and recorded during the 1734 trial, Cooper notes, constitute the oldest slave narrative in North America.

It’s raising awareness about these forgotten and suppressed histories that drives and inspires the work of scholars like Cooper.

“I think it’s important because we want to produce an inclusive history, not just the usual white-dominated narratives,” says Cooper. “When we produce an inclusive history, and if we look at the black experience in particular, we see that it’s a very long historical presence that black people have had in Canada.

“It’s a long history and it has been a history of oppression, a history of injustice, and it goes against the traditional understanding of Canada and Blackness. Usually when we talk about Canada and Blackness we just talk about the underground railroad, and slaves coming to Canada and finding freedom—hip hip hooray! But when you look at the full spectrum of history, the underground railroad is just a small part. But it’s been exaggerated. That’s not been the experience of most black communities across Canada.”

Coming to terms with racism

In recent years there’s been a gradual if grudging acknowledgement of some elements of Newfoundland’s racist past. In 2010 the provincial government issued an official apology to the Chinese community for the head tax imposed on Chinese entering the then-Dominion of Newfoundland prior to Confederation; a monument was erected off George Street to acknowledge the shameful practice and its legacy. The $300 head tax—the equivalent of about three years’ wages—was introduced in 1906 and charged to at least 334 people. The policy was abolished in 1949—two years after it was abolished in the rest of Canada—as a result of the province joining Confederation.

The dominant narrative one hears when it comes to Newfoundland and black history is the feel-good story of Lanier Phillips, a member of the American navy who experienced racism in the U.S., survived a shipwreck off the coast of Newfoundland during the Second World War, and spoke widely about the kind and friendly treatment he received at the hands of the outport Newfoundlanders who took him in and nursed him back to health. It’s an uplifting story, but does its widespread promotion to the exclusion of other narratives risk suppressing other very real experiences of racism?

 It’s a long history and it has been a history of oppression, a history of injustice, and it goes against the traditional understanding of Canada and Blackness. — Afua Cooper

It’s kind of like the underground railway story: the slaves came to mainland Ontario and lived happily ever after,” says Cooper, referencing the 2012 Artistic Fraud play Oil and Water. “It’s a lovely play and I like it but it does leave you with that feeling, that message, that everyone was so nice; for the first time in his life [Phillips] never felt any racism. But our slave fishermen were chased out of Newfoundland by the British and the Newfoundlanders.”

When it comes to learning of Canada’s role in slavery, and the oppressed histories of black communities in this country, Cooper says “most people react with shock” and “simply do not know”.

“People are more familiar with the underground railroad, with Canada as a refuge, as a safe place,” she continues. “People have told me that I’m wrong, that Canada had no racism here. Or that there was slavery here but it was mild, it was not like American slavery. So I get that shocked response. In order to rescue the country’s reputation they say [slavery] was not that bad.

“It’s incredible that you can go to school, finish a university degree and never know that there was slavery in Canada.”

Cooper, who holds the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax and is a recipient of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Award, is launching an interdisciplinary minor in black and African diaspora studies at Dal this fall. She says she regularly experiences the surprise and skepticism of her students when she exposes them to black history in Canada.

Cooper, who is also the founder and chair of the Black Canadian Studies Association, is a strong advocate of the importance of expanding awareness of black history in the educational curriculum and integrating it at all levels. It’s not suitable to simply make it the topic of a single class or a small unit in a course, she says; it’s a complex history that needs to be given its proper space and explored in its full scope. Above all, she says, it’s a living history and demonstrates the importance of knowing and understanding history and its impact on the present.

“We’re in this period where some people don’t think the past is relevant, that we can just go along with our cellphones and internet, and we really don’t need to hear about the past. And so humanists like myself are constantly waging this battle every day to say the humanities are important, the humanities humanize us.

 The ghost of slavery is still in our consciousness. It’s still in all of our consciousnesses, and we may not know it’s there but it’s there. — Afua Cooper

“History is important because when we know history as much as possible then we can make more informed choices, we can have more empathy, and so on. We see history now coming back to bite us, gnawing at our ankles. We just had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with respect to Indigenous people in our country, so it’s history coming back to us. And it’s living history, because there’s people alive who were resident in those schools. So history is relevant to us,” Cooper explains.

“Every day there’s a college or university in the U.S. who’s confessing that [their] school was built by slave money. Georgetown University is the latest one — the Jesuit college in Washington. They sold 272 of their slaves to keep their institution afloat. Talk about institutions being built on the backs of slaves. In this kind of public discourse you see where history is more relevant than ever.”

In addition to her work as a scholar, Cooper is also a poet and spoken word artist. For her, the creative world of the stage and the educational world of the classroom and academy are deeply connected.

“I think the research world and the academic world is a creative endeavour…it makes the world more accessible, more readable. And I use a lot of my historical research in my poetry. I have whole bodies of work about history,” she explains.

“I love poetry, I love performing. It keeps me sane and it gives me another way to think about things, to think through things. Let’s say you plan to sell a slave, and you don’t know what happens to that person, the woman who was sold across the river. What happened to her? Did she die? Did she live?

“II think the arts gives me that entry point into this person’s world that just straight research does not and cannot and should not.”

“We need the research, we need the facts, but we also need fiction.”

New-Found-Lands runs Sept. 9 to Oct. 18 at Eastern Edge Gallery in St. John’s. It features the work of various artists, including Angela Baker, Sandra Brewster, Roxana Farrell, Anique Jordan, Bushra Junaid, Wayne Salmon, Tamara Segura and Anita Singh. An opening reception will be held Sept. 9 from 7-10 p.m., and Afua Cooper will be joined by participating artists and will deliver her keynote talk Saturday, Sept. 10 from 3-5 p.m. For more information visit Eastern Edge Gallery’s website.

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