Black histories, Black presencing and Black futurities
How to respond to an institutional request/offer to write something for Black History Month in this particular year when attention to spectacularized killings of Black and Indigenous people is at a high point and the stakes seem higher than ever in a global pandemic?
How to respond on behalf of a collectivity named “Black” that is internally variegated?
How to do this when my preferred mode of engaging is to collaborate with others who are part of Afro-descended communities and other coalitional communities, especially given the complexities of my own racial formation through Caribbean (Jamaican)-Canadian roots/routes as a settler here?
Time is of the essence when one is trying to do this work in the confines of a short month named for this specific purpose, which both enables and constrains what can be done. There is no time for this pre-tenure relative newcomer to AU to find all the others—students, staff, and faculty—here who may be interpellated by the call for Black History. This in itself is a symptom of structures, including a relative (in)visibility of important tutor-instructors, students, and staff within our ecosystem, that I hope will be collectively addressed in time.
So thinking of the essence of time and within the constraints of time and space, and given that colleague Joseph Kelly wrote an excellent origin story of Black History Month in 2017 for The Hub, I am going to do two things with the privilege of voice in this piece:
- to pluralize the frames of thinking of Black History, by signalling Black histories, Black presencing and Black futurities; and
- to situate this thinking in my own embodied knowledge of academic institutional space in Canada/Turtle Island as one space among many others.
Grounding it in this space of academia in Canada, where our presence is paradoxically at times unwelcome or invisibilised and other times, hyper-solicited, I extend an offer and request in these spaces for mutual accountability.
Mutual accountability would mean the request to write in this space on behalf of the university functions not as a gesture to demonstrate the relative ‘wokeness’ of the institution, nor of me—I don’t believe that woke as a description of a complete wakefulness does justice to the ways we may each be complicit in systems of oppression. Rather the request would be an invitation to the institution, AU and others, to make Black lives and Black knowledges matter in ways that remain elusive.
In teasing out histories, presencing, and futurities, I aim not to instill a linear chronology but to consider how accounts can avoid the easy “putting in place” and time—Black history in the singular—of Black bodies and knowledges as a form of closure in a racialized past from which we have escaped. I do not claim that my account or questions are original. I am able to speak honestly in this piece because of the work of many bold ancestors who have had more to lose than I do.
One of the frustrations of the “e-race-sures” that occur in higher education is that we need to find our own way to communities of support and knowledge that have preceded us, as these don’t appear in colonial Euro-western institutions and canons of knowledge.
I recall my experience of choosing to read Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952) on my own for my doctoral candidacy exams in 2011. When I wrote with Fanon’s insights, my all-white committee disciplined me to stay in the lane of ecology and metaphors that my study of carbon footprint metaphors stipulated. Questions of race and decolonization didn’t rightly belong.
From the privilege of my own tenure-track faculty position now, I take that moment seriously as a structure to un-do in creating spaces for those whose presences and knowledges have not been welcome.
Remedial attempts to attend to history and equity such as Black History Month take place in contexts of settler colonialism in this nation-state. So Black histories on Turtle Island are complexly interwoven with foundational genocides of Indigenous communities, and their own perseverance, resurgence and sovereignty.
Race was, and still is, used as a technology to dispossess people from land, and land from people in projects of colonial expansion and resource extraction. The continent of Africa and its people were, and still are, subject to colonizing forces. And further, the emergence on Turtle Island of a Black Lives Matter movement attests to the presence of colonizing whiteness in what Saidiya Hartman calls the ‘afterlives of slavery’.
However, claims of Afro-descended people and other people of colour to rightful place in settler space—whether “multicultural” Canadian or “melting pot” American settler space—risk reproducing the logics of dispossession of sovereign Nations who continue to exist despite colonization. As Paula Madden wrote in a piece called “Black History Month and the Paradox of Narrating the Nation: Black Mi’kmaw Relations, “while writing the subaltern histories of Black Canadians disrupts the story of Anglo-French primacy, unless we also account for our relationship to the continuing dispossession of first peoples such writings are as problematic as those made by Euro-Canadians.” These complex histories and questions are explored in the work of Paula Madden, Robin Maynard and Ingrid Waldron.
At Athabasca University, I appreciate the work of Elder-in-Residence Maria Campbell for her leadership, and also the work of Priscilla Campeau and Ivy Lalonde for the Nukskahtowin Plan (Cree for “meeting place”), which orients Indigenous futurities along with others at this institution as a meeting place. We are an online university, located in Treaty 6 (1876) territory. The main campus, in the town of Athabasca, is adjacent to Treaty 8 (1899), and the Athabasca River separates the two treaty areas.
Athabasca University was established in 1970 by Order in Council of the Government of Alberta. Since First Nations within Treaty 8 do not have their own university or tribal colleges like southern First Nations, Athabasca University maintains a commitment to these communities, to learners in remote rural and Northern areas, to underserved urban populations, and to students in other universities wishing to accelerate degree completion.
I recognize that many other First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people bring their own orientations, laws, and relations to this institution. As a settler in these spaces, I am still learning how to be in accountable relations—with the Lekwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ lands on Vancouver Island where I live with my family, and the Plains Cree, Wood Cree, Nakota, Saulteaux and Dene lands where I often work and stay (pre-Pandemic) in Alberta. As a university that is located “everywhere” in its online presence, AU has a complex relationship with these histories as well as global ecologies of colonization that are present in Black histories. I recognize these complexities and invite people to think about these histories, presences and futures wherever ‘we’ are currently located, as ‘we’ reflect upon Black histories.
Black Histories, even in Canadian settings, are often understood in and from American contexts where Canada gets to be the ‘virtuous’ neighbour who took in former slaves through the underground railroad. This narrative however, both removes the chattel slavery from the origins of the Canadian nation state and also invisibilises long-standing communities that have existed in tension with white-settler nationhood. The iconic history of Africville in Mi’kmaq territories has increasingly been made visible, thanks to the work of the aforementioned scholar-activists. As an institution based in Alberta, this university might engage with the long-standing presence of Black people near to Athabasca in Amber Valley, Beaver Lake Cree and Michif Piyii (Métis) territories.
Other sites of important Black histories include Hogan’s Alley, a historical community in the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh territories (Vancouver). In the early 1900s, this community was conveniently located close to the train station where Black porters were part of the racialized work of the settler nation-state. However, in the late 1960s this community was inconveniently located as an obstacle to urban development and thus, removed for what is now a viaduct. Other railroad histories connecting with Black communities are found in Little Burgundy, Kanien’kehà:ka (Montreal).
These are just some of the few histories that were not on offer throughout my own schooling and which I have had to sleuth out. I do this with the help of those who know that making these histories present is crucially important in making all Black Lives Matter, even (especially) those who have been criminalized in school-to-prison pipelines.
Rather than burdening a few Black scholars/activists in institutions with the task of remediating long histories of erasure, I would like to gesture toward a more complex active presencing of people and knowledges and how these interrelate.
In my own academic autobiography, it is difficult to tease apart the lack of teachers, scholars, student-peers, and knowledges from the structures of support and knowledge that permitted white supremacist academics like Philippe Rushton to flourish in higher education. While I didn’t attend the University of Western Ontario where Rushton held tenure, my own undergraduate institution, Carleton University, hosted a talk by him during my time there.
Although I intellectually understood his eugenicist work to be racist, as an undergraduate student of colour who had no non-white teachers (except for my father), Rushton’s presence as a funded and respected scholar contributed to my own disappearance and delayed my eventual return to graduate school.
As Dr. Notisha Massaquoi and other former students of Rushton’s are now insisting, the legacies of presences and absences in education carry far-reaching consequences of racialized violence we witness today. By citing the legacies of a known white supremacist scholar, however, I do not wish to reinforce the notion that only this kind of research and scholarship are responsible for erasures. The deficiency of Black knowledges and people in “normal” curricula and research also leads to the devaluation of lives.
Rather than centering narratives of victimhood and deficiency, however, part of the task of presencing entails centering joy and coalitional forces that arise out of Black histories. Despite erasures and lack of mentorship in institutions, Black activists and scholars and cultural producers have continued to do important work.
Among others, Andrea Davis, scholar-activist at York University, has been hosting an incredible series of events that presence Black life and knowledges. In Black Life: A Toronto Teach-in, she brings together: Canisia Lubrin, poet-activist-educator; Andrea Fantona, scholar-activist-artist; Rinaldo Walcott, gender and race studies scholar-activist; Idil Abdillahi, scholar of anti-Black Sanism; and Christina Sharpe, scholar-activist of African diasporic literature and theory. All of these educators and activists do the important work of intersectional presencing of Black knowledges with and alongside considerations of dis/ability, gender, colonialism, and carcerality.
What is more, they often seek, from within the confines of subjugated cultures and histories, the remedies of creative joy, music, and arts. Dionne Brand makes beauty out of “brittle” life poetics. I particularly love the resonant histories and presences in El Jones’ poem, Black Sheroes, which rhythmically evokes what gets lost in the often male-dominant spaces of Black History. In order to temper the violence of gender binary essentialism, I turn to C. Riley Snorton’s work Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity, which makes present the long histories of Black trans lives and activism in the 19th and 20th centuries, including the life of Lucy Hicks Anderson (1886-1954), a charitable socialite, business person in Oxnard, California. Her life seems to have been one filled with joy, love, irreverence and care as well as at times, pain and suffering.
In my own research and writing in the cultural politics of climate change, I have been seeking out the kinds of knowledges and orientations that were not permitted in my own studies. Other feminist scholar-activists of climate change and artists of colour are making urgent appeals to diversify forms of knowledge about, and solutions to climate change which tend to reinforce white male forms of knowledge that often abdicate questions of social and political importance. In my collaborative writing and thinking with AU colleagues, Davina Bhandar and Nisha Nath, and independent writer Baljit Pardesi, and following the tradition of Audre Lorde’s poetics, we pursue a practice that we call Poetics of Care: Remedies for Racial Capitalism Gone Viral.
Dismantling a white and colonial supremacy of knowledges by presencing knowledge within Indigenous, Black, and people of colour communities is everyone’s work. Here, I would like to acknowledge the work of Athabasca University Library’s curated list of resources for Black History Month as one site of presencing that creates a model for other units at our university to work toward. All disciplines and fields of knowledge—business, health, education, science, math, humanities, social science, the arts, etc.—are accountable to these histories and to the ways they engage knowledges, communities, and bodies beyond the academy.
Black presencing may also entail permitting Afro-descended scholars, students and staff, and members of the general public to not engage with race if they choose not to. Too often those bearing an epidermal mark are called upon to do the work that is beyond their disciplinary training/research/knowledge/capacity. The work of learning to presence knowledges and communities that have been erased requires gradual committed processes of un-learning and re-learning. As Rita Dhamoon carefully spells out, and offers solutions for, this work is too often displaced upon certain bodies at the expense of their supported presence in institutions.
The description here is provisional and aspirational because it telegraphs a more expansive future of collective commitments and questions, and I am incapable of representing a rich range of perspectives.
To Afro-descended communities, we might ask of each other, How can we appear in our variegated multiplicities and make room for these when institutional and societal pressures to appear in a particular way reduce these realities? How can this collective work build on the coalitional forces that are not equivalent to, but are in the service of Indigenous sovereignty, and that connect with global histories of racial capitalism that affect communities beyond Afro-descendency? Here, I gesture toward the important work of communities of Afro-Indigeneity in the U.S. and in Canada as one among many that are creating futurities beyond Black/white binaries.
To this institution and others we might ask: If you/we are reflective upon the histories of erasure in which you/we are complicit, how can you/we create the space for these multiplicities? Rather than reproducing mammy relations of excessive work in the service of the institution, how can institutions support the work of Indigenous people, Black people, and people of colour to sustain presence into the future?
How can achievements be celebrated and joy centered away from deficiency narratives? In the words of N.K Jemison, celebrated as the first Black writer to win the Hugo Award for speculative fiction, How Long ‘til Black Future Month?
About the author:
Anita Girvan is assistant professor of Cultural Studies and faculty in the Master of Arts – Interdisciplinary Studies programme. Her work focuses on stories, and metaphors as they offer critical orientations and considerations of ecology, race, and decolonizing politics. She is currently enjoying conversations with a cohort of amazing students in her graduate course called “Cultural Politics of Crisis at a Time of Pandemic and Climate Change” (MAIS 752).