I Owe Black Canada
Coming to understand the real but not real border
In a move that many told me was a major professional mistake, I dropped out of one of the best astronomy PhD programs in the United States to pursue research at the relatively new Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, switching to the PhD program at University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. I had never heard of Waterloo, although I’ve come to understand that in math and engineering circles, it’s kind of a BFD, with the largest mathematics faculty in North America (multiple math departments!), and the most extensive engineering co-op program in North America.
Being one of about 10 Black grad students across all departments at UC Santa Cruz, it didn’t cross my mind to be picky about how many Black students there were at Waterloo. It also didn’t occur to me that it would take a rather traumatizing search before I could find anyone who could actually cut my hair without asking me stupid questions like, “Can you put a comb in that?”
I didn’t know Canada, although I thought I did. Here’s what I knew about Canada: that it was like the US but people said “sore-ry” instead of “sawry,” that people sometimes mistook my Los Angeles-British colonial accent for a Canadian one, that some of my cousins on the Barbados side lived north of Toronto, that it was the end of the underground railroad, that they had single-payer health care, that as a child I had to watch Canadian TV to see the diversity that reflected my real life, and that overall this all meant they were more civilized than the US. In other words, I believed what I would now call the Canadian national myth, rather strongly.
This was upended pretty quickly through a series of incidents during my first six months living in Waterloo that I’d rather not recount:
— Being formally asked to leave the country by a border agent who assumed I had broken the law and therefore could not be issued a study permit (Americans, unlike everyone else, can apply at the border). That night she threw me and two Black guys who had the wrong names out of the country. She made various vague comments about protecting Canadian jobs. I left, cried my eyes out in a Buffalo Airport parking lot, and returned when the next shift was on as instructed. Their supervisor apologized but said there was nothing she could do about the mark on my record. This mark meant that for the next seven years, every time I crossed the Canadian border, I was stopped and sometimes searched. After I moved back to the US, these stops included me needing to produce proof that I wasn’t there to “steal a job from a Canadian.”
— An Italian postdoc at Perimeter who was supposed to be supervising my research one night in a bar told me, “You Black people are always complaining about slavery. You need to get over it.” How did this come up? I had been defending my interest in preserving my Jewish identity to a white (blonde, blue-eyed) German who insisted I couldn’t be a real Jew. I apparently should not have brought Passover’s slavery-to-freedom narrative up. The white Canadians at the table didn’t know what to do. But when I refused to work with the Italian postdoc, I was asked why I was persecuting him by several people. It completely derailed my research path.
— At one of the queer community parties, I referenced being Black in conversation, and a white woman from across the room shouted, “But, what percentage are you?” I replied that I didn’t count my identity in percentages. Another white woman the next day spread a rumor that I had been really mean, and I started receiving emails and instant messages asking me why I was so horrible. Many of the people sending these knew that my mother was at the time in the hospital back home, deathly ill. It did not slow their roll.
—I was called a mulatto. Over and over.
— Every time I brought up First Nations/Native American people, someone said something racist about them drinking, about their homelessness, about their lack of social advancement. It was a rule without exception: bring up Native people and someone will say something racist.
— This one was actually about a year or two in, but: I was once literally The Spook Who Sat By The Door while waiting to get the oil changed on my car. A white dude was in the waiting room with his girlfriend and started going on about some spook — an anti-Black racial slur I didn’t even know people used after 1960 — and when his girlfriend nervously eyed me and asked him to stop, he looked at me and said, “I don’t care.”
I’m not sure I would have managed the shock of Canadian racism without help. In my entire time at Waterloo, I met no other Black PhD students, so for the most part I was on my own. I spent A LOT of time in the local bookstores as an escape. One day in February, exploring the Chapters Waterloo Native Studies section, I turned around and saw that a display several meters away contained a bookwith a dark skinned Black face on it looking at me with the words The Book of Negroes.
I went into OH HELL NO mode because at that point, I believed that something like that couldn’t mean anything good. It was Black History Month (yes in Canada too!), and I could not imagine that this was anything but Canadian anti-Black fuckery, because that’s all I had been dealing with for months. I angrily marched across the store to the entrance display, picked up the book ready to start yelling at someone, and two pages in was standing there with tears in my eyes.
The Book of Negroes wasn’t just the name of a novel. It was a real object where the names of Black people who were free were recorded to ensure that they were not mixed up with slaves who shared the trek with them from the newly formed United States to English Canada after the UK lost the American Revolution.
I consumed the book in two days. It was a fictionalized tale of a kidnapped West African Muslim woman who got her freedom, worked for the British during the war, went to Nova Scotia, witnessed North America’s first race riots, witnessed the transplantation of formerly enslaved people to Sierra Leone and eventually traveled to England to argue for emancipation.
It was my everything, connecting my American heritage with my Canadian life.
Hanging out in the other bookstore in Waterloo, I found out that the author, Lawrence Hill, would be doing an event with Afua Cooper, who had just published another book, I picked up, The Hanging of Angelique. Cooper’s book was about the Black enslaved woman who burned Montreal down (well, we think anyway). I made a note to show up at their event come hell or high water.
Hill, a light skinned Black man whose white American mother and Black American father had come to Canada when his father got into the University of Toronto for grad school, talked about discovering the hidden Canadian history of the Black Loyalists, as they are known. Cooper, a dark skinned Black woman and an established poet in addition to historian, talked about uncovering the often ignored and hidden history of Canada’s own horrible past with slavery.
There were not a lot of people there, maybe 20. This meant I got to have real conversations with both Lawrence and Afua, who like many Black Canadians before them, helped guide a lost Black American who was trying to find her way in a Canadian context. I told Lawrence some of my stories, and he said something I will summarize as, “It’s not you. This is how Black people in Canada are treated. Keep your head up.” And when I talked to Afua, she described the struggle she had getting academic departments to recognize Black Canadian history as distinct from Black American history, a lesson that I have never forgotten. Through both conversations it became clear to me that I was having an immigrant experience, but I was also having a distinctly Black Canadian experience. I had to shed my ideas of this just being a more northern United States.
That lesson began with Lawrence Hill and Afua Cooper, whose other writings I found and urgently consumed. Having learned of their works and their history, I began to spend time not just reading First Nations Canadian authors like Thomas King and Drew Hayden Taylor (whose Funny You Don’t Look Like One series was a G-dsend), but began to read them in dialogue with Black Canadian authors such as George Elliott Clarke and Joseph Mensah. I became very interested in the geography of Africadian existence, eventually going to Halifax, Nova Scotia on my honeymoon when my ex-wife and I got married, just so I could see what was left of Africville. I returned again a few years later, and I dream, regularly of returning, regularly.
The Book of Negroes — which was based on historical scholarship done by Black Canada studies folks — went on to win many awards, change the Canadian conversation, and be turned into a mini-series that aired both in Canada and the US. The Hanging of Angelique continues to be, in my view, an under-appreciated book that will one day come into its own, when Black women’s stories afforded the same respect that white men’s and when it becomes socially acceptable to talk about Black revolutions for freedom and not just white ones. (As a literary magazine editor now, I have to add the parenthetical that having a phenomenal poet like Cooper write a history like Angelique’s is an opportunity that readers don’t often get, and we should cherish it.)[There was more to my conversation with Hill about why The Book of Negroes was published under a different name in the US, the content of which is summarized here.]
White Canada has a national myth that Canada is a multicultural haven that does not suffer from the white supremacy that the United States does. For those of us who have never traveled there or who have little contact with Black Canadians, it’s easy to buy this myth because it’s all we are ever told about Canada. We are also told that Black Canadian history is merely a matter of Black American history, not legacies of Maroons brought to Nova Scotia in order to simplify British colonial life in Jamaica, or Bajan (Barbadian) people brought to Nova Scotia to work in mines, or people from around the West Indies and Africa who come as cheap domestic labor, or outrageously high drop-out rates in Toronto high schools, or Negro hockey leagues in Atlantic Canada, or enslaved people throughout English and French Canada.
Had I tried to survive white Canadian racism while holding onto this myth, I don’t know if I would have made it. Without Afua Cooper and Lawrence Hill giving me needed lessons in the limited time I had with them, I don’t know how I would have survived psychologically. It was hard enough with the wind of Black Canada at my back. It would have been maybe impossibly harder without it.
I did not return to the United States the person I was when I left. Getting a PhD will do that to you, as will all the sexism I witnessed while I was getting it. But I also came back with a different vision of myself. I don’t know if Black Canadians would ever see me this way, but I came back a Black North American, not just a USAmerican. I now see Black Canadian history as part of my history. I was an immigrant in Canada, and my Black Canadian immigrant experience transformed who I am.
Certainly my reading habits are shaped by what’s new in Canada. I try to get and read everything I can by Black and First Nations Canadian authors. For example, I’m reading Lawrence Hill’s sister’s posthumously published novel Café Babanussa. Karen Hill had a way with storytelling, and it’s sad that a tragic accident and her history with mental illness mean that there won’t be more.
But let me add: it has also changed me as a writer. When George Elliott Clarke spent a year as a visiting scholar at Harvard a few years ago, I (in my opinion) cheekily emailed him and asked if we could meet. George invited me to come to a seminar series he ran for Canadian authors and let me join him and his crew for a raucous dinner at the Harvard Faculty Club. I had been an undergraduate there and had never seen other Black people in there except as serving staff. George wore a sweatshirt and we were loud!
Later I (in my opinion) cheekily sent him an essay I had published about a difficult family rift my husband and I were facing. To my astonishment, he wrote back and said that I should keep writing. Maybe he says that to all the acolytes, but it doesn’t matter. Between the editor who published me (Kiese Laymon) and George Elliott Clarke, I began to believe that my writing skills were a thing that I should water and grow and blossom. And I have. And folks who have been reading my writing for the last two years especially have seen the fruits of that process.
I owe Black Canada. I suspect Black Americans do in a lot of ways that we don’t understand. I hope that rather than trying to excavate that relationship through borrowed habits of “discovery,” Black Americans will look for what we were told not to see: the Black Cultural Centre in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, which is phenomenal and one of a kind; the many Black scholars and writers like Rinaldo Walcott, Katherine McKittrick, Afua Cooper, George Elliott Clarke (the current Parliamentary Poet Laureate) and others who have made it their life’s work to bring Afro-Canadian history and language to the fore; the Black Canadians who have made a huge impact on the Black Lives Matter conversation by highlighting that Canada isn’t a haven to escape to but rather a place that needs to be transformed; and the many Black families — including mine — that are part of the complicated conversation about who settler colonial Canada is and what it may come to be.
We owe Black Canada our understanding that their stories are theirs to tell.