New Dawn: The Journal of Black Canadian Studies

http://aries.oise.utoronto.ca/dawn/journal/

 

 

 

Marginality, Interdisciplinarity and Black Canadian History

 

 

Barrington Walker

Queen’s University

 

 

     Over the past 40 years North American historians have been seriously challenged (some might even say besieged) by their critics from both within and without. In the 1970s, proponents of the Marxian “New Social History” defiantly threw down the gauntlet, chastising classically trained historians for their whiggish, teleological understanding of historical processes and their single-minded devotion to chronicling the lives of elites. The 1980s and 1990s brought still more challengers to the historical profession (by now, among its ranks were the “new” social historians who posed earlier challenges to historical conventions). Social movements amongst white women, women and men of colour, aboriginal peoples, and gays and lesbians who had been ignored by the profession began to demand a seat at the table of academic historiography.

 

Discourse analysis, and the “linguistic turn” borne out of postmodernist and poststructuralist scholarly interventions posed still more challenges to historical orthodoxy. Postmodernity’s ascendancy pushed many historians to deal with the sensitive issue of the very legitimacy of history as a scholarly enterprise. The positivist foundations of the discipline were now under attack and traditional narrative historians and historical materialists alike manned the barricades against this ominous threat. Meta narratives, causal claims, the a priori conception of the unified subject and its corollary, the (often) unreflective positing of discrete identities, bodies free of the terrains of signification, interpellation or discursive contest all came into question. The sanctity of evidence and as one scholar puts it, the fetishization of archival research was also called into question.[1] The question that concerns us here is how has African Canadian historiography shaped and been shaped by these larger developments?

 

     This is a difficult question to answer because of the chronically underdeveloped and almost perpetually embryonic nature of African Canadian historiography. Because both the United States and Canada share a history of the enslavement of African peoples and legally sanctioned white supremacist culture in the wake of slavery’s demise, it is worth taking a peek south of the border, even if we risk conflating two quite different contexts. African American historiography dates back to the writings of prolific figures such as W.E.B. DuBois at the turn of the last century and John Hope Franklin in the mid twentieth century. The postwar period brought a problematic genre of Black Studies that was primarily authored by whites. While biologist explanations of African American’s marginality had been usurped by environmentalism, the overriding objective of these works was to demystify the “tangle of pathologies,” rooted in the histories of slavery, disenfranchisement and urban blight that characterized African American life.[2] The climate of the 1960s and the 1970s, a whirlwind social movement for civil rights, urban (read Black) student unrest and protests bore the fruit of the Great Society programs, among which was affirmative action and, grudgingly, the emergence of African American students and professors on American campuses in unprecedented numbers. African Americans impressed themselves upon national thought in ways unseen since the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. The emergence of African American Studies constitutes the last stage in the development of the field south of the border and is marked by its engagement with various branches of critical theory and, most recently, diaspora/Africana studies.

 

      It is much more difficult to map genealogies of African Canadian historiography. In many ways it has emerged as a field quite distinct from and much more uneven than African American historiography. It is also considerably more in need of foundational scholarship than its U.S. counterpart. There are two main reasons that account for the state of the field. First, there have been profound institutional barriers to the production and dissemination of African Canadian historical scholarship. The Canadian historical profession has maintained a stance towards African Canadian historiography that is at best indifferent and at worst hostile. At the time of this writing there are only two historians of Black Canada with full time academic appointments at major Canadian universities. Hence, many Canadian trained scholars of African Canadian history have had to look south of the border for institutional support, yet another example of reverse traffic in black bodies and now ideas that traverses the routes of the much celebrated Underground Railroad. There are examples of African Canadianists who have taken up positions in U.S. universities. Indeed, one of the sad ironies of the location of the African Canadianist in the academy is that most are employed south of the border. Given the general indifference to Canadian historiography south of the border, it’s fair to say that the institutional location of Black Canadian historiography in that country can only be described as a marginal enterprise, despite the relatively recent turn to Diaspora and Black Atlantic Studies.


     African Canadian historiography is also plagued by the dearth of disseminated research particularly in scholarly monographs. There are far to few full monographs devoted to the study of African Canadian history. The late Yale University historian Robin Winks wrote the best known book on African Canadian history in the early 1970s and it was unapologetically
—— even brazenly —— re-issued in the late 1980s virtually without revision. Winks’ book, though impressive in its length and the scope of his research underscores the utter marginality of African Canadian historiography in two ways. First, Winks attempted to write the entire history of African Canadians in a single volume, an effort which many Canadian historians, in turn, unfortunately viewed as definitive. Second, many of Winks’ conclusions suggest that the African Canadian “story” was insignificant —— a failure —— because of African Canadians’ internal divisions, their dearth of charismatic leaders, their small numbers and their political timidity and ignorance.

 

     There are certainly a number of talented historians of Black Canada currently doing sophisticated work. Newer scholars like Amani Whitfield and Daniel McNeil are prime examples as well as established scholar James St. G. Walker. However, what also marks African Canadian historiography at this particular juncture is that of the few full-length monographs that do exist, many have been penned by sociologists, anthropologists and cultural theorists.  Much of the most interesting historical work then has been generated by scholars not formally trained as historians: George Elliot Clarke, Rinaldo Walcott, Dionne Brand, David Chariandy, Cecil Foster, David Sealy, Katherine McKittrick, George Dei and Agnes Calliste are very talented scholars who have engaged in various kinds of historical writings from outside the discipline. Here, outside the traditional confines of history qua history the field has shown much promise. In Canada disciplines such as English and Sociology, and faculties of Education have been more willing to offer highly coveted tenure-track positions to scholars of Black Canada. Secondly these scholars of Black Canada, trained across and in the interstices of disciplinary boundaries have spiritedly engaged with many of the very things that have troubled many (though certainly not all) quarters in the historical profession, particularly relating to questions of the “innocent notion of the essential subject” and, implicitly, the nature of historical evidence, methodology and historical narrative and how we imagine intersections of Canadian nationhood, Black Canadas and diasporas.

 

     New Dawn, this new and first interdisciplinary journal of Black Canadian studies is an important venue for the study of African Canadian history. The historical scholarship that graces its pages will echo established dynamic practices of writing African Canadian histories while providing a new site for fostering the important work that is to come. 

 

 

Barrington Walker is an Assistant Professor in the History department at Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Harris Jr., Robert L. “The Intellectual and Institutional

Development of Africana Studies.” in The Black Studies

Reader, edited by Bobo, Jacqueline, Cynthia Hudley, and Claudine Michel. New York: Routledge, 2004.

 

Jenkins, Keith ed., The Postmodern History Reader. New

York: Routledge, 1997.

 

 

 



[1] Keith Jenkins ed., The Postmodern History Reader (New York: Routledge, 1997), 13.

[2] Robert L. Harris Jr. “The Intellectual and Institutional Development of Africana Studies.” in The Black Studies Reader, eds. Jacqueline Bobo et al. (New York: Routledge, 2004), 15-20.