New Dawn: The Journal of Black Canadian Studies

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

 

 

 

Re-mixing Canadian History

 

Daniel McNeil

University of Toronto

 

 

Now it is the autumn again; the people are all coming back. The recess of summer is over, when holidays are taken, newspapers shrink, history itself seems momentarily to falter and stop … But the papers are thickening and filling again; things seem to be happening… The intelligent people survey the autumn world, and liberal and radical heckles rise, and fresh faces are about.[1]

 

 

While Canadian newspapers continued to bombard their readers with advertisements for the transatlantic music industry, Canadian historians spent the last days of summer 2005 discussing how they could make their subject appealing to an iPod generation. In The Ottawa Citizen, Jack Granatstein defended his role as “one of Canada’s foremost popular historians” by reaching the same shrill note he has hit in various op-ed pieces and attacking scholars that focus on his nation’s “black marks”.[2] Yet if Granatstein’s predictable call for glorious Canadian narratives sounded like vintage vinyl on a broken down gramophone, Allan Greer ended up echoing the defenders of the 1980’s mixtape as his article in The Ottawa Citizen rehashed the arguments of Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson in order to question the invention of national traditions in a post-Fordist world.[3] So, when the journalistic salvos of Granatstein and Greer were posted on the discussion boards of H-Net Canada, many teachers penned message board missives that lampooned student-consumers with baseball hats turned backwards,[4] but only Erica Phillips managed to question the white noise that surrounded such debates and, quite literally, called for Canadian history courses that celebrated Black marks – i.e. the heroes of African descent that have left an impact on Canada.[5] Alas, Phillips could only echo Afro(Americo)centric rap CDs from the 1990s as she criticized Canadian history courses that failed to connect with a hip-hop generation.[6] In fact, the positions of Granatstein, Greer and Phillips are only superficially different and can all be traced to something Frantz Fanon might diagnose as a North American society for people of black cultures, a place where the self-appointed guardians of the Western canon are haunted by the howls of black musicians.

 

Although Granatstein and Greer have a clear sense of a Canadian nation that has been decisively shaped by ancient Greece and Rome via French and British settlers, they both assume that the general reader spends more time craving American attention than perusing European texts. For example, Granatstein used his article in The Ottawa Citizen to praise Canada’s ability to uphold Western democratic values, just as he had reminded his readers about Canada’s responsibility to “Western civilization and culture” in Who Killed Canadian History?[7]  Yet even when he has taken up more space to warn valiant Canadians about the dangers of political correctness, he has chosen to focus his attention on the “brutal, murderous race riots that have so disfigured American society”,[8] and the “distinguished” American historians and philosophers that have depicted “multicultural mania” as a vaguely Marxist threat to the unity of their nation.[9]

 

Similarly, Greer had emphasised the racial divisions in America in The People of New France before he felt the need to tell the readers of The Ottawa Citizen about prominent American historians that used archives stored in Canada’s capital.  In his contribution to a series on Canadian social history, Greer had simply defined slavery in eighteenth-century New France against “the nineteenth-century American South” because “there was no simple dichotomy between free and white, on one side, unfree and black on the other … with many [white] French people (servants, engagés, apprentices, soldiers) subject to the authority of a master in almost the same way that a [black] slave was.”[10] Put bluntly, such comments erase free Blacks from the nineteenth-century American South in order to emphasise white servitude — not Black freedom — in eighteenth-century New France. Indeed, The People of New France only briefly mentioned free Blacks in Louisiana,[11] and depicted “black slaves” such as Marie-Joseph Angélique as “Others” in eighteenth-century Canada.[12] Greer even ignored Matthew Da Costa, a pioneer labelled “naigre” who died during the winter of 1606-7 in the short-lived settlement of Port Royal, as well as the famous sixteenth-century essays of Montaigne about the Natives of a New World, so that he could depict cultural relativism as something that could only gain prominence in Canada well after the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[13]

 

Thus, we can clearly see how Phillips’s hopes for Black Canadian icons are a reaction to the limited Eurocentric and Americocentric playlists of established Canadian mythmakers. Her attempts to harness a hip-hop generation can even seem “radical” when one visits the University of Toronto Faculty club and hears a well-respected professor of Canadian History announce that hip-hop “wasn’t around” when Allan Bloom first published The Closing of the American Mind in 1987, while an up-and-coming lecturer praises Bloom and bemoans the influence of “boom-boom” rap music.[14] Nonetheless, we must also note how Phillips’s brief contribution to the questions that continually haunt gatherings of Canadian historians failed to channel the planetary humanism of Frantz Fanon and the ghosts of a Black Atlantic.[15]

 

As we near the 45th anniversary of the first publication of The Wretched of the Earth, honest intellectuals must still wrestle with Fanon’s prediction that “in fifty years time the type of jazz howl hiccupped by a poor misfortunate Negro will be upheld only by the whites who believe in it as an expression of nigger-hood, and who are faithful to this arrested image of a type of relationship.”[16] If teachers of Black Canadian studies are to honour the commitment of Frantz Fanon to the outcast masses, we cannot simply trot out the names of figures labelled black and contrast them with African American stars in order to gain the attention of middle-class Canadians. Rather than follow a native middle-class determined to fit some respectable Negroes, and a select number of slaves to black-ism, into a North American society for people of black cultures, we can pursue — and create — textual, visual and oral archives that chronicle heroic acts of human emancipation. In other words, we cannot just venerate national leaders or sub-national role models that talked about political emancipation in order to lecture working-class Blacks. So, where Granatstein longs for Canadian heroes and links questions of ethnic pride to sub-national concerns that have no place in universities that hope to retain a “scholarly reputation”,[17] Fanon’s work can serve as a springboard for discussion about the pitfalls of national consciousness, and help an overwhelming number of students content with a closed middle-class society begin to appreciate the existential and supra-national questions posed by working-class Blacks. When the quixotic windmills of Greer’s mind point us towards a discussion of Canadian history as “one dimension of the history of humanity”,[18] but continue to conceptualise Blacks as Others, Fanon’s interrogation of binary thinking may provoke students to re-examine their most cherished preconceptions about human progress. And, although the masculinist theories of Fanon may not seem to move us beyond the litany of male icons enlisted by Phillips, his work can at least inspire a determined resistance to the profiteers and schemers that hope to use such heroes to manage, rather than liberate, the outcast masses.[19] Who knows, we may even reflect the Internet podcasts set up to revolutionize the way we think about music.[20]

 

 

 

 

Daniel McNeil is a PhD candidate in the History department at the University of Toronto.


 

Works Cited

 

Anderson, B. Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.

 

Bloom, A.D. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

 

Broad, G. Re: Why Canadian History is so boring 2005 [cited 1 September 2005]. Available from http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/lobrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=H-Canada&month=0509&week=a&msg=1bFjO/CBjd6QV9xxWqeMjA&user=&pw=.

 

Fanon, Frantz. The wretched of the earth. New York: Grove Press, 1968.

 

Gilroy, Paul. Against race: imagining political culture beyond the color line. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

 

———. The Black Atlantic: modernity and double consciousness. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

 

Granatstein, J. L. "Getting History Right." The Ottawa Citizen, 27 August 2005.

 

Granatstein, J.L. Who Killed Canadian History? Toronto: HarperCollins, 1998.

 

Greer, A. The People of New France. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1997.

 

———. "Why is Canadian History so boring?" The Ottawa Citizen, 20 August 2005.

 

Hobsbawm, E. J., and T. Ranger, eds. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

 

Naiman, S. "Internet podcasts give voice to people." The Calgary Sun, February 20 2005.

 

Phillips, E. Re: Why Canadian History is so boring 2005 [cited 1 September 2005]. Available from http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/lobrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=H-Canada&month=0508&week=a&msg=o68R2Lj9qyqp7%2bCcVTk8Yw&user=&pw.

 

Rorty. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

 

Schlesinger Jr., A. The Disuniting of America. New York: Norton, 1992.

 

Worth, L. "Radio R/evolution: podcasting and satellite offer opposite innovations." Exclaim!, November 2005.

 



[1] Malcolm Bradbury, The History Man (London: Secker & Warburg, 1975).

[2] J. L. Granatstein, "Getting History Right," The Ottawa Citizen, 27 August 2005. par. 6, http://northernblue.ca/cblog/index.php?/categories/1-Teaching-History 01 November 2005).

[3] A. Greer, "Why is Canadian History so boring?" The Ottawa Citizen, 20 August 2005.

E. J. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger, eds. The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

B. Anderson, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (London: Verso 1983).

[4] G. Broad, Re: Why Canadian History is so boring (2005 [cited 1 September 2005]); available from http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/lobrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=H-Canada&month=0509&week=a&msg=1bFjO/CBjd6QV9xxWqeMjA&user=&pw=

[5] “To be honest I hated Canadian history in high school … Perhaps I felt left out. There were black pioneers across Canada, slavery did exist, there was a parallel civil rights movement, black soldiers fought with valour in all of the wars in which Canada participated. We learned about Champlain but not Da Costa, the rodeo but not John D. Ware, Confederation but not Mifflin Wister Gibbs … ” E. Phillips, Re: Why Canadian History is so boring (2005 [cited 1 September 2005]); available from http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/lobrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=H-Canada&month=0508&week=a&msg=o68R2Lj9qyqp7%2bCcVTk8Yw&user=&pw

[6] “The teachers, at least until you get to university don’t have a passion for [Canadian history] … nor do they relate it to today’s events.” Ibid.

[7] J.L. Granatstein, Who Killed Canadian History? (Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers 1998). 101-2.

[8] Ibid. 93.

[9] Granatstein alluded to debates about multiculturalism in Britain, but he emphasised American opponents of multiculturalism such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr and Richard Rorty because their “distinguished” and “gilt-edged liberal Democratic credentials” could be used to depict “multicultural mania” as the sole preserve of dangerous radicals.  Ibid. 89-91. Thus, it is important to emphasise that Granatstein fails to pay any attention to the liberals, conservatives and radicals that have calmly pointed out the severe limitations of the American ideology upheld by Schlesinger and Rorty. When Schlesinger writes, “to deny the essentially European origins of American culture is to falsify history”, he reflects scholars, like Granatstein, who bemoan the failure of their fellow citizens to remember the Two World Wars yet pay little attention to the mulatto-minded jazz age that gained prominence in the interwar period. Moreover, when Schlesinger announced that Western societies have internal mechanisms for change, and that the West – not the non-Western world – began the crusade to end slavery, he failed to mention the fact that the “Western world” is shaped by Africa and people of African descent, and that political change emerges through Black agency, not just the generosity of “fair minded” whites. A. Schlesinger Jr., The Disuniting of America (New York:  Norton, 1992). 129. Similarly, Rorty needed to construct blacks as pitiable objects so as to emphasise the importance of a national ideology rather than humanist rhetoric:

Consider, as a final example, the attitude of contemporary American liberals to the unending hopelessness and misery of the lives of the young blacks in American cities. Do we say that these people must be helped because they are our fellow human beings? We may, but it is much more persuasive, morally, as well as politically, to describe them as our fellow Americans – to insist that it is outrageous that an American should live without hope. Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge, 1989).

[10] A. Greer, The People of New France (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997). 87.

[11] Ibid. 107.

[12] Greer used the term “black slave” throughout The People of New France, even though the term “enslaved person” would have been more in keeping with his stated objective to recognize the dominant view of New France without perpetuating it. Ibid. 85-91. Moreover, Greer placed the story of Angelique in a chapter entitled “French and Others”, not in the earlier chapter entitled “Women of New France.”

[13] Ibid. 80-1.

[14] While ignoring hip-hop, Bloom produced a long-winded jeremiad against American youngsters and their “addiction” to rock music A.D. Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987). 68, 81. Both comments about hip-hop were made over lunch at the University of Toronto Faculty Club, 14 January 2005. 

[15] As Gilroy has noted, Fanon is an exemplary symbol of the intercultural and transnational formation of humanists in a Black Atlantic. Paul Gilroy, Against Race: imagining political culture beyond the color line (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 2000), Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: modernity and double consciousness (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).

[16] Frantz Fanon, The wretched of the earth (New York: Grove Press, 1968). 142, 195-6. Les damnés de la terre was first published in 1961.

[17] Granatstein, Who Killed Canadian History?, 12, 55, 64, 105.

[18] Greer, "Why is Canadian History so boring?"

[19] Fanon, The wretched of the earth. 158-9.

[20] See S. Naiman, "Internet podcasts give voice to people," The Calgary Sun, February 20 2005. L. Worth, "Radio R/evolution: podcasting and satellite offer opposite innovations," Exclaim!, November 2005.