My people, my people! It is that time of year again when many of us do the rounds, attending activities and events to recognize African History Month (sometimes labeled Black History Month, African Heritage Month or African Liberation Month). Call it what you will, it is the one month of the year when some of us remember to celebrate that we are African, Black, Negro or whatever word we feel comfortable using to identify ourselves.
This one month celebration/recognition of our history began in 1926 when African American historian, Carter Godwin Woodson, took the initiative to educate Americans about the history and achievements of Africans. Although you might hear someone grumble that “they” gave us the coldest month of the year, by now most of us know that the second week of February was chosen by Woodson in 1926 to honour Frederick Douglass who chose February 14 as his birthday. Douglass had to choose a birthday because, like many enslaved Africans, he had no written record of his date of birth. He did remember that his mother would refer to him as her “little Valentine” so he surmised he was born on February 14.
In Douglass’ autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which was published in 1845, he wrote: I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far, the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege.
With such “radical and revolutionary thoughts”, even as a young child, it is not surprising that Douglass, as a 16-year-old, soundly thrashed a brutal slave holder (to whom he had been sent to be “broken”) and eventually made his escape to freedom.
During this month there are significant people and milestones we can commemorate/remember. Similar to the story of Douglass and many other enslaved Africans in the U.S., there is also a history of resistance by enslaved Africans in Canada who were also brutalized and whose owners sought to get rid of them by selling them. The well-known advertisement for the sale of Peggy Pompadour and her son Jupiter is a case in point. Peggy and her children were owned by Peter Russell and his sister Elizabeth. Russell, who replaced John Graves Simcoe as Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada (Ontario) in 1796, placed an advertisement dated February 10, 1806 in an Upper Canada publication offering for sale Peggy Pompadour and her son Jupiter.
Elizabeth Russell wrote in her diary about her dissatisfaction with the Pompadours who she considered disobedient. She thought that Peggy, her daughters and her son, Jupiter, were not subservient enough to match their role as slaves.
This is documented in several books including We’re rooted here and they can’t pull us up: essays in African Canadian Women’s History, published in 1994; The Underground Railroad: Next Stop Toronto, published in 2002 and The Hanging of Angelique: The untold story of Canadian slavery, published in 2006. In The Hanging of Angelique, the author, Dr. Afua Cooper, writes about the experience of the enslaved Pompadour family: Peggy, the mother of three children Milly, Amy and Jupiter, and the wife of a free black man named Pompadour, was a disobedient and recalcitrant slave who bucked the Russells’ authority by talking back to them and running away whenever she felt like it. Jupiter, her son, was also a runaway and “disobedient.”
Cooper also notes that even though Peter Russell was a slave holder in Upper Canada: “He behaved like a typical American slaveholder: he separated families if he saw fit, he punished and imprisoned his slaves, and when they would not “obey” he sold them.”
Usually, when slavery is mentioned in Canadian history, it is about enslaved Africans fleeing slavery from the U.S. to freedom in Canada; hardly a word about slavery as a Canadian institution from the 1600s until August 1, 1834 when it was abolished here.
Although our history did not begin with slavery, the enslavement of our people is part of our history that cannot be ignored because the legacy of slavery persists into the 21st century. The fact that African Canadians are only 2.5 per cent of the Canadian population yet are approximately 20 per cent of the federal prison population bears testament to the legacy of slavery.
Racial profiling is a legacy of slavery. According to the Colour of Poverty campaign’s research, African-Canadian students in Toronto are four times more likely to be stopped and eight times more likely to be searched than white students in the same places.
• In a large sample of Toronto youth who had no police records, more than 50 per cent of blacks had been searched by police in the previous two years, compared to only eight per cent of whites.
• A study in Kingston showed that police were 3.7 times more likely to stop black people.
• In Ontario, black suspects are 5.5 times more likely to be killed or seriously injured from police use of force than white suspects, and they are 10 times more likely to be shot by police.
The perceptions of Africans that were established during the days when our ancestors were enslaved are still in the minds of many of those who are in authority today. That is why we have seen a 52 per cent increase in the incarceration rate of African Canadians since 2000 and yet there has been no outcry. Many of our youth are captured and held in the prison industrial complex with that experience beginning for some of them at the tender age of 12 years before they have an opportunity to live. Many of them are also failed by the education system where racial profiling is a reality. In spite of this, some manage to survive, just as our ancestors found ways and means of surviving the brutality of chattel slavery.
Statistics Canada under the heading The African Community in Canada has acknowledged: Those in the African community in Canada are somewhat more likely than the rest of the population to be university graduates. In 2001, 19% of African people aged 15 and over were university graduates, compared with 15% of those in the overall adult population.
Yet, the same study also found that: Canadians of African descent are generally more likely to be unemployed than those in the overall workforce. In 2001, 13.1% of African labour force participants were unemployed, compared with 7.4% of all labour force participants.
Reading that study, I was reminded of the infamous “ghetto dude” incident in the summer of 2007 when Evon Reid, a young African Canadian University of Toronto Honours student, was cavalierly dismissed when he applied for a position with the provincial government. His qualifications were not important; his race was the deciding factor.
And just imagine, this was happening in the midst of what remains of the British Empire (of which Canada is a member) commemorating the 200th anniversary (1807-2007) of the abolition of its slave trade.
However, in spite of the trials and tribulations, here we are still standing, as the Honourable Nesta Robert “Bob” Marley (whose birthday is celebrated on February 6) sang on his 1979 released, Survival: We’re the survivors, yes the Black survivors.
By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)