History Is Rarely Black or White Speaker Series
“Fully Known: Cotton Production, Black History, and the Canadian Experience” with Jason Cyrus, Charmaine Nelson and Shannon Prince
Charmaine Nelson and Shannon Prince join Jason Cyrus to investigate the ways in which cotton production in the United States forever changed the landscape of Canadian diversity. Together they tell the stories of Black people on both sides of the border by connecting the Victorian cotton industry with the Underground Railroad and settlement in Canada while addressing the related colonial legacies that still affect Black Canadian life today.
Read more: https://agnes.queensu.ca/participate/…
Jason Cyrus analyzes fashion and textile history to explore questions of identity, cultural exchange and agency. He is the 2021 Isabel Bader Fellow in Textile Conservation and Research at the Agnes Etherington Centre, Queens University. This October he will present his research in History Is Rarely Black or White, an exhibition exploring Victorian cotton, slavery, and its ongoing legacies.
Cyrus has a Master’s Degree in Art History and Curatorial Studies from York University and starts his PhD in the History of Art at Warwick University in October 2021. He has held research posts at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum. In January 2020, he curated York University’s first fashion exhibition, ReFraming Gender.
Cyrus currently lives on land that has been the home of numerous Indigenous Nations, including the Wendat, Haudenosaunee, the Anishinaabek, and most recently the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.
Charmaine A. Nelson is a Canadian Professor of Art History and Tier I CRC in Black Diasporic Art and Community Engagement. Nelson taught at McGill University from 2003 to 2020 before joining NSCAD University to develop the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery. She is the first tenured Black professor of art history in Canada. Nelson’s research interests include the visual culture of slavery, race and representation, Black Canadian studies and African Canadian Art History as well as critical theory, post-colonial studies, Black feminist scholarship, Transatlantic Slavery Studies and Black Diaspora Studies. The author of 7 books, Nelson has given over 260 lectures and talks across Canada and the USA, Mexico, Europe, and the Caribbean.
Shannon Prince is the Curator of the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum. She is also a Storyteller and participant in historical re-enactments which brings the history of Buxton and the Underground Railroad to life for many groups both here and further afield. Prince is a descendant of the early fugitive families that came to Canada for freedom and opportunity. As such, she brings insight and respect and a love for this chapter in our heritage.History Is Rarely Black or White Speaker Series
“Fully Known: Cotton Production, Black History, and the Canadian Experience” with Jason Cyrus, Charmaine N …
Past Present Future
Past Present Future
Past Present Future
Uncle Toms Cabin
Uncle Toms Cabin
Uncle Toms Cabin
Use CTRL+F to find key words if it is a longer transcript.
>> Today, we will be joined by two scholars,
researchers, institutional folks who I’ve looked
up to and whose work I’ve
engaged with for some time. And first and foremost, my name is Jason Cyrus.
I am the curator of the exhibition
History is Rarely Black or White on view at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in
Kingston, Ontario, that opened at the end
of November the 27th and runs
up until the 20th of March.
The Agnes is currently closed in
accordance with the provincial closures,
but we hope to open as soon as we can. I believe 26th is the projected time, should
everything go according to plan, knock wood.
So if you can, please make your way
up to Kingston and see the show. If not, we have a digital exhibition that
is the companion to the physical one.
And we will put a link to
that in the chat shortly.
So today we’re here to discuss the —
this is the second chat in the series,
the first will be posted on our
website shortly in the coming days.
And the whole purpose of the series is to have
conversations and continued discussions to delve
into themes that underpin the show, which
looks at the cotton industry in the 1800s,
its connections to fashion history, and
its foundations, especially in the 1800s
to enslaved labour and resources extraction.
We’re looking at cotton, we’re looking
at fashion, we’re looking at materiality, we’re looking at the dressed body,
but we are also looking at land.
And we would be completely reminiscent and
it’s so important to acknowledge the fact
that the Agnes is situated
on the traditional home of the Anishinaabe and the
And for myself as someone who is an immigrant
settler, I’m originally from Georgetown, Guyana,
in South America, and now I am in London, England actually doing a PhD,
speaking to you remotely.
The concept of land and migration and
movement is something that’s very important to me and dear to my heart.
And when we think — when I think personally
about reconciliation and social justice,
it’s important to me that the work that
I do and the work that the Agnes is doing in its reimagined phase, places
social justice at its very heart.
We hope that the exhibition and the
conversations that are happening around the show and other shows thereof, this being
one of them, adds something to the fire
that allows the fire of social justice to burn.
I’m joined today by the fantastic
Charmaine Nelson and Shannon Prince.
And what I will do, I’ll just give an overview
of their bios and allow them to say hello. And then I will give an overview of our talk
structure then we will get right into our chat.
All right, Charmaine Nelson to many
of you I’m sure needs no introduction.
She is the Canadian professor of
art history, and she’s the CRC tier
in the Black Diasporic Art
and Community Engagement. She has taught at McGill University before
joining NSCAD to develop the institute
for the study of Canadian slavery. She’s a first tenured Black
professor of artistry in Canada.
Her research interests include the visual
culture of slavery, race and representation,
Black Canadian studies, and in
African Canadian art history, as well as critical theory
and postcolonial studies.
Charmaine is the author of many books. She’s given over 260 lectures across Canada,
the U.S., Mexico, Europe, and the Caribbean.
And it is my complete honour to
welcome her to conversation today.
Welcome Charmaine. >> Thank you, Jason. >> We are also joined by the
fantastic Shannon Prince.
Shannon is curator of the Buxton
National Historic Site and Museum. She’s chiefly a storyteller and a
participant in historical reenactments,
which brings together the history
of Buxton, the Underground Railroad, and life for many groups
that were founded there.
Shannon is a descendant of early fugitive
families that came to Canada for freedom and opportunity, and as such, she brings
this insight with deep respect and love
for this chapter and its continued heritage. Welcome Shannon. >> Thank you.
>> So what we will do is I will give an overview
of the exhibition for folks who are unfamiliar.
I will share screen and show
some key images to give an idea of what the core principles
of the exhibition are.
And then what I thought would be fun to
have is Charmaine will introduce herself in her own words, so will Shannon.
And then we will get into your
meaty conversation on shared themes.
And that should take us up to
both I think about an hour. And after that, we’ll leave
some time for some question,
answer period with everyone gathered here.
So I really hope this can be as
informal as this medium can be,
but such is the Zoomosphere
[phonetic], as we say. So I will share screen and
take us into the show.
All right, can everyone see my screen? Can I get a thumbs-up? That’s awesome.
Okay. History is Rarely Black or White
primarily, like I said, looks at the connections
between the cotton and the cotton
industry in the 1800s and its connections to resource extraction and enslaved
labour and the wider cotton supply chain
that allowed the industry to happen. What we’re looking at is the first gallery,
the first of you that you
get entering the exhibition. And here we have a connection of the Agnes’ —
subset of the Agnes’ cotton garments
from as early as 1790 to as late as 1902.
And what we tried to do here was use
the Agnes’ collection of garments as a jumping off ground to
speak about these topics.
On the main platform here, you’re seeing
a mixture of garments that not just speak
to social class, but also gender and also
different ways of being in the world.
We’ve got a wedding dress, the
ruffled dress, that’s to our right. The chintz dress, roller printed chintz dress.
That is the Agnes’ — one of the most important
garments that the Agnes has in our collection.
Menswear vest, you can see
around the platform as well as a Christine gown and a little child’s suit.
Behind that, what we’ve done is projected
onto vinyl a map that gives you a sense
of the cotton supply chain and
different places and spaces, ports and people that are important
to the supply chain at the time.
You’re seeing on the left a map or a key
that unlocks and decodes different areas,
and we’ve used the Agnes’ collection of
the European art, Canadian art and again,
these gorgeous garments to
be able to tell this story.
Now important here is a mixture of not
just the cotton garments and painting
and portraiture, but also contemporary art. And I was fortunate enough to meet
Vancouver-based artist Karin Jones.
And she created an installation for us
for the Agnes called Freed [phonetic].
And this is a site exhibit work, and
it’s primarily composed of cotton balls
and black hair that Karin
collected from a salon in Vancouver.
And she’s created a veil, as you were,
around this gorgeous dress from 1897.
That is a cotton wedding dress. And Karin’s wish is that the veil
and dress work in tandem that for you
to appreciate the beautiful embroidery in
the lace and the construction of the garment,
which is a key part of material culture
and the way that as a fashion historian,
I experience the medium of fashion history,
we must also look at the resource of cotton
and how it was grown and how it was
picked and what that did to environment, but also the labour in terms of
the bodies, the Black bodies,
the enslaved folks whose lives
were torn apart in this industry, so the two are very much in conversation.
Another aspect of the show that’s
important to this conservation.
Here we were very fortunate at the Agnes to
have Anne-Marie Guerin work alongside us,
who is a conservator working in Ontario. And Anne Marie collaborated with the
Queen’s Facility for Isotope Research.
And in a nutshell, isotope research is a
means of extracting or reducing rather fibers
or different elements to their core chemical
elements, and then tracing the signature
or the buildup of these elements over time. And looking at the ways that that
signature, that combination of elements
and their amounts can tell
you where in the world the — you can almost geolocate them
where that substance would have been
taken from or would’ve been grown.
And we’ve done that process to all the
cotton garments that are on display.
So, in a sense, not just using oral history and
historical research to be able to tell the story
of the connections between cotton
enslavement and labour and materiality, but also using science as a way of
bolstering and enlarging the conversation.
At the moment, we are still
waiting on the results. Testing started in early spring
and wrapped up in mid-fall.
And Dr. Daniel Layton-Matthews, who is
head of the facility of Isotope Research
at Queens, is interpreting the data for us. And so please check back in
with the website every so often,
and we will let you know
when our results are posted. All of this information, by the way,
is on the online exhibition sites.
We’re moving from the first room that’s giving
you this whole review of the supply chain of cotton and its connections
to science and testing.
We’re going now into what I
call the heart of the show, which looks at the humanity
involved in all of this.
Damien Joel is a queer Jamaican American
artist whose work expands across making
and photography and installation. And here we’re seeing his fashion
story called Songs of the Gullah.
Damien worked with the Gullah/Geechee
Nation in along the coast of South Carolina
to tell the story of their history. The Gullah/Geechee, are a
nation that’s amalgamation
of different African nation settled along
with south than coasts of the states from North Carolina, all
the way down to Florida.
And Damien worked with Queen Quet,
consulted rather with Queen Quet
of the Gullah/Geechee Nation to create a
three-dimensional story that told their way
of coming across the middle passage and being
forcibly settled in the southern islands
and in the southern coast, the way that
different African nations came together,
formed a common language and a way
of speaking and cultural roots.
Past Present Future
And what Damien has done is created
a film which again, a short film, which we can view on the online exhibition
fantastically created by Danuta Sierhuis
who heads up the Agnes’ digital department. And Damien has also created these
three garments that are part
of a larger narrative or larger story. And we’ve selected — I’ve selected these three,
because in a sense, they speak [inaudible]
that speaks to the Agnes’ past, present — sorry, the Gullah/Geechee’s
past, present, and future.
We’ve got — in the middle, we’ve got
indigo, we’ve got cotton, and we’ve got rice.
Looking at the ways that the Gullah/Geechee
have lived off the land in very sustainable way,
how the history is tied into the
picking and harvesting of cotton, and in the ways that their food cultures
have, in a sense, become a major influence
in what is known as Southern American cooking. You think of gumbo and all
the dishes, stuff like that.
We move into the last room, which connects all
the rooms in a way connect to our life today.
But I think this last gallery
really makes it clear. Here we’re looking at the connection of
migration from this wider supply chain,
looking at who would’ve been involved in
picking the cotton in the American South, so this is one example of folks as such.
Then moving us along into the Underground
Railroad into Canada and troubling this notion
of Canada as a safe space and having
conversations about what the identity,
what life would’ve been like for folks here. And what I’ve done is paired tintypes and
examples of clothing from the Agnes’ collection
with Gordon Shadrach’s portraits of artists and
fellow creatives that he knows to really speak
about what life is like today in Canada. Today, we’ll be chatting and looking at these
tintypes here alone from the Ontario archives,
as well as the [inaudible] on
the left side that is alone from Jennifer McKendry, a Kingston historian.
Uncle Toms Cabin
And we’ve got, if you can see the
exhibition physically, please do, the Queen’s W. J. Ross Special Books
Library has loaned us the first two editions
of Uncle Tom’s cabin. This is the very first printing. They still include errors and edits —
errors rather before they were edited,
and then name of characters
that has since changed. These are the very first printing copies,
and they’re incredibly rare to find,
as well as a facsimile of what’s
called the Voice of the Fugitive, which was Canada’s first Black
newspaper based out of Sandwich, Ontario,
which is now part of the wider Windsor area. And then on the far right, you’re
seeing a Voice of the Fugitive —
sorry, one second, this one —
this — what is this called?
I will remember. But in the book, it’s open to the story of Henry
Brandt who is a formerly enslaved individual,
and what the book, whose name
escapes me, well I apologize.
What’s amazing about this book here
is that while Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an out of Oracle accounts from Harriet Beecher
Stowe and while Voice of the Fugitive is
in a sense, a newsletter that
connects this out of oracle account
to real life, the voice of — what is it? I will find out [brief laughter], I’m sorry.
But what the book on the right does
is it shows the actual accounts of enslaved people in their own words.
And the book is open to Henry Brandt who
settled in Sandwich, Ontario, funny enough, where Voice of the Fugitive was based.
And here, if you go up to the case, you
can actually read details of Henry’s escape
from the American south into Canada. And there are lines where he talks about
this dissonance of what he expected Canada
to be, and then what it ended up being. And again, we end with Gordon Shadrach’s
portraits of contemporary Black creatives,
and the ways that these — the way that
appeared certain portraits troubled this idea of Canada in our reality now.
So what I will do, while I frantically
look for the name of that book, is I will kick it over to Charmaine.
Charmaine, please introduce
yourself, give us an overview of your work, and you’ll take it from there.
>> Okay. So I hope everybody can see that. Jason, can you give me a
thumbs up you can see it. Okay. And Jason, is it Benjamin Drew’s North
Side View of Slavery that you’re thinking of?
Yeah. Right? Okay. So [brief laughter]
that’s in my brain too. So I first wanted to thank Jason so much for
including me in this and congratulate him again
on this tremendous work in bringing this
history forward, and especially in the context of Canada, where of course, most of us
probably gathered here, know that the history,
the 200 year history of slavery is not
understood, not studied, not in the curriculum.
So we have a lot of work to do. So what I’m going to share it with you here is a
way that my work on Canadian slavery intersects
with Jason’s very powerfully, and that
is the domain of studying slave dress.
And of course I do more than that in
my body of work over two decades now. But I’m going to narrow in on
slave dress and what that was
and what that looked like in Canada. So first, let me just introduce to
you a specific archive that I’m using
to do this research, and that is
fugitive or runaway slave ads. And they were a type of printed newspaper ad
or broadside, what we today call the poster.
And you can find these almost
anywhere across the Americas where Transatlantic Slavery was practised
and where you had a printing press.
And in Canada, where you’d go to recuperate them
would be in 18th and 19th century newspapers,
where they were typically
housed in Canada, where? In provincial archives or
in university libraries.
So think like the Halifax
Gazette, the early printings of the Montreal or Quebec Gazette et cetera.
Now who was creating and printing these? Were the enslavers, the slave
owners and/or their surrogates,
so people like overseers, jailers and sheriffs? They’re printing them to capture and
re-enslave people who resisted slavery
through flight, meaning they ran away. And these ads are really, I don’t
even know what to call them.
They’re horrendous. They were incentivizing public participation
in the recapture of these people.
How? Through legal threats against
people who would aid the enslaved runaway and through promises of monetary rewards to
the people who would aid the slave owner.
Okay, so in the plethora of data that you can
mine from these ads and these are just some
of the things that you typically find in
the ads, I won’t go into detail on them, let’s zero on number seven, is that slave owners
commonly detailed what the enslaved person
was wearing. So you can see how then for scholars like myself
who want to go back and study slave dress,
this is a go-to archive that we typically
find scholars using and resourcing.
Slave Clothing in Canada
So what type of clothing did the enslave wear? Well, to answer this question, you have to —
we have to know where are you talking about?
Because we have to recall is occurring or
occurred across 400 years from Argentina
to Canada, including the Caribbean, and also enslaved people were
forced back to Europe, okay?
So the where has a lot to do with this? If we’re talking semi-tropical or tropical
regions, in a place like Jamaica, for instance,
the Caribbean Island of Jamaica that
was first in the hands of the Spanish and then in the hands of the British.
Jamaican slave owners gave cloth
rations of Osnaburg fabric. Two enslaved females on the plantation
said here, make clothing for everyone.
So you had a standardization going on of
clothing in places like the Caribbean. Interestingly, the same type of
fabric was in circulation in Canada.
And you see that in ads like these that
I’ve taken from the Nova Scotia newspapers.
Now, things change a lot when you get to Canada. And the colder or temperate climates
where you had dramatic seasonal changes
with cold climate seasons, for
instance, in Canada, that’s winter. So what you find here, in this example I’m
giving you, an enslaved man named Tom Brooks,
he’s described as a mulatto, which is a
colonial term meaning that he was mixed race,
probably in the strictest sense, not probably, in the strictest sense it meant he had
one White parent and one Black parent.
The Black parent is most likely
the enslaved Black female mother and a White father, free White father of course.
Now, Tom is wearing what? Mixed brown coat, waist coat, green
trousers, a white beaver hat with gold laces.
These are typically upper- and middle-class
clothing that you find a White person wearing
at the same time in the same place. Why? Because White slave owners in Canada were
giving their enslaved people their cast off
or secondhand clothing. So what we have to do in Canada then is
not just to think about like a certain type
of clothing that’s being
used or worn by an enslaved. It’s actually the exact same clothing that
you’d find white people, free whites wearing;
only it’s old and worn, typically
because it’s secondhand. Now I share this one with you here an enslaved
female named Bell, also describes as a mulatto,
escaping from George Hipps
in Quebec [inaudible]. What is extraordinarily weird
or strange about this ad is
that she’s fleeing with no
shoes and stockings on. Now, even though it’s August, this
is completely abnormal for Canada.
This was a country where — a region
where enslavers understood that they had to provide appropriate seasonal footwear for
their enslaved people or you would kill them.
People would like literally lose their limbs
in the winter and the fall to frostbite, okay?
So that she is fleeing even in August with
no shoes and stockings is a sign of —
is assuredly a sign of some distress and
the fact too that her escape in this context
or in this occurrence was not planned, okay? So you can see the way too, by piecing
together our knowledge of the clothing
and what was normative in the space, we
can start to read other things into the ads that were not intentionally then
disclosed by the slave owner.
Okay, I’ll go to the next one here.
Enslaved Clothing in Canada
Okay. So what characterized
enslaved clothing in Canada? Well, one thing again was that because we’re
dealing with secondhand or cast-off clothing,
we find descriptions of them being
typically old, worn, and discolored. And you can see that here with Joe,
who is an African-born enslaved man,
who is held in bondage by William Brown,
who was the printer of the Quebec Gazette. So you can see that Brown is describing
Joe’s fur cap as old, his coat is old,
his jacket is old, almost
everything Joe is wearing is old. Okay. And that’s — why bother to say that?
Because that’s part of how the person, the
reader will identity Joe, by acknowledging
and identifying that the coat
he’s wearing is not just green or the cap he’s wearing is
not just green, but it’s old.
The other thing that stands out in Canada
is that there’s a creolization that occurs in enslaved dress across not just African
and European dress, but indigenous dress.
And you can see here another enslaved — another fugitive ad for Joe is specifying
that he’s wearing a pair of Indian moccasins,
what today we call indigenous moccasins. So it’s indigenous footwear that he’s wearing.
So whereas in some regions, the clothing of
the enslaved is really a blend of African
and European, in Canada and especially Quebec where enslaved indigenous people are also living
alongside enslaved people of African descent,
you find the blending of those three cultures. So is there evidence of African
Absolutely, there is. And one of the big things
we see is head wrapping. As you see here with Marie-Thérèse-Zémire,
who was the initially anonymized enslaved sitter
of Francois Malepart de Beaucourt. And we know now thanks to the research of a
curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
that Marie was most likely
an enslaved field labour
in Saint-Domingue, which later became Haiti. So we are able now begin to do some
research on the specific nature
of the head wrap, which he depicts her wearing. I also want to point out though, that Marie
was absolutely an enslaved person in Canada.
We know she was forcibly relocated to
Canada by de Beaucourt and his wife, and that she would’ve spent a
third of her life in Montreal.
So here you can see the continuation of
this head wrapping practice in Canada, along the right-hand side with this anonymous
Black woman in this photographic scene
from a market in the Halifax regional context. And I want to point out that we can
trace this back to slave advertising
as well, another fugitive slave ad. Interestingly, this time a man
identified as Andrew, born in Maryland,
but here we can see he’s
enslaved in Quebec., by whom? This vintner, someone who’s purveying or
selling wines, James Crofton, in Quebec and part
of that description is what, at the bottom,
N.B., he is remarkable for being clean dressed
and wearing a handkerchief tied around his head. So that is head wrapping. Okay. And head wrapping, of course, when
these scholars have traced back to West Africa
as a West African dress practice that then
we can argue survives the middle passage
to be recreated in the Americas by
enslaved people and their descendants.
But very interesting here that we’re
seeing a man doing this practice, because head wrapping is typically
associated with enslaved and free Black women.
Okay. So just here, I want to show you
another example of this from Nova Scotia, an enslaved woman named Florimell.
And here we have a really interesting
and complex combination going on. She’s described as commonly wears a handkerchief
around her head, again, head wrapping,
having facial scars and speaking broken English. And I want to suggest to
you that the combination
of those three point me towards thinking
that this woman was born in Africa, although the anonymized slave
owner does not say so, okay?
Because we have the preservation
of the African dress culture, the scars on her face might not be ailment
or sickness, it could be scarification,
which is an African cultural
practice of bodily adornment. And that would make sense to the broken English,
because the common language spoken, of course,
in Nova Scotia at this time by Whites, by
indigenous people, by Blacks is English. So we have to ask, why is
Florimell’s English broken, right?
Why is she not fluent? So that is just some insight into how then
you begin to piece together other aspects
of the identities of the enslaved people,
even if it’s not directly disclosed. And here, I wanted to suggest here
that the enslaved girl, Thursday,
was fleeing from John Rock in 1772 in Halifax. His description of her clothing entails
or includes a red ribbon about her head.
And I want to suggest that the red ribbon might
be head wrapping and he might not have known how
to describe that, because he
did not understand what it was
that she was doing when she
was adorning her body. So we have to read these archival
documents and evidence against the grain
and acknowledge the different extent
of the ignorance of the White viewer
and the White writer when they’re
describing Black and African culture. And just the last one here, Jason, before I hand
it back to you, other evidence from the archive.
The Richest Dress
I find this ad particularly fascinating. It is the ad from the context
of Quebec, with the deepest,
the richest description of
dress of an enslaved person. We have two people fleeing here, a Negro or
Black man described as a Negro lad named Nemo
from Albany, supposedly 18 years of age, but
he’s fleeing alongside a Black woman named Cash.
Again, very derogatively
described as a Negro wench, right?
So and wench of course was a term
to mean a woman of loose morality. So you can see the objectification of
Black female sexuality is just prevalent
across slavery in the naming
of Black femaleness. So Cash is 26 supposedly, 5 foot
8″, but she’s escaping with what?
She has a considerable quantity of linens
and other valuable effects, not her own. And as she has also taken with her a large
bundle of wearing apparel belonging to herself,
consisting of a black satin cloak,
caps, bonnets, ruffles, ribbons, six or seven petticoats, a pair of
old stays, and many other articles
of value which cannot be ascertained. It is likely she may change her dress. Hell yeah, she’s going to
change her dress, of course.
And you’ll see in a lot of these
ads that the enslavers will admit that they do not know what the enslaved
person is wearing, because they’ve escaped
with other clothing, or in other clothing. In this case, he’s saying that she’s
escaped with a bundle of clothing.
What is really, really pertinent and important
here too is that Hugh Richie, who was a tailor,
surprise, surprise, admits that much
of what Cash fled with was hers.
This is extraordinary. Most slave owners are saying everything
they took, they stole from me.
But he’s willing to concede that
she actually owns some of the stuff. And we need to understand that part of
the reason he probably purchased her was
that he knew ahead of time that she already
had these skills that he could put to work
and exploit and steal her
labour in his tailor shop. The other thing I just want to point
out, the last thing here, Jason,
is that of course the clothing that she’s
fleeing with, we typically associate with who?
Upper-class and middle-class White women. But again, we need to understand in a
context like Canada, the American North,
what the enslaved person is wearing and what
the White person is wearing are the exact
same clothing. The difference is that typically enslaved
person, because they’re impoverished,
because they have no leisure time, because
they’re being exploited in terms of the theft
of their labour, that the clothing they’re
wearing is again, old, worn, and discolored.
So I’ll leave that there. >> Wow. Thanks Charmaine.
I already have 10,000 questions, but that
was absolutely fascinating in its connections
in terms of dress and the enslaved body. But before we jump in, Shannon, would
you mind introducing yourself and sharing
of your own work, a bit of your history and
your work at the Buxton National Museum?
About the Curator
>> Yes. Thanks. That was awesome Charmaine that was really
fascinating and intriguing, great work.
Yes. So like Jason said, I’m the curator here
at the Buxton National History Site Museum.
I have been here for quite some time, and
we’re very — and I’m also a descendant.
So I really feel honoured to be able to,
you know, walk the land that, you know, my family and other ancestors
have cleared and to be able
to share some of those stories with them. So my work here is very focussed
on research tours, et cetera.
So Jason [brief laughter], so this
is the aerial view of the museum. So we at the museum, if you
haven’t been before, we’re again,
fortunate to have some really
amazing artifacts and collection, and we’re also very hands on pre-COVID.
We have some of those original shackles
that I think it’s very important, especially for children, to understand the fact
that children actually wore them, and the weight
and the circumstances sometimes
with which they were sharing them. So we do tours as well.
Again, touching on everything that we
can, explaining the quite extensive fact
that there was slavery here in Canada,
you know, more than 200 years ago. So it’s really, really important for them to
understand the whole context of where they are
and how significant the role that we
played in shaping that history also.
So what is the next one [brief laughter]? The tintypes. So as part of our collection, these are
some daguerreotype pictures that we have,
and they’re all unknown pictures that
came from a family that lives — did live.
And I guess some of their families
still live in the settlement.
But they’re really, this is only one set that
we have, but they’re just amazing pictures.
And when Charmaine was talking about the
dress, and when we look at some of the ones
in these pictures, they’re just, you know, the women look very stately,
you know, with their hats.
And I just admire those pictures and very proud and independent and, you
know, courageous and proud.
It’s like, yes, you know, even though I came from being enslaved, but
look at me now, basically.
And I think it says something about
the people that when they did arrive. And it’s interesting, because Reverend King
makes note when the people that arrived here
in Buxton, they were characterized
as very manly, if you will,
and had an air of independence about them. And the fact that they were able
to do everything on their own
when they did arrive here in the settlement,
basically they were very independent. They built their own homes,
cleared their own land.
And because the money that they had secured
was from the industries that they had
within the settlement, so and they didn’t take
outside charity, and they were very cognizant of the fact that they were going
to be very self-sufficient.
And I think that was one of the reasons
why the settlement was just so successful, because they were determined to dispel
those myths about Blacks being lazy
and uneducated, and we can do this on our own. Did I have one more or two more? I don’t know [brief laughter].
What did I send you? Is that all I sent you? Probably. Oh, and the diary.
And this is from Garrison Shad’s
[assumed spelling] diary 18 — I want to say 1881 something.
Sorry. But anyway, this is
the inside cover of his diary. And so this has been actually
transcribed, but it’s almost like he —
some of the most common thing he
makes note of on which page, you know, like Josiah Henson’s funeral
was in Dresden was on page —
it’s on page 71, which is really kind of an
interesting story of a journal that he did.
So again, we have some of those
original journals, diaries. And it tells so much about what was
happening here when people arrived
and what they were doing,
you know, their neighbours. But they’re very — when you read them, and
I compare them again to a lady’s and a man’s,
because the man’s are very structured. You know, when the sun rose, when
it set, very, very blunt, you know.
Went to take some hay off, went to so-and-so’s
funeral, came back, took mother shopping.
And the women, they are almost
gossipy, if you will. Like they go into great detail, again,
about what so and so was wearing
at church [brief laughter], or what
so and so cooked at the church supper.
They could care less about the weather. They were more concerned about
what their neighbours were doing.
So it’s really interesting the different
perspectives of people within the community.
So it’s fortunate that we have these
documents that are here and, you know,
to share with people, because
it says so much about the people
when they arrive and who they were. So we’re very, very pleased.
That’s in a nutshell. [ Laughter ] >> Amazing. Oh, you are such a good storyteller
I have to say.
Well, my — you know, I had
a whole series of questions.
But I want to follow, I think, a sort of
thought that came together as both yourself
and Charmaine were chatting, which is the
agency of the folks that we are discussing.
And you know what, rather than
look at my face, I will bring up —
— one of the images from the exhibition, so
we can at least look at some of the types.
Can we see that clearly? >> No. >>I can’t see anything. >> Okay. Okay. So I’m just going to screen here.
Well, I guess my first point of conversation,
while I’m bringing this up, is this —
and this is one of the question that I had
quite often when the exhibition first opened,
and even for myself when I was researching,
is to look at these images of folks
who are now settled in upper Canada, or, you
know, what we know as to be Southern Ontario,
we’re looking at them in their dress,
and Charmaine as you just mentioned, they’re using this, the realm of the medium
photography and the clothes they’re wearing
in a sense, at least from my perspective
anyway, to reclaim their humanity
and to make a conscious choice of
saying, this is who I am and this is who I’ve always known myself to be.
But one of the questions
that comes up quite often is, is this the clothing of the photographer? Is this clothing in the studio?
Is this their own clothing? How would they have access to
the skills to make the clothing? Where would they have gotten the
materials, and so on and so forth?
But Charmaine, as you mentioned
quite brilliantly, and especially in the case
of Cash, I believe it is.
>> Yes. >> Who had access to and who — would you
think she likely would’ve made her own clothing
or based on the skills that she would’ve
garnered from being an enslaved woman?
>> Yes, absolutely. I think Cash was someone who would have been
making her own clothing and making clothing
for others that then Richie sold
and took the profits from, right? So this is the thing too Jason, you’re
opening up a really important point.
When you’re looking at Canada and thinking
of labour, men and women were forced
to do so-called domestic and
agricultural/outdoor labour. So this is different from the tropical and
semi-tropical regions where most everybody was
in the fields, be it the coffee field,
or the sugar field, or the cotton field.
Slavery in Canada
So many then of those enslaved domestics in a
place like Canada would’ve have had to do things
like cook the food, make the butter,
milk the cow, sew my garment, mend my garment, like of the enslaver, right?
Wash the garment. So Cash may have been extraordinary
in her skill level, most likely.
And that’s why Richie would’ve purchased
her if she wasn’t born into his household or trained her to do that, if she
had been born into his household.
But many enslaved people would’ve had
similar skills, just at a lower level. I think that’s what we have to understand,
because of the nature of slavery too in Canada,
compared to Jamaica where you
have domestic enslaved people and field enslaved people, right?
>> Right. >> But then again, Jamaica,
let’s get even more complicated, who are all these women given the osnaburg
fabric who have to then make the clothing?
That’s also the field enslaved people, right? >> Right. >> So what does the clothing
then become and look like?
But to your point too, with the photography,
we’d have to drill down on specific archives of individual photographers to see if they
provided the ability of clothing rental
to potential sitters, or if the
people were expected to come in wearing what they would be photographed in.
But you’re right. Photography totally democratizes the access
of self-representation to formerly enslaved
and enslaved and free Black people who,
before that, were dealing with stuff like Beaucourt’s portrait of a Negro slave,
as it was the first title it was circulated
under, which is a coerced setting. Let’s get that right. >> Right, right, right.
Yeah. >> She’s not the patron. She wouldn’t have chosen to sit for that. She wouldn’t have chosen to sit for it
with breasts exposed, et cetera, et cetera.
She wouldn’t have been paid, right? >> I’m thinking too of Elizabeth
Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker,
the wife of Abraham Lincoln how she was formerly
enslaved Black woman who bought her own freedom
through her dressmaking skills, and then
went on to be Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker.
Folks like Ann Lowe whose history, a
Black couturier whose history goes back
to enslavement, who made Jackie
Kennedy’s famous wedding dress.
And there’s a very long history of, funny
enough, of enslavement and making and clothing
and this way of using skillsets, not
just to survive while under enslavement,
but also just way of pulling
your stuff out of it.
Shannon, I just love the conversation,
or at least the continuation
between these tintypes we’re looking
at here from the Ontario Archives.
And the ones that you showed quite beautifully. Do you know any information about
— so much is unknown about them,
what about their dress styles or about — >> Yes. >> Or do you see a common thread in terms
of how they’re dressed all the time?
>> Yeah, that’s the unfortunate thing, you know. And probably, I think if
we, you know, I don’t know.
I guess I haven’t read all of the
documents that we have here on photos.
But you know, there possibly could be something
in one of those journals that I haven’t touched
on that hasn’t been transcribed yet. Or even when the owner of these
donated them to the museum,
she accidentally found them in her attic. So had no idea that they were there
actually, so it’s interesting.
But when you talk about the sewing
aspect again, when it comes into people
that eventually did find freedom,
I guess those traits continued
in all the Black communities
well in Buxton, and I imagine and the rest of them as well, you know.
The sewing bees, the quilting bees,
because they sewed everything. You couldn’t see a stitch.
So it’s interesting how those skills — they’re
very proud of the fact that they, you know,
they sew everything and the quilting as well.
I wish I had that skill. >> And to me, what’s amazing.
I’m just going to bring up your images
here again, is that from, you know, from a fashion history perspective and
the way that, you know, clothing fits —
>> Yes. >> — the clothing that everyone is wearing
here predates a modern notion of off the rack.
>> Yeah. >> And the sizes whereby you could get
something that’s a four or a 12 or 16 or a two
when it fits your body more or less, especially
when it comes to tailored goods and corsetry,
and with the ways that seams
fit on the shoulders, and around the neck, and around the bust.
It could have be very hard for the
photographer to have a cache of clothing
that I think would have fit
these robust body types
as perfectly I think, as
what you’re seeing here. Obviously, more research needs to be
done to investigate and see how that is.
But I think, like as you’re both
saying based on the skillsets that many
of these folks would have had or been passed
down, or at least been forced to learn
in what way they came about them. Why would they not then have
made their own clothing?
>> Right. >> And, you know, use this as an example
to really, to assert themselves in,
or at least to reclaim themselves as it were. >> Yeah. >> And Jason, I think too, we should
think about the fact that for —
I think for any impoverished community, but
especially for Black formerly enslaved people or Black people coming out of slavery, going
to the photo studio would’ve been an event,
because even for so many Black, these poor
Blacks today, and for continental Africans,
I mean, we don’t have photos
of our ancestors, right? My parents who were born in the ’30s and
the ’40s don’t have images of themselves
as children, because they came from poor
families, and they didn’t have a camera, and they didn’t have access to photo studio,
and this in 1930s and ’40s, they were born.
So do you think I have pictures
of my grandparents, like barely, like maybe one of three out of four of them?
So this is a big deal for Black people to
be able to take back the process and the act
of self-representation through their own hands and to have themselves pictured
in the way that they wanted to.
So for them too, they would’ve understood and even they would’ve been
wearing their so-called Sunday best.
>> Right. >> Right? >> Yeah. And the detail, I just
love the fine intricate detail. And like you were saying, they’re
not off the rack because no two,
you don’t see too many, they
don’t have the same dress. And how they accent every, you know,
like you said, very form-fitting.
You would think that you know,
very proud of themselves. It’s just amazing how, yeah, detailed they
are and how, yeah, fanciful if you will.
And the gentleman, the bottom left, you know,
he looks, I don’t know if that’s a shirt
or neck scarf, what do you think? You know, like around his neck, is that
just part of the shirt, do you think?
If I’m not — >> It looks it might be a shirt with a
vest peeking out from under the coat.
>> With a vest in it, okay. Yeah. Ah, I see that. >> But there may be something at
the shoulder, at the neck, I see.
Now, part of the — I think the challenge of
looking at images and trying to do research,
and I know we’ve chatted about this before,
especially I and Charmaine is the lack of holdings of, for example, the material
or culture associated with these images.
We don’t have, or at least if we do have,
we don’t have the provenance of the clothing in archives that are linked to folks like these.
Like where is their dress? Where are their things in archives and —
>> Right. >> — one of the — I’m going to jump
back and forth between presentations
so that I can use images
to illustrate some points. But part of the reason why I want
to put the tintypes in conversation,
not just with the cotton clothing from the
Agnes, the white garments that we are using as for scientific methods and to illustrate
the upper-class Canadian consumer.
But I want you to put these garments
in conversation with the tintypes
because to ask this question of,
what of the garments of these folks?
And why is it that their own garments, the
garments that we’re seeing in these tintypes,
in these [inaudible], why were they
not preserved for posterity in terms
of institutional collecting practices? And Charmaine as you’re saying, it comes back
to, I think, even notions of access, right?
Photography who has notion, who has access
to be able to, you know, go to studio and take these photographs, but also
in terms of access to institutions
that would want to keep their garments? Or whether maybe these garments would have been
handed down, you know, from family to family.
African and especially Black Canadians are known
— it’s historically very thrifty and would want
to hand it down a lot of these garments
because of course fabrics and things
like that, would’ve been hard to come by. But — >> Yeah. >> — I’m wondering how can we use archives —
>> Yeah. >> — especially like yours Shannon as a way
of telling this wider story of, you know,
finally seeing these people as more
holding their identities, as opposed to,
we’ve got A North-Side View of Slavery, the
book that I could not remember, you know,
and the story we’ve got, some tintypes,
and then we’ve got, for example, reaching back to what Charmaine was
referring to the future slave ads.
And it seems that a lot of Black Canadian
history is so disjointed and spread across.
And — >> Yeah. >> — how is that we can use archives like
I’m asking to bring these stories together
so we can, in a sense, start to
see people as more whole figures? >> So, can I just jump in and say —
>> Please. >> — there’s multiple problems that have
led to this problem that you’re pointing out, which is a deficit of our collections
of Black Canada especially historical
Black Canada in Canadian institutions. Okay. So what went on?
Canadian museums really were
birthed later than the USA, and really after slavery
ended in Canada which is 1834.
But when they come about in the
late 1800s is the same moment when Canadian scholars are trying
to suppress Canadian slavery.
They’re trying to either say
that it was more benevolent. We were kind of gentler because
we weren’t plantation slavery
or that it didn’t happen at all. Okay. So those things are
happening at the same time. Then at the same, if you look at Canadian
academia, we have no infrastructure
of what African Canadian studies in the way that the U.S. has proliferated
African American studies departments
that have become the keepers
of that history really, right? And we also have no infrastructure
of African Canadian museums.
The U.S. has a plethora of Black
American museums on the national level
and on the regional levels that
are also keepers of this history. So part of it is when we think about the
legitimized infrastructures of museums
and academia that started in the 19th
century, none of those people were interested
in preserving anything from our communities. So it’s not surprised that they’re not there.
But here’s the twist. Of course, some of the collections, for
instance, in a McCord Museum in Montreal,
McCord Museum of History, the clothing they
have, some of that would have been worn
by enslaved Black Canadians,
because the story I just told you —
>> Right. >> — the Whites slavers were giving secondhand
clothing and castoffs to the enslaved people. But it’s gone into the collection as the
clothing of James McGill for instance.
>> Interesting. >> Even though James McGill maybe gave it to one of the five people he enslaved
at some point in his life.
But that’s not recorded in the provenance
and that’s not in the cataloguing history, because also another problem we
have a race-blind cataloguing going
on in Canada for generations. >> Interesting, interesting, interesting.
>> I just want to add something else, Charmaine.
A couple of the things that we have here
and have not done any further research
on is several photo albums, family photo albums. And the one thing that I did do when I received
the photo album was look at the photographer,
and it was a Black photographer who
had a Black studio in Ann Arbour, Michigan and that’s as far as I went.
So there were, and I guess I should
probably further investigate that.
But there were several Black photographers
that were coming into this area, come to find out taking some of these photos,
because again, these were family photos
and they were all again family dressed very
well, like they wore their Sunday best.
So and then they were some taken in the studio
themselves and then some family portraits.
And unfortunately that, you know, that family
has since passed, and this is the only thing that we still have of them, but
we have those original ones.
And that’s as far as we have gone thus far.
But would be glad to continue that
research to see exactly where it does go.
Because the photos are just
amazing when you look at them.
And like you say, you can tell
so much about these people, these families even though they
have a stoic look, you know.
Deep down inside, they are feeling elated
and proud of the fact that this is mine,
I own myself, and this is my family. And just, you know, very well dressed
and want to share it with everyone.
So yeah. >> And Shannon — >> Sorry. I’m sorry, you can go first. >> Sorry. I just wanted to say
Shannon, thank you so much for that too,
because what’s pointing out for the rest of us
too, is okay, how many repositories of images
of Black Canadians are sitting
in archives in the USA? Because the brilliant Black photographers
in the USA knew there’s a community up there
in Canada that’s not being served, right? And maybe not just in Southwestern Ontario, but
who was going up to Quebec to do that, right?
>> Yeah. >> Or who was going up to other spaces
in the maritimes to do that same work. >> Yeah. >> So that is brilliant.
And then Jason, what’s missing from the archives
too, of course, are the African dress practices,
like which museum in Canada
would have a headwrap? >> Yeah. >> Right. >> Right. Who would’ve bothered
to keep that, right?
That’s going to be the Black
family that kept that. >> That’s right. >> And hopefully it didn’t deteriorate, right?
>> But it’s not going to — sadly
it won’t be in a Canadian museum. I bet you, we could find some in
American museums, because again,
they’ve had infrastructures of support
and care for Black American history. >> Yeah.
>> What I’m definitely hearing, I think
that’s a brilliant thread it’s speaking up is this non-normative way of looking
across these archives, you know.
For example, if you’re looking in an archive and
you’re looking for an example of a dress style
that would’ve been worn by someone who would
have been given the passed down clothing, you are then looking for, it be catalogued on,
not their name but the name of the slave owner.
If you know, looking for an example, photography
that would, or of a photographer studio
that would’ve been taking a lot of photos. For example, a lot of the photos from
the Ontario archives are coming from,
and now long since the prompt
address in Toronto of all places. And when I was googling the address and looking
up to the Toronto archives, because of the way
that the numbering system has changed, that, you
know, the address on Young Street is no longer
because of the way that, you
know, the city has now zoned. But again, like where is the
repository of that archive?
Is it, as you’re saying, Charmaine, is
it here, or is it further down south?
And I was struck quite strongly when
I was looking at, I think the clothing of the Agnes’s collection and trying to
find a way to connect it to, you know,
different identities and putting this larger,
so in context of the larger supply chain.
And this is something that’s characteristic of
many strong dress collections like the Agnes.
Think of the Met and the V&A and, you know,
the McCord and other places that by and large,
it’s the wealthy White privileged
dress that gets, no,
the old Couture, the highest of the high. A head wrap that’s connected to
African dress practice was something
that would not even be thought to be seen
as, you know, what’s considered a masterwork of fashion in the way that the Met for example,
its mandate is just to collect garments
that are the highest form of its category. >> Right. >> So then you try to think of,
well, what characterizes the highest
and the zenith of a specific form of making? I do want to get into the Q&A.
But I think the most important question
I think for us to discuss today is, why is this conversation important?
Looking at old clothes and old photos
and, you know, cotton and its connections
to different people, why have this conversation
now in light of everything that is going
on in Canada, so in kind of social climate? I mean, I can give a very passionate answer.
But I’m interested to hear from both
your perspectives of your own work, why are these conversations so important?
>> Well, I’ll just jump in and say, all right. So we have to understand
in transatlantic slavery,
that the enslavers controlled every element
of the lives of the people they claim to own.
So what you were eating, how much you
could eat, when you’re going to get up, when you’re going to go to bed, what labour
they’re stealing from you, your mobility,
your immobility, whether they’re going to
brutalize you physically with whipping, whether they’re going to brand you,
that they’re going to force you
to stop practising your cultural
beliefs, your heritage, your spirituality. One of the teeny tiny areas where
enslaved people could exert some kind
of influence is what they wore. By doing things like what
Andrew from Maryland did.
Okay. You may give me your castoffs in terms
of your shirt, the trousers, the shoes, but I’m going to wrap my head still.
Right. But still, we have to understand
when Andrew is wrapping his head is because Crofton let him wrap his head.
That’s what we have to get. So personally, I don’t call the
agency because if Crofton said, take that off your head,
Andrew would have to do what?
Take it off his head. Okay. But it’s a realm in which to when enslaved
Africans were able to exert some influence
that typically what shows up often
across the Americas including Canada, is their African cultural heritage,
which they’re hanging onto,
and which they’re — you can tell there’s love. There’s passion. There’s a desire for self-care
and wellbeing there.
So I think for me, what’s so powerful is
that we need to read and address slave dress
as a zone of self-care and resistance.
And that’s what people don’t get. They just say, oh, clothing is clothing. Dress is dress. Who cares what’s on his head?
This is resistance my friends in a world where
enslavers were saying, stop your Africanness.
This is resistance to go and say, I’m going to
wrap my head like my great grandmother taught me to do, which is from my West African culture.
>> Yeah, totally agree. Yeah. So many people are
getting back to their roots.
And I want to say self-identifying, but
just feeling more, this is who I really am.
And their expressions are coming
through more with their dressing.
And you see that more and more often, you know. It’s not only with music and poetry;
it’s coming back with the dress.
Yeah. >> And I think for me too, as you’re both
saying this, the sense of pre-looking at history
and reclaiming it too is, we can’t, you know,
envision where we need to go as a nation
and as a collective people if
we don’t understand the past. >> That’s right. Yeah.
>> This sense of, I especially remember
the last summer when the, you know,
the resurgence of the protest and a lot of
social justice conversations were happening.
I naively was shocked by the number of
people who were finally wakening up to
or awakening to, you know, a lot of it. And I think the important part for me of these
conversations is allowing people to understand
that everything that we’re trying to
discuss now about Black Lives Matter
and about the importance of seeing everyone
as an equal and understanding what things need
to be set right so that we can
all have an equitable future.
We need to understand the precedents. And as someone who studies dress
history like myself, as I was saying,
I have to look at a point in — a more recent
point in dress history that connected things
in a more insidious way, in a
way that was more underhanded. Because even as Charmaine you were
saying that just really stuck in my mind.
This way of looking at archives in a different
way, where you’re not looking at the — you have to look for the
names of different people.
You have to look for different things to be able
to understand how to trace the thread through.
Because you will not find, for example, you
know, for example, Shannon as you were saying
at the Buxton, you will not find dress worn
by this person who escaped via this from that.
Just because of the collecting histories
that have happened over the years, what people have kept and what they’ve not
kept, and what they’ve passed on, sadly,
we don’t have a very detailed record
of some of these dress styles. But we have to be able to understand
that everything that we are wrestling
with now was birthed in the past. >> Yeah. >> And that in that way, Canada is not
somewhere where the conversation does not need
to happen because it’s never been here. No, it’s always been, and we need to be able
to deal quite strongly with what has happened,
and therefore then to be able to move forward. Because we can’t plead ignorance
anymore to the fact that, you know,
not everyone goes through
life in the same way here. >> Yeah. >> And I hope this exhibition can and the conversations we’re having
can in some way bring that to light.
And you know, we can all
see how we’re all connected. And I think that’s my biggest
hope for the show that we can see
that our stories are all entangled
and that our lives are all enmeshed. And that by understanding that
we can actually start to heal
and move forward in real and meaningful ways. >> Yeah. Sometimes I think to try and
put like the current events, you know,
within a historical context and history within a contemporary context
because so much is happening.
And like you say, history, it helps us to understand the person, again
by asking those questions.
And there’s so much out there
that people are just not grasping.
And I’ve seen within the last year with all
the various Black Lives Matter events happening
that there has been that resurgent
of, wow, I didn’t know, you know,
that almost in an ignorant way I didn’t
know that this existed here, I didn’t know.
But now their eyes are opening
and now they are thirsting for it. But in my mind, it’s like,
it’s taken you this long
to really understand what
people have been saying. And, you know, we’re trying to
educate and share and acknowledge.
I just have one story about
— well, it’s connected.
We were invited to do an exhibit at the
city hall in Toronto quite a few years ago.
And it was for Black History Month. And because we have some really
wonderful dog artifacts here,
we said, yes, we will take our shackles. We will take our neck collar.
We will take some of the diaries and journals. And as soon as I said that, they
were like, oh no, you can’t do that.
It’s too offensive. What will people think? You know, we can’t do that. And I’m thinking, oh again,
hell no, no, no, no, no.
This is part of our narrative here. No, it’s going to be here. And there was a lot of push with city
hall and counsellors who were like,
no, we can’t have that, you know. And there were two counsellors
that were very in favour.
And one of the things that they
did, it was on display in city hall, but they also made provisions for it to be taken
to some of the other museums in the outer —
that couldn’t come into the city hall to see it. So they’ve made provisions
to go to smaller museums
or smaller places, so they could see it as well. But it’s that type of mentality, you know.
Oh, yes, we need to celebrate Black
History so that we can educate people, but please don’t, you know,
that’s too offensive.
And what will people think if they
come and see things like this? And it’s like, wow.
Yeah, you know, not in my
backyard sort of thing. It’s like, wow, wow.
But that’s been quite a few years ago, but I
don’t know how receptive they would be now. But it just tells you how, you know,
how we have progressed hopefully,
and now we’re at that block again
where, wow I didn’t know it was tears. So like you say that narrative has to be
changed and we have a lot of work to do.
Yeah so — yeah. >> Absolutely. I’ve got a question here from Hillary
and I’ll try to paraphrase it.
So Hillary, forgive me if
I don’t do this correctly. But one of the main core
components of the question is,
has there been any research conducted in
business or corporate archives whether here
in Canada or in the U.S. that looks at union
records or corporate and business archives
that are looking for photographs
of Black workers that might —
oh, I think I lost — You’re here? Got you. >> Oh, sorry [brief laughter]. >> No, no, no problem.
Hillary was just asking if any research has
been done in businesses like corporate archives
or businesses, for example, union records that
might, you know, bring up a cache of images
or of photographs of Black workers that
would be able to help us link this dearth
of photography of the Black body? >> Off the top of my head not to my knowledge,
but that’s a great suggestion to look
in those business and corporate archives. I don’t believe that a lot of
scholars have thought of that. They typically go to provincial
and national archives.
So the thing I’m thinking though is usually
the newest research in anything, in any field
or discipline are the MA and Ph.D., the
MA thesis, and the Ph.D. dissertations.
So we have to deep dive into those to see if
any of those students have found those things. And also I’m thinking of the curator,
Julie Crooks at the AGO who’s
a curator of photography. She might know some of this too.
So she would be a source that you’d want to
check with Hillary to see if she’s ever heard of that because she’s a specialist
Yeah. >> And she has an amazing show on
called Fragments of Epic Memory. I think it’s still up or might be closing soon.
It began at the beginning of September that
looks at photographs from the Caribbean.
I believe it is the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s
that tangentially connects here as well.
Just see any other questions that might come up. And did you two have any other questions that
you wanted to while I — oh, skim this — ?
>> Not just in the next series. Ah, Valentine’s Day.
>> Rene [assumed spelling] has a
question, and again Rene you have to forgive me if I’m mispronouncing the name.
The first time I went to
the Grant AME in Toronto, I happened to sit down next
to the church archivist.
Her mother held that position before her. The church was founded in 1833.
And Rene is wondering if we’ve
ever looked into those archives and if that might be a font of knowledge?
>> That is wonderful too. We’re getting these great
archival insights and leads. But here’s the thing I have
to throw out to people.
We got to know, this is a sad part too. I’ve been talking throughout, right? I mentioned to Jason and Shannon.
There’s a deficit in infrastructure in Canada. One of the deficits too, is that
there is no African Canadian or Black Canadian studies in Canada, right?
DAL has I think a minor in a combination of Black Canadian studies
and Black Diaspora studies.
There’s no one place in Canada
where you can go and get a degree, like a major that says African Canadian studies.
So what does that mean? Again, we don’t have the scholars on the ground
who are training students to do this work.
And as you can see from our conversation, doing research on the slave populations is
not the same as doing research on free people.
Free people if you want to
recuperate a biography, what’s the first thing we’d
all think to go and look for?
The birth certificate. Enslaved people were not
issued birth certificates because they were considered
chattel under the law.
They were considered movable personal
property like the desk in front of me and the chair I’m sitting on. So you have to train people how to do
this research on enslaved populations
because you’re looking for a completely
different set of documents in the archive. So all that to say, thank you for these
leads, but we need the students to be working
with professors like myself, who are
focussed on Black Canadian studies, and the focus on Canadian slavery,
to be able to get this done, right?
Because you know how — most of
you probably know how hard it is. And Shannon and Jason certainly know to
do this type of painstaking archival work.
In some cases, it takes years to go
through certain collections and to come up with what you are looking for.
So you need people on the ground who are trained
to do this work, to get it done appropriately,
and to not miss things in the process. But thank you for those wonderful suggestions. Of course, church archives
and corporate and, you know —
>> And Charmaine, I think that’s one of the
amazing things not just in terms of the way that funding — different
things are being funded.
Like for example, this research is being funded
by is [inaudible] fellowship and philanthropy,
which we are hugely grateful for to be
able to, you know, leverage those funds and you know, to tell these stories.
But I know Charmaine at NSCAD you founded The
Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery.
And can you just give us a small snippets
of the work that’s happening there
that you’re hoping to, you know, start some
momentum to be able to [multiple speakers]? >> Thank you, Jason.
And by the way, thank you so much, Jason. And by the way, Jason is one of
our first cohort of fellows who had
to be virtual due to the pandemic. So we have five brilliant
fellows for the 2021-2022 cohort.
And Jason was in the first group in
the fall of 2021, so thank you, Jason. And he’s giving — actually, he’s going to be
in a Black History Month panel
on February 15th at 12:00 PM. So I think Charlotte will share the
link for the institute after this.
But yes, I founded the institute in part because
we have as Shannon and Jason ably pointed
out a 200-year history of transatlantic
slavery in the regions that became Canada
under two empires, the French and the British that basically almost nobody
knows even occurred.
And can I say, I say this
all the time when I lecture, it has nothing to do with
a deficit in the archive.
The documents I’m sharing with
you are sitting on microfilm reels in the provincial or national archives.
That’s not the problem. The problem is there’s no infrastructure of
departments that would typically hire someone
like myself who is an art historian who
specializes in transatlantic slavery and Canadian and Jamaican slavery.
I got in through McGill as a Canadian
as teaching historical Canadian art, but they got more than they bargained
for because I was also someone
who teaches the Black diaspora. That is not though who they hired. That is just who they got when
they hired me if you get me.
So the institute, then I want to make it a
space to nurture and support brilliant talent
like Jason Cyrus and scholars working in across
different fields in the interdisciplinary,
multidisciplinary field of transatlantic
slavery studies and the artists, my friends,
because if we think about how most of us has
come to our knowledge of transatlantic slavery,
initially at least it was through a film. And typically, there are Hollywood
films about the American South.
And recently, we’ve had a spade
of rather good ones like Lincoln, and Django Unchained, and 12 years a Slave.
There’s no such film on Canadian slavery. Until we change that, the general
public in Canada will continue
to not know anything about
this 200-year history. So we must support the artists in also doing
this work, whether they’re playwrights,
whether they’re filmmakers, whether
they’re painters, sculptors, et cetera. So the institute is actively working to have
these cohorts on a yearly rollover basis,
which hopefully one day will also
include postdoctoral fellows. So also if you have a big chequebook, I
implore you to think of donating to us
because we need the money to fund
brilliant people like Jason, right? They’re not going to want to come stay with us
for that semester or year when they could go
to Harvard or they could go to Brown, or
they could go to Oxford and have a fellowship
if we don’t have the funds
to attract them to Halifax. >> And Shannon, in terms of, what do you think
at the Buxton National Historic Museum needs
to be able to continue doing its work? Can you share from your perspective as
a curator and as someone on the team?
>> Well, we have two staff and
that’s our biggest issue trying
to do everything if you will. So, you know, to do some research.
Like when people want information on their
family and, you know, nine times out of 10,
we will have that, you know, readily available. But they might want more than we
have at our fingertips, or, you know.
So people, and if you don’t
answer them like in two minutes, they’re like, wow, they’re ignoring.
But there’s more than just looking up, you
know, a family tree because we have file folders
and other background information
to provide as well. So it does take a lot of work. And then plus the fact that
you know, we are doing tours.
We are doing, trying to create
exhibits, We’re filling out grants. So you know, one of our biggest challenges
is having the capability to fulfil all
of those things that we would love to do. Like between the two of us, we have a
list, a daily checklist, have we done that.
Yes. So it’s very time consuming. So basically, to do some wonderful research,
like I don’t know when I’ll get
to the photo album, Charmaine. [brief laughter]. >> Oh, my gosh, we got to team up.
And listen, the chequebook needs
to be split between the two of us. Okay. So the big grant who’s out
there, give half of the money
to Shannon and half the money to me. Okay. >> Yeah. >> I am not embarrassed to say we need money.
We need money to do the work. >> Yeah, we do. >> Yeah. >> And we can’t spend all our
time writing grants people, right?
>> I know. >> Because this is a thing that happens to us. We get turned into grant writers,
and then we can’t go do the research
or support others in doing
it, right Shannon, so? >> There’s a lot of things in a variety
of repositories that need to be uncovered.
And like you say, Charmaine
and Jason, it’s there. It’s just, it’s very time consuming in trying
to find the bodies, you know, to do it.
And I find with, because we are shut
down, we have really been more — well, because we’re doing more Zoom
presentations and virtual tours
with school groups and that sort of thing. And it’s not just — so you
have to tailor each one to each.
So it is very time-consuming
for us but enjoying it. But one of the, you know, we don’t have that
capability right now to do that intense research
that some people have requested, so. Yeah. I think we’re all in the same boat,
lack of resources, lack of finances.
Yeah. >> Yeah. So too, I want to
keep — I’d love to be mindful
of everyone’s time including
you two wonderful individuals. I think, to sum up, you know,
at collections and archives for information. Think outside the box.
Remember stories are connected. And the most basic thing I think you can do to
allow this work to happen is to donate, is to,
you know, put all your money where
your heart is, just as they say. And though we can continue to keep
telling these stories, or we can continue
to keep empowering people to, you know, to do
the work so we can see ourselves represented.
I’d like to give you both the last word
before I thank everyone and wrap up. Any last thoughts you’d like to share?
>> I’d just like to say that when I have —
I have all kinds of students from
different backgrounds approaching me to do this work with me. A lot of the students who come
to be supervised by me at the MA
or Ph.D. level are actually people
who are interested in doing work through the art historical lens on slavery.
And one thing I always try
to teach my students is that transatlantic slavery
is not just a Black history.
By it being coded as a Black history
is how it typically gets dismissed. But we have to think about the fact
that it’s an indigenous history.
It’s an African history. It’s a European history. It actually encompassed a
lot of different groups.
It included Asians at the end, who were
brought into British colonies like Jamaica to be indentured servants when
the enslaved people refuse to work
for the people who formally enslaved them. So you know, people need to understand
that this is about their families too,
whether or not they’re of Black African descent,
and is about their family histories and stories.
And I think the thing we need to think about is
who has had the ability over centuries to forget
that this was a part of their history, to
ignore that this is a part of their history. And what I mean by that is typically
at McGill when I teach a big class,
like 90 or 100 students that I
call the Visual Culture of Slavery, I’d ask them on the first weeks, you know,
who of you know that this
is a part of your ancestry? Who in the class is not Black, right? Because the Black students know
that you go back a certain amount
of generations and your hidden enslaved people. So I say, everybody, go home
and talk to your elders.
If you’re lucky your grandparents who are living
or great grandparents, ask them some questions. Ask if your family had direct
connections to slavery.
And some brave students came back, and one
stuck in my mind for a long, long time. She came back and said, “Professor Nelson,
I have to share this with the class.
I asked the question of my elders in the family
and they revealed to us, to me and my siblings,
that one of our ancestors was
the governor of Virginia.”
Okay. Okay. >> Wow. >> Thank you, Jason. And so can I tell you this man was a planter,
of course, and owned many enslaved people.
And the family was just sitting on that
until this woman asked a direct question.
So again, this is in everybody’s family history,
especially too in White people’s family history,
whether or not they want to share it. And we need to, as Shannon said to
us, become comfortable with the fact
that slavery is a brutal history of systemic
violence, physical, emotional, psychological,
and it should not be sanitized, right? When the people in Toronto didn’t want her
to show the shackles and the colour, no.
>> Yeah. >> If you want to know the truth
about slavery, it’s a brutal history. And we need to confront what it actually was.
And for me doing that is how
I honour my ancestors, right? This work for me is very personal,
is about acknowledging the fact
that having two Black parents from
Jamaica, my ancestors were enslaved. And if they had not survived,
I wouldn’t be sitting here.
>> Absolutely. >> Yep. Now, I tell people that
when they come to the museum, again,
if my family had not survived, you know, the
middle passage, et cetera, I would not be here
to share those stories and
the history that we have. And you’re so right, Charmaine.
You know this is a conversation
that we all need to have because we’re supposed to
be such a diverse nation.
And I think everyone should be having
these conversations about their history.
So if we want people to see that their
stories are valuable and that they don’t have to be this internationally renowned
figure, you know, to do great things.
You know, they just need to
really understand their history
because it’s everyone’s history, you know. We just need to help change
that narrative to see
because we are such a diverse cultural entity.
So thank you all. This has been great. [brief laughter]. >> Thank you too. Wonderful to meet you, Shannon.
And thank you, Jason. >> My pleasure. I can think of no better
way than to wrap this up. Thank you so much everyone for
spending your Friday afternoon with us.
Special thank you to Shannon and Charmaine
for sharing of yourselves and your work. And we will see you the next
Speaker Series on February 11th.
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