One of the many benefits of shifting my teaching career to the elementary and secondary sector is that I get to engage with all kinds of different histories that are new to me. I dare say that I have not been this excited about “doing” history in a long time (not to say that I did not enjoy teaching university students at the end, but there is something refreshing about this journey).

As we are all aware this is February and February is Black History Month. I will leave the politics of having only a month dedicated to this complex and rich history to more eloquent than myself. But the fact is this is a time to focus on Black history and today I had the opportunity to teach a class of grade 7s and 8s a little bit of the history of slavery in Canada.

It may be unsurprising to know that the students knew quite a bit about the slavery in the United States. They even knew rudimentary things about Segregation, although they were shocked to learn that the US Constitution valued Black Americans at 3/5 a person (an interesting insight for them as it proved a macabre example as they had only finished working on fractions). But when I turned their attention to the example of Canada, they drew more blanks. This is in part because, unlike the United States, I believe, our relationship with African populations throughout the 18th and 19th centuries are not in the fore front of our national psyche and when we do think of those relationships, it is coloured by the comforting mythology that we were not like the Americans – whatever slavery existed in this country was abolished much earlier and that we represented a promised land for black people looking for a better life.

This lacuna in our history memory is depressing since we are missing out on so much history that can tell us more about who we are as a country and how we can improve ourselves. Of course, we have a spotted history to say the least and today with the students I had a chance to address some of these issues. The value of the lesson for me was to move these young people out of complacency to grasp the horror of the slave system.

To challenge any notion that things may not have been that bad, I opened with the following excerpt from the Governor of Quebec, James Murray whose request for slaves is summed in the following:

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James Murray.

“I must most earnestly entreat your assistance, without servants nothing can be done…Black slaves are certainly the only people to be depended upon…pray therefore if possible procure for me two stout young fellows…[and]buy for each a clean young wife, who can wash and do the female offices about a farm, I shall begrudge no price…”

 

There is so much to unpack in this one quote that if I had time to have fully prepare a unit this quote would have served as the basis for several lessons. But as it is, not only does Murray expose the brutal transactional nature of the slave trade and lay to rest the idea of the Canadas as morally superior to the United States, one must be struck by the naked sexism and misogyny. Slavery was not only about working in the fields it was the total dehumanization of a human being. The idea of personhood reduced to a commodity.

I continued with this theme by introducing Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes which tells the story of a young girl kidnapped by slavers, sold in the US and escapes to Canada during the Revolutionary War with the promise from the British that her life would be so much better. Of course, it wasn’t.

The original Book of Negroes was a register to keep track of freed slaves coming into British Canada. It recorded all their information including their value;  free they may be, but they were still commodities. To further  illustrate this fact, I used an archival photo from th

Book of Negroes
From the Book of Negroes

e 18th century Book of Negroes housed at the Nova Scotia Archives. The page was a record of the manumission of James, a 4 month old “mulatto”. I focused on the following quote: “…”in consideration of the faithful services of my negro woman Slave maid Rose…I the said Enoch Plummer have manumitted…and set at liberty the Mulatto child of the said Rose named James about four months.” Again apart from the obvious meaning, it was important to dig deeper. To that end, I asked the students what the term mulatto meant. They had no idea. I explained that mulatto was a term that denoted a mixed race person, usually of white and black parents. And then I had them explore why they thought Plummer would free this child.

The common theme was that it was the right thing to do, that slavery was bad and so on. All good answers to be sure, but I went back to the significance of the child being so young and having one white parent. It didn’t take long for students to end up where I wanted them. It dawned of them that this child may have been Plummer’s son.

Even with children in grades 7 and 8 it is our responsibility to challenge them and have them confront the ugliness of history. They can handle it. While I did not use the word rape to describe what may have happened, I still focused on the premise that Rose would have had little to no agency in what happened from the possible sexual liaison to the manumission of her child which in essence would have ripped him from his mother because of her status as a slave. Domestic slavery may not have been backbreaking in the way picking cotton would have been, but we should be under no illusion that life was just as horrific indoors.

Slavery is a foreign concept to 21st century students, but it must not be. Not just because the history of slavery and the fight to win equal rights for all peoples is important, but because we seem to be returning to a mentality that ownership of people is acceptable. It may not be the chattel slavery of 19th century America, but it is in the demonization of others, it is in the move to deny the vote to minority peoples, and it is in the coarse discourse of demagogues that reinforce the worst tendencies of undereducated people who need scapegoats to blame for their own sad lives.

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