Chapter 1: Understanding Racism and Anti-Black Racism
Understanding the past can help us understand the current situation. Let’s start with a story.
Long ago, in the continent of Africa, people lived in many different communities with a well-developed trading system. Sometimes they traded people, but within this system, slaves were considered servants, and could often earn their freedom (Sawula, 2013).
In the 14th century, the richest man who ever lived came from Africa. His name was Mansa Masu. His wealth is estimated at more than $400 billion in today’s dollars, but it is widely agreed that his actual worth cannot be described. He is known for expanding trade (salt, gold, ivory), making Mali the richest kingdom in Africa, and building cultural centres of learning in the Islamic world (National Geographic Society, 2022). During his reign, about half of the world’s gold was in his kingdom of Mali, and he had nearly unlimited access to all of its wealth as king (Mohamud, 2019).
Most Westerners were, and continue to be, unaware of the complex and advanced nature of African society. When white European travelers came to Africa, they began trading with the indigenous people, who welcomed them as friends. But the African people were unaware that their white European ‘friends’ were misrepresenting them in their home countries. White travelers described the African people as savages and uncivilized. This led to a perception of African people being less than human, and a growing interest in trading for African people as merchandise. This came to be known as chattel slavery. African slaves were mainly taken from the west coast of Africa (e.g., Ghana) and dispersed throughout America and the Caribbean, where they were treated inhumanely and subjected to horrific violence. During the , an estimated 10–12 million African people were traded, captured, or stolen for the wealth and development of the Western world.
Canada is known for its role in helping in the freedom of enslaved Americans through the . However, slavery was also widespread in Canada, which is mentioned less often. Here are some facts:
- Slavery was a popular practice as early as 1759, when records indicate that approximately 3600 enslaved persons were living in Canada (McRae, n.d., The story of slavery…).
- From 1797–1800, 14 of the 17 members of the second parliament of the Upper Canada Legislative Assembly owned enslaved persons or were from slave-holding families (Henry, 2022).
- James McGill, a member of the Assembly of Lower Canada and the founder of McGill University, owned 6 enslaved persons (Henry, 2022).
- This began to change in 1793, when John Graves Simcoe, then Lieutenant Governor, became aware of the practice. He was offended by the idea of slavery and respected the sacrifices made by Black people during the Revolutionary War. He led the abolition of slavery in Canada (Cooper, 2007).
However, by the time slavery was abolished, its effects had already been embedded systemically, creating a legacy of negative beliefs, perceptions, attitudes, and actions toward Black people of African descent. The process of dehumanizing people can be experienced by other communities in similar and different ways, including Indigenous persons, Asians, other non-dominant racialized people, and anyone considered different, such as Jews and some immigrant groups.
We must explore anti-Black racism to fully understand the pervasive nature of racism and the need to identify and dismantle it in all its forms. One way is to rewrite the false narratives that we were told and tell the real truths about history – and we can start this process today in our classrooms.
In the 1800s, Canada once had a thriving small Black community in Nova Scotia called Africville. The founding members of Africville were mainly slaves who came from America and who were promised land and freedom. But when they arrived, they encountered racism and discrimination by the white settlers and were forced to live in poor, squalid conditions. Despite the barriers they faced, they created a close-knit thriving community with their own shops, church, and businesses. However, the City of Halifax refused them basic amenities, such as sewage, clean water, and garbage disposal – even though they were paying their taxes to the City. Soon the City of Halifax began to build hazardous developments around Africville including an infectious disease hospital, a prison, and a garbage disposal site. These had adverse effects on Africville residents, but the discrimination against them did not stop there. The City of Halifax pressured the community to relocate, arguing that the move would improve conditions for the residents. Although the community tried to plead their case, they were unable to win against the odds stacked against them and were forced to relocate. This resulted in the dismantling of Africville, a once-thriving community. In 2010, an official apology was given, and in 2012 a replica of Africville’s original church was opened as a museum and monument to the story of Africville and how racism and discrimination were at the core of this community’s fate.
Cooper, A. (2007). Acts of resistance: Black men and women engage slavery in Upper Canada, 1793-1803. Ontario History, 99(1), 5–17, 134. https://doi.org/10.7202/1065793ar
Henry, N. (2022, February 9). Black enslavement in Canada. The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/black-enslavement
Lewis, T. (2021, September 22). Transatlantic slave trade. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/transatlantic-slave-trade
McRae, M. (n.d.). The story of Africville. Canadian Museum for Human Rights. https://humanrights.ca/story/the-story-of-africville
McRae, M. (n.d.). The story of slavery in Canadian history. Canadian Museum for Human Rights. https://humanrights.ca/story/the-story-of-slavery-in-canadian-history
Mohamud, N. (2019, March 10). Is Mansa Musa the richest man who ever lived? BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-47379458
Nelson, J. J. (2000). The space of Africville: Creating, regulating and remembering the urban ‘slum’. Canadian Journal of Law and Society/La Revue Canadienne Droit et Société, 15(2), 163–185. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0829320100006402
Sawula, C. (2013). African passages, Lowcountry adaptations. The Lowcountry Digital History Initiative. https://ldhi.library.cofc.edu/exhibits/show/africanpassageslowcountryadapt/introductionatlanticworld/slaverybeforetrade
Atlantic Slave Trade - A triangular route involving the transportation of enslaved Africans to the Americas (Lewis, 2021).
Underground Railroad - A resistance movement involving African Americans fighting to gain their freedom from bondage during the civil war (Cooper, 2007).