Culture | Uncovering Canada’s history of slavery

Author Lawrence Hill talks about identity, language, and the experience of the black loyalist

Canadian author Lawrence Hill spoke with The Daily about language and race in the context of his most recent novel, The Book of Negroes. His novel was inspired by a hand-written ledger of the same name, listing the names of 3,000 black loyalists – both the slaves of white loyalists, and other slaves who chose to fight for the Crown during the American revolutionary war in exchange for the promise of freedom. The Book of Negroes is a work of fiction based on the relocation of these loyalists from America to Canada, and their eventual journey to Sierra Leone. When they arrived in Canada, Britain’s promises of land and liberty were unfulfilled. For a loyalist, though, recognizing one’s name in The Book of Negroes meant the ability to leave America. When they arrived in Canada, Britain’s promises of land and liberty were unfulfilled. Hill’s work tells the story of one woman’s cross-continental journey from Africa to the Americas and back, revealing Canada’s oft-overlooked history of slavery. Although the book was published in Canada under the same title as the ledger, its name was changed to Someone Knows My Name for its international release.

McGill Daily: The theme of 2009’s black history month is “Building a Canadian Identity.” Do you think that the reality of the treatment of blacks in Canada needs to be acknowledged by most Canadians before such an accurate Canadian identity can be constructed?

Lawrence Hill: Our understanding and our interest in black history is abysmally low in Canada…. [My daughters] were asked to read one book in the course of their entire high school careers that purported to tell them something of the black experience: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, which is written by a white American, about segregation and prejudice in the United States…. What I have an issue with is [that] Canada’s idea of introducing black history and black culture to Canadian high school students is to point a finger toward Americans. We are loath to discuss black history, segregation, slavery, and our own historical warts. Most Canadians, I venture, still don’t know that slavery existed in Quebec, Ontario, P.E.I., New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. I think it reveals an underlying resistance to examine who we are honestly. Writing this book…I meant to address a void in our collective awareness of the black experience in Canada.

MD: In the novel, the protagonist, Aminata, is able to learn many languages with ease. How is language related to a model of cultural interaction?

LH: There is certainly a plurality of cultures and languages and ethnicities that she is part of. I’m quite interested in that when she comes to North America, she suddenly has to learn new languages…. I haven’t seen too much literature that explores language appropriation of captives in the Americas. All this time, [studying] 400 years of black history in North America, we haven’t stopped to imagine the huge mental gymnastics…these forced migrants had to do to stay alive, and so I was interested in dramatizing that process. I think that takes a great deal of intellectual prowess, but somehow we don’t chalk it up like that.

MD: How does language figure into issues of race today? For instance, the title couldn’t contain the word “negro” in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

LH: Trying to describe a person’s racial identity with a word is a losing proposition – and is fundamentally absurd because people can’t be defined by race biologically. Race is a social construct. We will always be dissatisfied with the racial terminology. Negro was the term you used in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s to refer respectfully to blacks, but it has changed meanings lately. Just as the word “nigger” has been re-appropriated by many in hip hop culture…the word “negro” has gone in the opposite direction. Inside black culture in urban America, “negro” means an inauthentic, spineless black person, an Uncle Tom, someone who has no inner pride, and so the title had to change for the American edition.

MD: What do you think about terms being thrown around today such as “post-racial” and “colour blindness?”

LH: I think they are absurd. I think that racial prejudice and racial discrimination still mark many aspects of Canadian life, and to say we are in a post racial society, in my opinion, is to deny the reality of racism. I don’t like the term colour blindness either. Sometimes people say, “my kid comes home from school and Johnny doesn’t even see that his one friend is Asian and his other friend is black, isn’t that wonderful….” And that means in their eyes that such great progress has been made. I’m extremely cynical about comments like that. Of course, a child isn’t going to see it, but when they get to the age of 15 or 20, these issues are going to be front and centre in the subconscious processes of Canadians…. If you don’t believe it, just ask someone who at two o’clock in the morning is driving in a luxury vehicle, what it’s like to be pulled over because they’re black. I think it is a fantasy that is quintessentially Canadian to say that we live in a colour blind society. We don’t look honestly at ourselves, which again, is why I wrote the novel. I wanted to dramatize something we haven’t looked at, which is the experience of the black loyalist in Canada.

– compiled by Whitney Mallett


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