Black History Month is usually seen as the time of year when one should reflect on the struggles and achievements of Black communities around the world. Such a designated period of historical reflection invites some questions. What exactly constitutes Black history? What events or developments should be elevated above others? These questions aside, Black History Month offers an important opportunity to collectively remember. In an effort to try and do just that, I spoke with Anne-Sophie Tzeuton, a former classmate of mine and a recent McGill graduate, and with my friend Chantelle Dallas, a law student at McGill. They reflected on slavery, its legacy, and what that history means to them.
Remembering the history
Chantelle, who grew up in Jamaica and studied in the U.S. and France before coming to McGill, spoke about the varying levels of awareness about the history of slavery that she has encountered. “In high school, growing up in Jamaica, we did Caribbean history more than world history, and a lot of that was talking about slavery – it wasn’t a hidden part of curriculum. In terms of my identity, I was a lot more aware of what a past slave society would look like when I came to the U.S.. [Here] I interact with people who are just not as aware, and hear people in Canada say ‘I didn’t hear about Canadian slavery, I didn’t know about it,’”
She said that her visit to former slave depots in West Africa – namely, Cape Coast Castle in Ghana and the Maison des Esclaves in Senegal – as well as to a slave museum in the major slave port town of Nantes, France, highlighted the vast scope of the impact of slavery. “There’s no way that you can escape it, it’s part of everyone’s history. Even if you weren’t dealing in slaves, its effects crossed the world – it was a triangular trade connecting Europe, America, and Africa. […] But even then, I didn’t think that the awareness in [Jamaica] was that great.”
Anne-Sophie is Cameroonian; though born in France, her childhood was split between time in Niger and Uganda, and she eventually came to Canada to pursue her studies. Anne-Sophie spoke about a personal connection to the history of slavery. “I feel very touched and linked to this period of time. I was not directly impacted, of course, I did not suffer from slavery, but I just feel like the remnants of this historical period are still visible today. When I think of the history of slavery, I think about my history, my family history, my grandfather’s history. My ancestors were impacted in some way or another. I think about reconnecting with my past and learning about how low humanity can stoop.”
I asked both students how they thought slavery could best be acknowledged and remembered. “Black History Month shouldn’t just be a month,” said Anne-Sophie. “It’s all our histories, and they should be learned throughout the year. Why is only a month used to remember the past? It’s world history, it can’t be condensed.” Anne-Sophie, who currently lives in France, added that French society must confront Black history more than it currently does. “During high school in France, my cultural heritage was so condemned. They would say, ‘Racism? What are you talking about? This doesn’t happen here.’ I feel like [in France] there is a shame about Black history, they like to cover it up. The moment you talk about racism, a French person is literally scared shitless.”
Anne-Sophie expressed that discussing slavery and race today continues to be difficult. “I feel that the African community in France is muffled,” explained Anne-Sophie. “The French pride themselves on being united, but we’re not united. Snarky comments and micro-aggressions – my goodness – happen on a daily basis.”
The situation is different in Jamaica. “We don’t have a minority status, as people in positions of power are Black,” said Chantelle. “What we have in Jamaica is more colourism or classism. Even within the Black community it’s like, ‘Okay, you’re lighter-skinned, so you’re more likely to be successful, more likely to be considered beautiful, more likely to be considered intelligent.’”
For Chantelle, remembering slavery begins in schools. “Commemorating is good, and having spaces to learn more outside of the classroom [is good], but if you don’t learn about it at an early age, then you won’t have an interest in exploring it later on in life. It’s a general consciousness, it’s hard to awaken people when they don’t want to think that discrimination still exists.”
Justice after slavery
Anne-Sophie and Chantelle differed somewhat on the topic of redress for slavery and payment of reparations. “I sometimes think, would [reparations] really change anything?” said Anne-Sophie. “It seems a way to cover something up that I don’t think can ever be mended. Still, I think it can be helpful.” For Anne-Sophie, acknowledgement is ultimately more important than reparations. “It’s about accepting that you have a privilege, on this earth, that we will not have for a long time. I’m not sure, but I think reparations should only be given to the older generation who was impacted, or to the [descendants] of slaves who were obliged to live in squalor – because that is still the case in ghettos.”
Speaking to the history of Jamaica, Chantelle explained that she supports reparations, as the harms of slavery were never recognized nor redressed. “In Jamaica, even after emancipation, people were working as slaves because they didn’t have the freedom to move off plantations for the most part. It was when slavery became unprofitable that the abolitionists got their way. It was a profit thing, not because slavery was morally wrong. It was all a balance of economics.”
Chantelle highlighted the hypocrisy of the British reaction to the call for reparations. “They were only willing to let go when it wasn’t profitable, and they paid off the people who were responsible for allowing that [by compensating former slaveholders]. Then, David Cameron, the prime minister of the UK, comes to Jamaica and shakes hands with people and says, ‘Oh, you know, reparations aren’t really necessary.’ No, we think you owe us.”
Chantelle also spoke about her experience studying legal traditions – such as French civil law, English common law, or Roman and American law – that have historically served to entrench and legitimize systems of slavery. “As the critical race theory scholar Mari Matsuda has said, you have to approach it in two ways: outside the courtroom, or outside law school, and inside. There is speaking about these issues in a public forum, on the street, et cetera. But minority populations or poor populations don’t have access to justice because it’s not affordable and then you’re being discriminated against,” Chantelle said. “Then there is inside the courtroom, or inside law school. If law is going to be used as an instrument of power against me, then I should know how to use it as well. That’s me taking back the power that was taken away from me.”
For Chantelle, the study of law serves to empower her community. “There’s no way I’m not going to give back to the community that I’m from. That’s important. If you come to these positions you can’t be like the nice house slave and forget your brothers in the field. Using law school as a stepping stone, on the back of those who came before you and had to make sacrifices for you to be here – I take that very seriously. I take my country’s history and my family’s history very seriously. Being Black, being Jamaican, and an international student, I think it’s true: I have to work twice as hard to be half as good as white students – and so I’m here, working hard.”
Shadows of Slavery is a column that seeks to remember the history of slavery in the Americas and to examine how this history manifests itself today. Nadir Khan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.