Mental HealthSocial Issues

The History of Anti-Blackness in the United States and Canada

George Floyd. You may have seen this name written out across news scrolls, blogs, newspapers, and social media. On May 25th, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Floyd was arrested by 4 police officers for attempting to purchase a pack of cigarettes using a counterfeit $20 bill. Moments after the arrest he was killed by Officer Derek Chauvin, who placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for close to 9 minutes. Floyd’s death, tragic and horrific, sparked hundreds of protests across the globe as well as a much-needed discussion of anti-black racism. Although all eyes are looking at America’s anti-black racism, the issue extends beyond their borders with many western countries operating in similar ways.

Racism, specifically anti-black rhetoric, has been a problem in America since its inception. However, this is oftentimes not reflected in the history textbooks used in schools across the country. As Meilan Solly writes, many textbooks “focus solely on “positive” stories about black leaders like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.” They do not go into great detail about the traumatic experiences that many enslaved black Americans had to go through. In addition to this, it is the schools that get to choose which black leaders can be classified as “positive” or not. This speaks to a much greater issue on whose history gets to be uplifted and whose does not. Many of those who are taught in classrooms are individuals who did not spark outright rebellions, like Nat Turner’s unsuccessful 1831 rebellion, but sought out freedom peacefully. By ignoring these stories we are missing out on the opportunity to have a deeper, more nuanced conversation about race relations in America. 

This issue extends past what stories are not told, with some schools going so far as to alter historical events. For example, in 2018, Texas schools pointed to the state’s rights and sectionalism, instead of slavery, as the main culprits and causes for the Civil War. In other instances, leaders such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are applauded for their political capabilities, but the textbooks shy away from their “slaveholding legacies” — something that many historians wish to see changed. This lack of honesty in textbooks is one way that anti-black sentiment manifests itself in the US. The fight towards a more just society cannot be deemed successful if the society does not bother to look at its problem and acknowledge all of its ugliness. 

The History of Anti-Blackness in the United States and Canada

Stories from America’s past of young Black boys and men brutally killed for simply being black have resurfaced with the murder of George Floyd, some comparing it to a modern-day lynching. The case of Emmett Till is one of the more famous cases of lynching in America. In the summer of 1955, Till was accused by Carolyn Bryant, a white store owner, of whistling at her. Four days later, in the early hours of the morning, Roy Bryant, Carole’s husband, and his half brother J.W. Millam kidnapped Till from his family home. They would proceed to not only torture the young boy but drove him to the Tallahatchie River where they would shoot him in the head and dispose of his body.  His corpse was found days later and was so horribly disfigured that his mother was only able to identify him by the initialized ring he wore. 

Instead of immediately burying the body, as the authorities had hoped, Mamie Till Mobley, Till’s mother, requested that her son’s body be sent back to their hometown, Chicago. There, she held an open-casket funeral, forcing all those who came to see the terrible mutilation that was done against her son. The image of Till’s deformed body circulated across the country after Jet magazine, a Black American weekly magazine, published a photo taken at his funeral. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were put before an all-white jury for the murder of Till. Unsurprising, the men were found not guilty on the grounds that the state did not properly identify the body. Many across the country were not only upset by this but were also outraged that the state refused to charge Bryant and Milam with kidnapping the 14 year old. 6 decades, Carolyn Bryant would confess to Tim Tyson, author of the book The Blood of Emmett Till, that Till had never harassed her at all. 

The story of Emmet Till does not confine itself to the 1950s. The case helps to show the continuous degradation of black life and black history within the United States. In honour of Emmett Till, in 2008, Mississippi erected a marker in the area where his body was found. The marker has been vandalized 3 times since then. The first time this happened the sign was thrown into the Tallahatchie River. The second and third time the sign was vandalized it was riddled with bullets. In 2019 a fourth marker was put up. Learning from past mistakes, this marker is made out of steel and weighs 500 pounds. When asked about the vandalism Ms. Gordon Talor, Emmet Till’s cousin said, “My family is still being confronted with a hate crime against Emmett Till and it’s 65 years later.” As shown here, the apathetic nature white Americans feel towards the harsh realities of their country’s history only exacerbates the intergenerational trauma faced by Black Americans. 

Black generational wealth has also been disrupted by anti-black sentiments. The Greenwood District, more familiarly known as “Black Wall Street,” was destroyed by a white mob from May 31st — June 1st, 1921 in what is now known as the Tulsa Race Massacre. The massacre reportedly started with the case of Dick Rowland, a teenager who was accused of attacking a white female operator. The community was divided over the issue: a white mob crowded over the courthouse in hopes to attack Rowland while Black men gathered to protect the teenager from a possible lynching. It is hard to say what sparked the following events. The white mob went into the Greenwood District and terrorized the community. Approximately 1200 homes were burned, 35 blocks were burned and an estimated 300 black people were killed. The mob looted businesses and destroyed the homes of those who lived there. It was not just everyday citizens that were committing these violent acts. Some reports say that police officers also took part in this. As a result of the chaos, the Oklahoma governor declared martial law, calling in the national guard to settle the town.

After the massacre, white people moved on with their lives, while Black Americans were forced to pick up remnants of their own. When the police came in to settle the situation, they arrested black people, not white. According to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, there were never any charges pressed for the criminal acts committed on that day. In addition to this, many white Americans tried to erase the event altogether, with many news reports being brushed under the rug. This sort of erasure helps to feed into the racist ideology that black people are inherently lazy, or have little to no business acumen. When in reality, as shown with this historical event, black people are financially astute but it is the country in which they are living that prohibits such a success to occur.

Now, there is no question that Black Americans who were present during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre had to endure great pains; Many had to watch the businesses they built up, burn down to ash. However, this massacre also feeds into the discussion about generational wealth. Generational wealth is essentially wealth that has been past down from one generation to another. If you are able to leave your children with wealth (ex. assets: like a business) “then you are contributing to the growth of generational wealth in your family.” The 1921 Tulsa Massacre prohibited Black Americans from taking part in this process —  a process that could help level out the wealth disparity between them and their fellow white citizens. In addition to this, the events that took place during this massacre is a direct response to the racist comment, “Well that happened *insert any number of years here. Black people should get over it.” The Tulsa Race Massacre demonstrates how history has a direct effect on current events. Black people cannot “get over” the racist acts committed against their ancestors because it directly affects them today.

The History of Anti-Blackness in the United States and Canada

Image Source: History

Yet, the United States is not the only country to harbor anti-black sentiments. Canadians often pride themselves on being a better, kinder, less racist version to their American counterparts. However, this way of thinking can be troubling for a number of different reasons. For one, Canada is not absolved from performing destructive acts of racism; it’s just better at hiding it. As Jane Gerster and Olivia Bodwen write, there are two versions of Canada’s “origin” story. One tells the story of benevolent Europeans who came across a vast piece of land where they could “build their ideal democratic states that reflect western ideals.” The second story tells a much darker one, where colonization not only stripped indigenous people of their land but permitted genocide against them as well. It also led to Africans being forcefully brought over to the Americas for labour. For a very long time, Canadians have been telling themselves the former story and hiding the latter. 

One of the main reasons Canadians carry this “holier than thou” sentiment is because of the nation’s association with the Underground Railroad. This system allowed approximately 30,000 enslaved men, women, and children to reach Canada and to settle into a newfound freedom. However, as the Global News reports, slavery was present within the Canadian borders 200 years before the Underground Railroad. New France, for example, had a history of slavery that went back to the colony’s genesis in the 1600s. According to records dating back 1759, the majority of the slaves were of indigenous backgrounds. However, there were enslaved Africans present as well because of the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. Slavery lasted long after the British took over the colony in 1763. The new colony, now renamed British North America, replaced many of the enslaved indigenous people with enslaved Africans. Unlike the United States, enslaved Africans made a much smaller proportion of the population in British North America. As a result, “the worst traits of slavery in America” like the use of overseers and the forcible reproduction of enslaved peoples did not happen in Canada. With that being said, slaves were still seen as property to white Canadians and were subject to physical and sexual abuse. The slave trade was abolished in 1807 and the practice of slavery was abolished throughout the British empire in 1834. Although there may be a point of pride in Canada for being a safe haven for many enslaved Black Americans through the Underground Railroad, we would be remiss to forget our own history with the institution of slavery. 

Similar to what happened in the United States, the illegalization of slavery did not mean that Black Canadians would receive the same rights as their white counterparts. The actions done by the City of Halifax against Africville is another example of Canadian anti-blackness. The community was founded in the mid-18th-century by Black Canadians. In the mid 20th century many of its residents were forced to live in considerably inhumane circumstances. Despite paying taxes to Halifax, the residents were denied access to clean drinking water and proper sewage services by the city. Instead, the city invested in building “a prison, a garbage dump and an infectious disease hospital near the community,” forcing many of the residents to relocate. Many Africville residents were against the forced relocation and instead wanted to further develop the community. Despite this, the Halifax city council voted to remove “the blighted housing and dilapidated buildings in the Africville area.”. They promised the residents that a process of “urban renewal” would take place where they would be moved to “superior housing” in Halifax. Not only did this not happen, but the city also sent garbage trucks to move residents and their possessions. The city started to “expropriate the land” in 1964 and finished in 1969. Many Africville residents moved to major cities like Winnipeg, Montreal, and Toronto. The ones who stayed in Halifax felt forced to live off welfare. Similar to what happened with the Tulsa Race Massacre, many residents found themselves not only losing land that their family had owned but also the generational wealth and self-sufficiency that came with that.

The History of Anti-Blackness in the United States and Canada

Image Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia

Schools are oftentimes the first place where a black person has their first interaction with anti-blackness. For example, in the fall of 2019, in Edmonton, Alberta, 11-year-old Emmell Summerville was asked to remove his durag because it violated school policy. What happened next was more disturbing: a retired police officer and current School Team Youth Advisor Rick Cole connected Summerville’s clothing to the affiliation of a gang. When Summerville recounted the story to his mother she went to the school the next day to discuss what had happened. After 10 minutes the principal called the police in claiming that she felt that her safety and the safety of the students were under threat because Summerville’s mother began to yell and scream. An audio recording of the incident as well as a recount from Summerville’s mother disproved this. As Tayo Bero writes, within a day an 11-year-old was accused of being a part of a gang, and his “rightfully angry mother is not only dismissed by her concerns but also made out to be a criminal.” With incidents like this, schools are oftentimes breeding grounds for discriminatory practices and psychological violence. A 2017 report found that black youth living in one of the GTA’s most diverse school districts deal with “ with low expectations from teachers and administrators, stereotypes about their commitment to the school and intellectual abilities, as well as far more severe discipline compared to their white peers.” Many times racialized children, especially black children, have to work twice as hard in a toxic environment just to be favourably noticed by their teachers. 

Black people around the world are exhausted from the day-to-day strain that is put on their lives by racism in the US and Canada. It is important to note here the overt displays of racism (ex. Calling someone a racial epithet) is not the only problem. The silent ways that racism works can oftentimes be more insidious and hard to bear. If you are a non-Black person “respond with compassion and action.” This action can take many forms: educating yourself on not only the overt forms of racism but the systematic forms. Go back to your younger years and look into leaders of the civil rights movement that your school may not have adequately covered (ex. the story of enslaved Black Canadian woman, Marie-Joseph Angelique). Most importantly, listen. Listen to what Black Canadians and Americans are saying: incidents that have possibly traumatized them, stories of strength and resilience, etc. At this point in time, one should not be ashamed to not know about all historical events, but they should take the initiative to look into them. This is especially important when the events that are happening today are the direct result of a history of anti-blackness.

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The History of Anti-Blackness in the United States and Canada