Black history

No comparison: Viola Desmond was a heroine in her own right

To understand its history, Canada needs to move beyond comparisons to the United States

“Canadian history, insofar as its Black history is concerned, is a drama punctuated with disappearing acts” – Dr. Afua Cooper, The Hanging of Angélique

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With the latest addition to its series of Heritage Minute videos, Historica Canada has helped restore to the drama of Canadian history the lost pages that feature Viola Desmond’s role in shaping the country’s story.

The newest video, launched just in time for Black History Month 2016, provides a beautiful, powerful and inspiring retelling of Desmond’s righteous stance against segregation in 1940s Nova Scotia. The story begins in 1946, when Desmond attempted to watch a film in a segregated theatre in New Glasgow. A young and successful entrepreneur, she refused to adhere to the theatre’s racist practice of relegating Blacks to the upper balcony while the lower seats were reserved exclusively for white people.

Black women are seldom given their due regard and recognition.

After taking a seat in the “whites only” section, Desmond was assaulted and forcibly removed from the theatre by a manager and a police officer. She was taken directly to jail, where she spent the night, and fined the next day in court.

Centring Black courage in Canadian history

Desmond’s experience almost certainly would have been lost to the silencing silos that seal most of Canada’s racist past, except that she refused to let that happen. She quickly enlisted the support of the Nova Scotian affiliate of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as well as that of local African-descended Nova Scotian church leaders and community members.

With community and advocacy support, she went to the press, causing great controversy and an eruption of public dialogue on race relations across Nova Scotia. Her actions and community-supported campaign against the anti-Black racist injustices she experienced ultimately set the tone and tenure for the anti-segregation advocacy that would follow in Nova Scotia and other parts of Canada.

Historica Canada’s homage to Viola Desmond beautifully captures her story and re-inserts this great moment into Canadians’ collective memory and public consciousness. The importance of this is reflected in the words of African Canadian scholar Cecil Foster:

In Canada, the norm has always been to either place blackness on the periphery of society by strategically and selectively celebrating blacks only as a sign of how tolerant and non-racist white Canadians are (as is seen in the recurrence of the Underground Railroad as a positive achievement in a Canadian mythology of racial tolerance) or to erase blackness as an enduring way of life from the national imaginary.

The new Heritage Minute essentially does the opposite of the trend that Foster nods to. It does so by centralizing a story of African Canadian resistance to Canadian-brand and Canadian-bred racism and recognizing the incident as one of the most significant moments in the country’s history.

It is also significant because, whether in Canada or elsewhere, the lived experiences of and historical acts of resistance engaged in by Black women are seldom given their due regard and recognition. As such, it is a welcome, important and positive development that Canadians are thinking, writing and speaking with renewed fervour about this courageous and committed Black Canadian woman, Viola Desmond, and her significance to Canadian heritage.

Comparisons do a disservice

There are variously and immensely positive, empowering and inspiring things that can be taken from the public rediscovery of Desmond within Canada’s national narrative. However, despite what many may think, referring to her as Canada’s Rosa Parks (as many media outlets have) is not one of them.

Pointing to the Civil Rights Movement heroine Rosa Parks when retelling Desmond’s story is presumably well intentioned and done to provide the general Canadian public with a familiar and easily recognizable reference to help deepen understandings of the importance of celebrating Desmond in Canada. In principle, this is a good thing. But the comparisons actually do a disservice to Canadians and are especially detrimental to the experiences and justice claims of African Canadians.

On the stage of Canada’s unfolding national drama, African Canadians have played an indelible role.

The most obvious problem is that Desmond’s resistance took place in 1946, nine years before Parks’ actions sparked the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Given that the NAACP was instrumental in galvanizing and mobilizing support in both Desmond’s and Parks’ cases, it is quite likely that the lessons learned and gains made from Desmond’s actions in some way informed the organization’s advocacy and organizing strategy almost a decade later.

The larger concern with explaining Desmond through the actions of Parks is that it perpetuates the widespread practice of only recognizing, honouring and valuing African Canadian experiences and historical contributions when they have an African American precedent or reference point. This contributes to the pervasive invisibilizing and undervaluing African Canadian stories that have no comparative reference within the hegemonic narrative of the U.S. Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

In other words, it has the effect of situating Black people outside of Canada’s official story. This is an important measure of why, with frequent frustration, African Canadians are asked, “Where are you really from?”

Canadian history and memory should not be determined by America’s national myths about Black people. African Canadians have their own rich, vibrant, independent, powerful and emancipatory history. This point is lost and reality is denied when Canadians look too quickly to the United States to situate and develop understandings of the role and impact of people of African descent in Canada’s national story.

Beyond the script

In sum, Viola Desmond’s story of resistance to anti-Black racism is significant on its own terms when considering the complex and dynamic particulars of the history and hardships that African Canadians have faced in Nova Scotia and Canada writ large. But we never get to an honest, in-depth and inclusive exploration of Canada’s own unique history of anti-Black racism when we constantly frame the issue in direct relation to U.S. history.

On the stage of Canada’s unfolding national drama, African Canadians have played an indelible role. This can never be fully appreciated or honoured by Canadians of any ethno-racial background if African Canadian history continues to be read through the acts of an African American script.

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