Race in America (a self-education project)

There is part of me that really hesitates to engage with this topic, because I know I’m ignorant in many ways. And even though I live in America, I’m not American.[1] I’ve lived three years slightly north of the Mason-Dixon line, and one year slightly to its south, but I grew up and lived most of my adult life in Canada, and things are different there. I’m not saying that Canada is a magical post-racist paradise; we have plenty of problems of our own. But still … it’s just different.

On the large scale, our history is profoundly different, especially in regard to the history of black Canadians. There were no plantations in Canada. While there were African slaves present in the country, they were mostly house slaves or farmhands, and their total number seems to never have been more than a few thousands (the majority of whom were brought with Loyalist settlers fleeing the American Revolution). Abolition was enacted in Upper Canada (now Ontario) in the 1790s; the slave trade was abolished in 1807 by an Act of Parliament; slavery itself, ditto, in 1833. And Canada, of course, was the fabled last stop on the Underground Railroad. So… culturally, historically, it’s just a completely different beast.

On a more personal level, I grew up in Toronto — which is generally hailed to be one of the most, if not the most, multi-cultural cities on the planet. Over 50% of Torontonians are visible minorities; the city’s population hails from over 200 ethnic origins and speaks more than 160 languages. So that environment is my own baseline for normal.

But then I moved to the States, and began to realise that I had been thrust into the midst of a divided country whose politics and history and culture and racial tensions I didn’t really understand. (By the way, don’t let anyone tell you that Canada and the US are so culturally similar that they might as well be one country. Anyone who says that has never lived in both countries; it takes a lot more to unite a culture than a common language.) At any rate, I can frame my growing awareness with a series of snapshots from my first year or two in the USA.


Snapshot: We are talking with a married couple who entered seminary with us: she is black and he is white. They had previously lived in Columbia, SC. She makes reference to the fact that “Columbia is still fighting the Civil War.” I don’t understand what she means. As the conversation keeps going it gets spelled out: they left Columbia in part because of how uncomfortable they were as an interracial couple there. They were tired of being discriminated against. They were tired of being stared at in the street. She was tired of the people at her church not being able to tell the difference between her and the only other black woman in her parish.

Snapshot: Another conversation, this time with a classmate who grew up in the Deep South. He confesses that even though he knows it’s wrong, it’s still jarring to him to see whites performing menial or service industry jobs because culturally he expects those jobs to be filled exclusively by black or Hispanic people.

Snapshot: Hanging out with friends at their house, another couple from a southern state. He is telling a story about one of their son’s former teachers and refers to her as “from the islands.” I don’t understand what he means: “She’s what?” He glances awkwardly at his children (ages 5 and 8, or thereabouts). “You know… from the islands.” It dawns on me. “Don’t worry,” I tell him, “I’m pretty sure they already know black people exist.”


So what do I do with all this? The same thing I do whenever I want to understand something: I read. This has been a slow and sporadic project of self-education on the topic — I’ve read fiction and non-fiction, and of course many articles on the subject that I stumble upon or that cross my facebook feed. A lot of these have been read months or even years apart, but as I look through my book log I can trace their path as one of the particular reading trails I’m following. Here are some of the footsteps I’ve taken along that trail:

Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin: In 1959, Griffin, a white journalist, chemically darkened his skin until he could pass as black, and then spent six weeks travelling around the Jim Crow south. This account is drawn from the diary he kept over the course of the trip and was first published in 1961. His book opened the eyes of whites across the nation as to the real living conditions of black Americans; it also saw him hanged in effigy and having to move to Mexico for several years for his family’s safety. (I recognise the complicated nature of reading/believing/etc. the account of a white man pretending to be black rather than the account of someone, you know, actually black — but this is still most definitely worth reading. Here’s a good Washington Post article on Black Like Me.)

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (published in America under the title Someone Knows My Name): This sad and lovely novel by Canadian author Lawrence Hill follows the story of Aminata Diallo, an African woman captured into slavery at the age of eleven. She ends up as a slave in North Carolina, before making her way to Canada during the American Revolution. The title refers to the historical document known as the Book of Negroes, a register of black loyalists who escaped behind British lines during the war and were eventually settled in Nova Scotia. I re-read this book every couple of years; there is also a mini-series.

Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed by Jason Riley: This was set out on one of the Black History Month display tables and the rather provocative title grabbed my attention. I read it; I would say that it lives up to the initial promise of provocation but certainly provides much food for thought. Critics are divided; I’ve seen reviews that laud it, and others that pan it. It certainly checked off a lot of boxes for me in terms of looking for diverse viewpoints; I would be interested to read a direct response to it, if one exists.

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters: This novel takes place in an alternate, modern-day America where the Civil War never took place and slavery still exists in four southern “hard states.” The protagonist, Victor, is a former slave who now works as a bounty hunter for the US Marshalls, tracking down escaped slaves and infiltrating the abolitionist movement, for reasons that are… complicated, to say the least. It’s a harrowing book, not only because of the story that it tells, but in its parallels to life today. A line that struck me and has stuck with me (possibly slightly paraphrased): “When black means poor and poor means dangerous, pretty soon black means dangerous.” And isn’t that how it seems to go?

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison: I know we’re not supposed to admit it about seminal, classic texts — but this was a bit of a slog for me. It’s a long book, and dense, and at times I wished I were reading something a little more gripping. It was good — I’m not surprised at the place it holds on many “top” lists of 20th-century fiction — but it was slow when I wanted to be reading something fast (this is a reflection on me as much as on the book, I think). I may revisit it in a few years and see if my impression changes.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance: This is more tangentially than directly related, but I think that it still fits here. It seems that whenever the question of white privilege arises, someone starts asking, “Well, what about poor whites? What privilege do they have?” Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating book and answers the question of “what about poor whites” (at least those in Appalachia). The privilege of the hillbilly — which seems pretty scant, I think — is that, all else being equal, it is still easier in this country to have light skin than dark.

Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi: I haven’t read this yet; it’s currently sitting on the library’s hold shelves waiting for me to come pick it up. But I am especially intrigued that it is concerned with the history not of racist acts but of racist ideas — because, after all, does the idea not precede the action? I am looking forward to diving into this one after I get through the books ahead of it in my current to-read stack.

So that’s where I am. I know that I’m just dipping my toe into what’s out there and I have much more reading to do. And I may never understand as much or as well as I want to — but I am starting, all the same. Suggestions for further reading are always appreciated.


[1] Of course, this is a bit of a cop-out. I’m not American, but I do live here. And Anselm and Perpetua, by virtue of their birth, are United States citizens. So what happens in and to this country needs to matter to me, because one day it will matter to them.

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