Lessons from the 6ix: INdependence is a misnomer
4 July 2017 Day 7
in = not
dependere = depend
de = from + pendere = to hang
“I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us…This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine…What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim..to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes…” What to a slave is the 4th of July? by Frederick Douglass
I spent America’s Independence Day in Canada meditating on the etymology of the word independence and how you can’t celebrate the founding of a nation without acknowledging the contributions of the native peoples who were there BEFORE the conquest by Europeans AND further, without acknowledging the role of EVERY group that inhabits the land. So to call this INdependence day seems to suggest that you don’t need to depend on anyone to build and to grow. This is a misnomer in my opinion. I am not sure what word would be more fitting, but this just came to me as I reflected on the writings of several Black orators & authors:
- Frances E.W. Harper’s “Bury Me in a Free Land,“
- Langston Hughes’ “Let America be America Again,“
- David Walker’s “Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World,” and
- Frederick Douglass’ speech on the meaning of the 4th of July to a slave.
Until the end of the day, I didn’t realize the ways that these works connect to the histories of African peoples in Canada. I was totally unaware of the influence of the American Revolution on Canada’s formation – that British loyalists (Black and White) migrated here after the colonies won their fight for independence from England. I was almost disappointed that my grad school research/presentation on Lord Dunmore’s 1775 “Emancipation” Proclamation (John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore of Norfolk, VA) yielded no mention of this connection. I knew that slaves were promised freedom to join the loyalists and that many stayed north after the war, but not that some moved to Canada…until I took part in AirBnB’s Toronto Black History Walk with Jacqueline Scott.
We met at a subway station far down Bloor Street West away from the city centre – at the edge of Rosedale, one of the most affluent areas of the city. There were six of us (from various places in the USA and one from the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Jacqueline, our local scholar. Our first stop was in Cabbagetown – home to natives, then, affluent Canadians, followed by Irish immigrants and now, gentrified again. Here, we learned about Mathieu DaCosta, the first African to reside in Canada(1600’s) during the era of fur trading with the natives. At the time, DaCosta and others spoke a Basque-pigeon (Portuguese) dialect. Olivier LeJeune was the first Black slave sold in Canada in 1628. It was interesting to learn not only Black Canadian history, but also history in general – to stand inside a building that held a Prohibition Era distillery frequented by Al Capone and that also held a prominent jazz club; to visit the hall that hosted abolitionist rallies with Frederick Douglass and others; to learn that poverty is not automatically associated with being Black in Canada. Interestingly, there was even Black Canadian historical connections found in the affluent Toronto Necropolis down from a farm. The tour was interactive – Jacqueline allowing us time to ask questions and clarify ideas.
Before ending at a Caribbean cafe, we were able to stop in one of Toronto’s oldest churches, St. James Cathedral, where slaves would celebrate (England’s) Emancipation Day every 1 August since 1833. You can even see references to indigenous interactions and the Crusades in Africa in the stained glass windows. Canadians still hold Emancipation Day celebrations throughout the country. Being a student of history with an interest in Underground Railroad and indigenous peoples, being able to learn from Jacqueline was an honor. It was an inspirational experience for me to be able to share and learn with other people of color and to think about publishing some sort of collection of my own travels and studies in these topics. When I travel, I try to find ways to connect with locals, to do something different and to learn more about the history of the area. This was a perfect opportunity to do all of that, but attending Shakespeare in High Park was just as meaningful. On the walking tour, we learned of the connections between the peoples of Asia, Africa and the indigenous peoples of the Americas due in large part to economic racism (i.e., slavery-era trading, New World trading,etc).
Similarly, before the production of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, the audience was reminded of the fact that we sat on what was once First Nations land – home to the people of the Huron Nation, the Wyandot Nation, the Haudenousanee/Iroquois Confederacy (the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora), and the Anishinaabeg (Odawa, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Oji-Cree, Mississaugas, and Algonquin) Nations. This brought me back to the Canadian national anthem lyrics AND Canada Day performances and exhibitions around the theme, “Our Home on Native Land.” While I can’t say that King Lear is my favorite Shakespearean play, I’m glad to have had the experience because it broadened my understanding of independence. The Canadian Stage company made an interesting adaptation – electing to feature a woman as Lear vs. a king. With power comes responsibility and very little liberty. Thinking of the story from the perspective of Lear’s daughters – Regan, Cordelia and Goneril reminded me that women of the court weren’t really free to do as they wished. They weren’t allowed the independence of thought or action – an interesting notion when juxtaposed with current events and after having just seen Wonder Woman.
The biggest realization on this 4th of July is that you are NOT free if you don’t know your history, understand your place in the world and have the wisdom to pass on that knowledge to future generations. The road to TRUE independence is paved with knowledge, wisdom & understanding.