George Elliott Clarke
From “Speaking My Truth: Volume III : Cultivating Canada” (Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2012)
In autumn 1978 I was eighteen, attending a ‘Youth Multiculturalism Conference’ in Halifax, Nova Scotia, when I first heard the term indigenous used to refer to the historical black—settler—population of Nova Scotia. If memory serves, it was my then-mentor, the brilliant actor, gifted poet and playwright, and polemical journalist Walter M. Borden, c.m., who employed the term to distinguish those of us of long residency in Nova Scotia, in Canada, from more recent black arrivals, most from the Caribbean and a smattering from the United States and from Africa. I probably first began to use the phrase myself then, for, as I was beginning to voyage beyond Nova Scotia, I began to encounter brother and sister blacks from other parts of the African Diaspora, who would wonder, like many white folks, just who the hell was I, anyway, and what strange black culture did I possess, when bagpipes could make me weep almost as sentimentally as any Motown hurtin’ song. In identifying myself as an “indigenous Black Nova Scotian,” I meant no disrespect to the real Indigenous people, the Mi’kmaq, nor was I out to erase their claim to original presence, to an absolute indigeneity. What I was trying to do—like Borden and Africadian activist Dr. Burnley “Rocky” Jones, o.n.s., lld—was demarcate this small, forgotten band of African (more or less) Americans from other, newer Black Canadians because we were, in fact, different, despite our allegiance to the rhetoric of pan-Africanism.
Moreover, our difference was native. Unlike the newer African Canadians, we could not look back only one generation to some other native land where we were either the majority or could wield significant power. Nor could we appeal to any foreign embassy to intervene with the governments of Canada and Nova Scotia to address our concerns. We were not only renters in cities; we held land in impossible-to-farm districts, which were practically reserves, from which we filed mornings to work as cheap labour in white homes and in white-controlled cities and towns. (Note that some of those Caucasian settlements had explicit “sunset” laws, until the late 1960s, demanding that we clear our “Coloured” selves out of their areas by sundown.) In stark contrast to the first-generation West Indian immigrants especially, we were considerably indigent and proverbially illiterate, with few valued skills and little class mobility, except to jump on a train or bus and vamoose to Montreal, Toronto, Boston, or New York. Too, save for relatively isolated Preston and its environs, we were—are—visibly, multiply Coloured—especially in the Annapolis Valley, on the South Shore, in the Nor’east, and even in the Capital itself. Our ‘blackness’ is indelibly Métis—brown, tan, copper, gold, yellow, indigo, ivory, blue, even white. No matter how much we align ourselves, culturally and politically, within the larger African Diaspora, and even with our kissing cousins in America, we were—and we remain—a community apart. Scholars even recognize the existence of African-Nova Scotian Vernacular English, a version of African-American Vernacular English that is as distinct as the variants spoken in Liberia and in Sierra Leone.
Because I felt—as a writer and a scholar—that “Black Nova Scotian” or “African-Nova Scotian” or even “indigenous black” did not and do not answer to our specificity as a broken-off branch of African America, landed and abandoned in coastal British North America, I invented the term Africadian to describe us, our essence, and our being and I dubbed our communities (our land-base) Africadia. My 1991 coinages have not—yet— won wide adoption or circulation, perhaps because some think I am resituating Black Nova Scotians as “Black Acadians.” No, there is no such intention in my neologisms. Frequently, I have pointed out that “cadie”—from which Acadie/Acadia may derive—is a Mi’kmaw suffix that means abounding in. If so, then Africadia means, literally, (a place) abounding in Africans. Far from articulating an inaccurate vision of African Nova Scotians as all being Afro-Acadiens (though some Africadians are, indeed, “Afro-Acadiens”), I was and am, in my neologism, signalling our attachment to Mi’kmaw territory.
In her monograph, African Nova Scotian-Mi’kmaw Relations, Paula C. Madden charges that my espousal of “Africadian” identity is, although “an innocent notion,” still “a statement of claim against the land and territory of Mi’kma’ki.” For Madden, then, ignorant and nearly insolent are Africadian complaints regarding the city-council-directed obliteration between 1964 and 1970 of Africville, a centenarian ‘Coloured’ district of Halifax: protests against its destruction, and calls for reparations and reconstruction, obscure, Madden posits, the primary claim of the Mi’kmaw to that land. In effect, ex-Africville residents are crying over lost land that was never truly theirs to lose. Madden also maintains that attempts to conjoin Africadian and Mi’kmaq struggles have seen the former overshadow the latter. Moreover, she suspects, Afro–Abo collaborations show awkwardness, as in the operation of the Indigenous Black and Mi’kmaq (IBM) Law Program at Halifax’s Dalhousie University. Madden also charges that the phrase “indigenous black” flouts pan-African solidarity, separating newer immigrant blacks from those whose roots are not indigenous, merely deeper.
Madden’s charges are significant, and I do feel compelled to reply, though my response may not succour either her or hardcore black nationalists or First Nations irredentists. Many Africadians—if not most—are Métis; that is to say, mixed with First Nations peoples, eminently—but not only—the Mi’kmaq. I owe thanks to Dorothy Mills–Proctor’s novella-length memoir, Born Again Indian: A Story of Self-Discovery of a Red-Black Woman and Her People, for my improved understanding of just how extensive black and Mi’kmaq unions have been, and the past, Herculean efforts that black and red couples made to hide this biracial and bicultural heritage from their children. According to Mills–Proctor’s memoir, blended African and Aboriginal households would pretend that a child’s light(er) complexion was due to a supposedly European or Caucasian ancestor. The reason for this deception was the hope that Negrophobia and anti-Native prejudice could be mitigated if a child or children were passed off as mulatto, as opposed to half-breed. How vast was this purposeful camouflage? It is impossible to know. But there are many Africadians with Aboriginal and/or Mi’kmaw ancestry who know nothing of their roots and who are a mystery both to themselves and to pure-bred Natives. Because of their African features, it is difficult for them to broach the subject. It appears to be much easier to claim white blood than Indian blood. Indeed, many African-Nova Scotian communities and surnames are, simultaneously, essentially Métis and Mi’kmaq: see locales such as Three Mile Plains, Mount Denson, Truro, and Lequille, et cetera, or look up surnames like Croxen, Francis, Johnson, Robinson, States, et cetera. None of this information challenges Aboriginal primordiality in so-called Nova Scotia. However, the truth of black and Mi’kmaq métissage complicates Madden’s too-easy and too-pat division between the two communities, and also her too-simplistic notions regarding the political surrealism of Africadian land claims (i.e., primarily around Africville, but possibly extending to other historical, rural, ‘black’ communities) and the political realism of Africadian Pan-Africanism.
The uncomfortable fact (for some) is, African-heritage peoples and the First Nations are intertwined prodigiously in Nova Scotia, even if both entities are ignorant of this reality (and history), and they have much in common, beginning with DNA and extending to cultural assertion. In my own family—matrilineal Aboriginal and African—I see aunts, uncles, cousins, et al., who can pass, not as white, but as Native. When I look at First Nations representatives, or meet our people in my travels, I see folks who resemble many Africadians. Yes, I do identify myself—and I’m usually so identified by others—as being black. Yet, I boast, around my ears, what older folks call “Micmac curls,” and my handsome, gorgeous tint—I’ll call it gold cinnamon—is common to those of us of some Aboriginal admixture. I take pride in uncles, aunts, and cousins who never gave up passed-down knowledge of forestry work, wilderness cultivation and survival, herbal medicine, and all the lore associated with these activities. When I consider my inherited, uncultivated, three-quarter-acre lot on Highway 1 in Three Mile Plains so utterly wild with spruce, pine, and crabapple trees, blackberry bushes, and anthills, I do feel—romantically—one with the land and my ‘Native’ cultures. When I consider the late and esteemed Africadian basket weaver, Edith Clayton, I wonder just how much of her craft was indebted to West Africa and how much to Mi’kma’ki. When I consider the late and heroic Mi’kmaq activist Donald Marshall, Jr. (1953–2009), once wrongfully convicted and jailed for murdering an Africadian teen (Mr. Sandy Seale [1953–1971]), a crime actually committed by a white derelict, I understand afresh just how similar have been Aboriginal and Africadian experiences of white racism in ‘New Scotland.’ When I read the late and gifted Mi’kmaq poet Rita Joe, P.C., C.M., LLD (1932–2007), I feel that I am reading a sister, with the only major distinction between us being her access to a truly Indigenous tongue, one remote to me. When I read the African–American cultural critic bell hooks (Gloria Watkins) and her essay, Revolutionary Renegades: Native Americans, African Americans, and Black Indians, (1992) about the political bonds between African Americans and Native Americans, I feel that she could have—should have—added a paragraph on Africadia. Occasionally, mischievously, I almost feel moved to redefine “Africadian” as denoting a Métis who identifies with African-American culture. Then again, perhaps I should offer such a redefinition, given that many of us culturally black Africadians have also been accepted formally into the Eastern Woodlands Métis Nation Nova Scotia (EWMNNS), a fact that defines us legally as “Aboriginal” under section 35 of Canada’s Constitution Act 1982. Yes, I use us deliberately here: I joined the EWMNNS in 2010. Why? So that my daughter (who also has some Native heritage on her Québécoise mother’s side), if she so chooses, might explore this inheritance when she is older.
Too much of what I write above belongs to sentiment, abjectly and practically apolitically. So what if I am part-Aboriginal, or that Africadians are also often part-Mi’kmaq, part-Cree, part-Cherokee, et cetera? Big deal. More importantly, how much do I—or you—know about the wanton wrongs perpetrated against the First People of the Americas? Mills–Proctor’s catalogue of these evils includes, “diseases, alcohol, residential schools, eugenics, Christianity (forced conversion), the treaty frauds, racism, constant abuses by the invaders who still act within a culture of occupation.” She concludes with an awful prophecy: “The adverse effects brought to bear on the indigenous peoples by the Europeans, will mark the history of the Americas until the last days of the last days.” Nay, she is right. Open John S. Milloy’s “A National Crime”: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986, and read therein of the state-sponsored cultural genocide and physical assaults meted out to Aboriginal children and youth, for more than a century, to begin to appreciate just one example of national, organized, anti-Native terror. Milloy demands we remember “the terrible facts of the residential school system, along with its companion policies — community removal, the Indian Act, systemic discrimination in the justice system…” and he need not stipulate the forbiddance of the electoral franchise until 1960, mandatory sexual sterilization, plus many other violations of elemental civil and universal human rights.
Yet, I could place Milloy’s necessarily Gothic account of sinister priests and rapist teachers, Machiavellian bureaucrats and Orwellian bishops, beside an even more Sadean and sanguinary document; namely, Bartolomé de Las Casas’s The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account, which chronicles the multi-million-victim genocide, conducted by Christian Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors, pirates, and enslavers against Caribbean, Mexican, and South American Natives. In fact, it was to forestall the extinction of Aboriginal people in the southern Americas, that Las Casas and others advocated the importation of African slaves—as a humanitarian relief (albeit misguided), in the early sixteenth century.
Thus, we need to recall, with Mills–Proctor, “the abuses [both] against black slaves and occupied First Peoples.” I do want to say with her, “I could no more separate their [twin] struggle[s] for freedom than I could remove the Indian DNA from my body.” This point is not rhetorical. In March 2004, Doudou Diène, Special Rapporteur on racism, racial discrimination, and xenophobia and related intolerance to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, delivered a report declaring that Canada practises racism in particular against African-heritage and Aboriginal peoples. Whether anyone likes it or not, “The Red and the Black” is not just a title by French writer Stendhal; it is a potential alliance and, sporadically, an actual amalgamation. (For one thing, as there is a Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs under the Government of Canada, so there is a Department of African–Nova Scotian Affairs under the Government of Nova Scotia.)
The great First Nations filmmaker, Alanis Obomsawin (with whom I have been privileged to enjoy several serious conversations), has commented on the pernicious “lack of education [in Canada] concerning the country’s history” and on her personal work “fighting for the inclusion of Aboriginal history in the educational system.” Here is where any effective African-Canadian and First Nations reconciliation must begin, with an acknowledgement of each other’s historical repression, genealogical bonds (as Métis), and our mutual efforts, sometimes in coalitions (usually not even of convenience, but of happenstance), to insist on our rights and respect—right in the stony, white-supremacist face of the state.
Surely it is in our mutual interest to insist on First Nations land claim settlements and respect of treaty rights. It is also in our mutual interest to support reparations for the exploited labour of Africans. (Stolen First Nations resources and African slave labour together built up the wealth of modern Western Europe and the Americas, especially its northern reaches.) I do go further: I propose that one per cent of the property taxes paid by all Canadians, everywhere in the nation, should be dedicated to First Nations peoples, in perpetuity, to allow for their strengthening and flourishing. (Yes, money can’t buy happiness, but it sure can improve living standards.)
Whether indigenous black is an appropriate term or not, I must let others decide. Yet, there are Black Indians or Red/Black people (to use Mills–Proctor’s term), and there are many Africadians, such as myself, who may claim such a title. What I do know is: no African-Canadian community may properly thrive until we have understood and embraced the Indigenous People and their campaigns for justice, and that we champion these struggles as our very own.
Identity George Elliott Clarke
Being pur-sang métis, my charisma’s
Ambiguous—like dark wine that’s rosé,
And my tongue sports obscene mutterings—
Cusses—squawks and squiggles, ripples and raps,
Clear and superficial as ink, trenchant
As prayer. The carnal, ungodly poet,
That’s me—acid-bathed, not sugarcoated,
A monster ecstatic, a jabbering chimp….
Should I be as colourless—but bloody—as
Whitehall, The White House, Versailles, and La Tour
De Bélem, and other slave monuments?
I lark with crows, make Camelot a Hell.
I’m rooted in the Sargasso. My smile
Backstabs: I chuck Bibles at you like stones!
George Elliott Clarke , O.C., O.N.S., PH.D., LLD (etc.):
I was born in 1960. My identity was shaped most profoundly by my parents, then my cultures—African/American/Aboriginal, English, Christian (Baptist), Nova Scotian, working-class/middle-class, Canadian, Occidental, ‘Leftist,’ intellectual, artist. No wonder I’m such a mess of (I hope, productive) tensions! I resent white Nova Scotian racism, but I love my native province, which has been supportive of me quite absolutely. I love The Holy Bible and the African United Baptist Association of Nova Scotia, but I am, as one of my professors once said (though he was just guessing), “a sinful bastard.” Damn! I pray that I have these slightly redeeming qualities: (1) an effort to be a decent father, (2) an attempt to be a true writer, and (3) an endeavour to be a scholar in service to my various communities. The latter, public ‘works’ have seen me work as a journalist, editor, parliamentary aide, legislative researcher, and professor, first at Duke University (1994–1999), and subsequently at the University of Toronto (with visiting stints elsewhere). I pioneered the study of African-Canadian literature, editing two anthologies, a special issue of a scholarly journal, and publishing “Odysseys Home: Mapping African-Canadian Literature” (University of Toronto Press, 2002). My imaginative works consist of poetry, a novel, a screenplay, four plays, and three opera libretti. My scholarship and my art have brought me many awards and rewards. I’m thankful for all, but I still feel I’ve got much left to do. Next up? An epic poem: “Canticles: Hymns of the African Baptists of Nova Scotia”…
3 thoughts on ““Indigenous Blacks”: An Irreconcilable Identity?”
Thank you very much for sharing. I feel a strong connection with your beliefs but I don’t or won’t ever, fully know them because I am a ‘whitey’ albeit a ‘whitey’ that has I feel, multicultural roots. I have been asked by black and brown people a couple of times throughout my life so far about my tribe (I was born 1961 in Tasmania but spent 10 years from age 8 to 18 growing up in PNG). I wish I knew my tribe but suspect that I have a multicultural heritage that includes French / Viking (Normands), Anglo Saxon, Celtic and more recently North American Planters including potentially native Americans and ‘Africadians’! My skin is naturally very olive and my empathy towards native cultures much stronger than many of my ‘whitey’ family and friends. My mothers great great great grandmother Bridget or Mary Burrows married Jobe Hicks in Nova Scotia 1809. From some of the records I have been able to find, Bridget’s father may have been involved with shipping around the Caribbean. Their daughter, Sarah Emily Hicks married a soldier from the UK, William Robins, in Nova Scotia about 1833 and after moving back to the UK they migrated to Tasmania about 1843. I am very interested in Hicks and Burrows relationships with native Americans, M’etis and ‘Africadians’. Was Bridget Burrows M’etis or ‘Africadian’? I feel she was 😉 Kind Regards Paul Berry
We feel thevsame way in America ! We cant proveany African connection s by documents but they shove it in our faces . While our elders say different . I do know peronaly were dealing with pet names but are one brown or Cooper colored from the island to the maimland . Please share your story on our morning show every weekday at 8am east !
We have a open panel with no judgement
we want to get history right
Not be right to fit a narrative .
Hope to hear from you bro! ✌🏻 and ❤
It so interesting how I cannot find any Afro-indigenous here in Canada! Everything points to the south. There can’t be any justice if there is no truth or tractability of Afro-indigenous presence here in Canada! We are in the age of light and not darkness, the oppressors must do better so we can have an equitable Canada for the generations now and to come. Knowledge is the light!