“In justice … to the heroic female who was willing to endure the most extreme suffering and hardship for freedom, double honors were due.” William Still.
This quote from Still perfectly describes how heroic Black women were during the slave trade and how they should be celebrated for their acts. However, when looking at Canadian history you will struggle to find much work on Black women in the slave trade, for several reasons. One of these reasons is because Canadian history has seemingly written them out because to feature them would mean Canada having to acknowledge that slavery happened and was fully legal here. Also, Black women specifically are written out potentially because of the negative stereotypes surrounding Black women, stereotypes which originated during the slave trade. When exploring resistance in slavery and slave rebellion women are again further excluded again because Canada doesn’t want to admit that slavery happened and because slave masters would have been reluctant to admit their slaves had out smarted them and escaped so these stories would have rarely been told or investigated.
One text which does tell the story of Black fugitive slaves is The Refugee; or, the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada. Related by Themselves, with an Account of the History and Condition of Colored Population of Upper Canada by Benjamin Drew. It is an important text because it contains narratives of Black women who escaped slavery. It is an interesting text in the way it addresses the testimonies of fugitive slaves in Canada. Firstly, Drew introduces the topic of slavery, explaining that it was the most “irritating subject of discussion between the North and South” and something which he disagreed with as he was an abolitionist. After this he introduces different cities or towns in Canada before noting down the testimonies of Black escaped slaves who lived there. In the introduction, he addresses the argument that Southerners use to justify slavery, that in Southern cities there is order and the streets are quiet because Black people do not have freedom and the belief that slaves are happy. He disputes this argument because he explains that if a slave is happy it is because “he is ignorant of his condition” and he then uses the testimonies to support his argument that slaves are unhappy and they escape to Canada to finally be free.
Have you heard of Harriet Tubman?
I’d be surprised if you haven’t.
Harriet Tubman is arguably the most famous heroic and defiant women of the Slave Trade and hers is one of the first narratives we come across in the book. Her narrative is one that is taught throughout high schools across the world, however she is primarily associated with America, not Canada. Although there are remnants of her Canadian legacy in Canada such as the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and its Diasporas at York University. We can assume that she is largely remembered in American history as apposed to Canadian because she was raised a slave in America and returned there multiple times to help hundreds of fugitive slaves escape to Canada through the underground railroad. Not only was she incredibly brave to return to a country where she was a wanted criminal but she defied expectations of a Black person and as a woman and therefore is rightfully celebrated. However, her celebration could allow for some to argue that heroic women are given equal weighting in history, especially with Harriet Tubman being recently added to the $20 in The United States but Drew highlights other equally defiant women who also deserve recognition.
A key woman who’s narrative deserves celebration is that of Mrs John Little who was a domestic slave in Tennessee until she was an adult when she was sold away from her husband and employed in hoeing cotton, a job she struggled with because of blistered hands and the heat. She was obviously a clever woman because after working here for several weeks she had persuaded her owner to also buy her husband and so he came to work on the plantation too. They quickly planned their escape together, but her husband had to leave earlier because he was threatened with the ‘paddle’ for disobeying the master. After his escape Mrs Little truly showed her defiance by refusing to give up his location or tell the master anything of their plans, she even comments that despite being put under watch she was “too cunning” for the master and managed to escape. After being reunited with her husband they had a very tough journey to reach Canada which included them nearly being killed after being noticed as runaway slaves, so it’s clear to see that Mrs John Little – despite her first name not being given in this book – was clearly an impressive, defiant woman. Her husband sums this up when he says “I did not realize it then; but now I see that she was a brave woman.”
Mrs John Little wasn’t the only woman who was cunning and defiant during their time in slavery, another testimony that supports this is that of Nancy Howard. Nancy was a slave in Maryland who explains that in slavery “when you tell them the truth, they whip you to make you lie. I have taken more lashes for this, than for any other thing, because I would not lie.” Her refusal to lie is a clear indication of her resistance to slavery, her refusal to be controlled and her expression of her autonomy. This rhetoric of Black slave women refusing to be controlled and using ‘small’, or passive, acts of rebellion is translated into fiction as seen in Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes. In this novel the protagonist Aminata learns to read and write without her masters permission and then when she escapes she is able to build a life for herself because of these skills. These narratives depict the harsh realities faced by both men and women during these times but more importantly they give a voice to the Black women whose voices have been left-out of mainstream Canadian history.
As I previously mentioned, these narratives are found under chapters titled by location. It was incredibly interesting to read the narratives of people living in London, where I am currently studying because it’s a piece of history that seems long forgotten when I ask people here about local history. Drew does an excellent job of explaining the circumstances of every city and London had schools open to children of all colours however the population of Black children was very small because of the prejudice they faced from white children and even the white teachers. This very fact is probably why this history is forgotten in London, other communities and Canada as a country, because people want to forget that Canada had, and still has, racist beliefs.
Drew creates a book which explores multiple slave narratives to create a collection that accurately depicts the life of refugee slaves from all areas and genders. The result is the creation of a powerful book which every Canadian should read to fully understand the history of slavery, the underground railroad and racism/prejudice in Canada.
http://etcanada.com/video/776582211623/the-birth-of-a-nation-women-of-rebellion/ A video discussing a film which explores rebellious and defiant Black women during slavery.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSpQfvd_zkE Video of Viola Davis’ acceptance speech at the Emmy’s where she quotes Harriet Tubman and addresses racial inequality.
http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/harriet-tubman Video exploring the life of Harriet Tubman and her amazing contribution to the underground railroad.