Richard White

explorations in place and time

Travelling backwards to the Underground Railroad

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reflections on a week in Ontario, Canada

After a days walking in the city, leaving facing backwards watching skyscrapers shrink to distant stubs, it struck me that Toronto Ontario sounds like some kind of palindrome. Not quite reading forwards and backwards just strangely changed with the same sounds if not the same letters. Clickety-clack looking back heading from Toronto to London Ontario with more ons than offs and certainly I already needed more than the mere horizontal control so kindly provided by the pavements of the Indian Road.

I was in Canada with a group of colleagues following the increasingly strange trail of the Underground Railroad as part of a project called Phantoms of the Past. Some of the Phantoms proving to be barely remembered ghosts other white settler zombies, obscured and reluctant spectres of colonisation retaining something of their evil DNA. Indian Road is a pleasant tree lined suburban street, gentle bends in the way reflecting its past as a trail to the lakeshore far older than the oldest houses. Ghosts of indigenous people trading with settlers passed me as black birds and black squirrels heading down to the great water. The art gallery acknowledge their presence and invisibly a First Nations locative app geo-tagged the line on the map bring me to this disturbance in the geometric certainty of city street grid.

Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto

Riding backwards on a train stopping twice at each station as it was too long to stop just the once, arriving backwards in the dark to London Ontario. Jet lag compounded with colony lag, settler lag, time lag, map lag, lag lag. The names on the map and in the white people’s talk are as if from the time travel story where the consequences of stepping off the Jurassic path, mutated over the traversed millenia, is manifested in spelling and unease. London Ontario has the River Thames running through it, Essex and Chatham-Kent just down the road but both to the west; it has a Cheapside, an Oxford Street and a St Paul’s Cathedral where once on the eve of the American Civil War a preacher gave a fiery sermon in favour of abolition to a crowd roaring him on. I am disoriented. Emancipation day now barely resonates as a whisper on Civic Holiday.

The names are disorienting in the way they carry settler memories, perhaps once inscribing the land with familiar names as security. Maybe the English were first to settle there, but for sure I know where the River Thames is and it’s not in Canada, that river had a name people used before the settlers arrived. They lost it, couldn’t be bothered to learn it, were afraid of it, thought their names were better. Imposing white familiarity and security, names and languages are suppressed but in the coyote, the sound of woodpeckers and in graffiti and in sound of water in the river, there is phantom memory.

And those Canadian red breasted birds may carry the name settlers gave them but for sure, they are not Robins. I know, however, that the starlings are indeed starlings thanks to a white Shakespeare enthusiast who released a flock in New York for the sound of their calls and perhaps the shapes of their pestilential murmurations. Dissonant sounds, dissonant names, the calls of wild green parakeets in London are not the same. This is white colonial stuff, the erasure and rendering invisible of indigenous culture. Powerful and moving presentation by Jenna Rose Sands showing zines documenting Atrocities Against Indigenous Canadians.  Learn the history of the land you build your life on.

State sanctioned residential schools tore children from parents in an organised strategy of  indoctrination disconnecting them from their culture. Residential was essential because a Canadian Prime Minister once said, learning at home would simply produce savages who could read and write. The last residential school closed in 1996. A young generation trying to put something back together, the original design broken.

Meanwhile at the terminus of the Undergound Railway all was not what it seemed. An intensive immersion begins at Dawn, at Chatham Kent, continues via Dresden and burst in my head at a village no longer called Wilberforce but Lucan…imagine your favourite dodgy aristocrat. Where a museum dedicated to the memory of an Irish family feud and massacre can’t seem to find an authentic relic, confines the history of a settlement of pioneering Black people from the United State to a few panels in a corner and offers the entire history of all the people who were there before to a small glass topped container the size of a shoe box. The unlit box holds random finds, tiny arrowheads and other carefully shaped stones from indeterminate periods of human wayfaring in this once wooded space. We visit old grey wooden houses moved by flatbed truck from other places to serve the massacre myth. Sensed loving presences in the warm wood of the upstairs room in the house where the last resident was born belie the part the building was shipped in to play in this drama. I closed the front door latch remembering Bachelard, and snapped the lock shut.

Up the road in the graveyard, broken memorial stones beside a shed, almost cared for, a cluster of graves from a Black settlement that uprooted themselves from Cincinatti’s racist laws to make a farming community in Canada. Perhaps then to find an insidious racism, the slow white supremacist poison the European settlers brought with them. The farms are gone and people dispersed, some graves remain. Almost cared for. We spend a moment with them. Reflecting.

I came to London Ontario backwards on a slow train and we travelled from one displaced place to another in an entangled geography of colony and myth. We were, I was told, to visit Uncle Tom’s Cabin and so on that first day we pile into the american yellow school bus of childhood memory and old hippy delight for a journey that would indeed take me furthur. Although that was not the destination indicated. It was to Chatham and not the one in the Medway ports and Dickens bleak marshes. We were going to Uncle Tom’s Cabin at Dawn. A white man visiting Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a bit tricky from the start as I had in my head the idea of an ‘Uncle Tom’ as an insult directed to a black man overly compliant and grateful for being ‘given’ his freedom by white masters. So our white party arrived, with just one black professor and no black students. I had never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I had a vague idea of some of the names of the leaders of the Underground Railroad…Harriet Tubman er um Josiah Henson…er um. But I knew my Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey. This was terrifying on so many accounts was I going to be complicit in sustaining the celebration of the original Uncle Tom?

We took our seats in the auditorium and the curator a descendant from escaped slaves who had made their homes and farmed nearby began. He opened with a tv quiz show adaptation, Black Jeopardy. At once relief that this story appeared to be being owned by black people and not told by whites as I had feared, and the core of my prejudices that had left Uncle Tom’s Cabin unread. At the same time terror that my general knowledge might be racialised as white. The knots liberal whites tie themselves in. In the spirit of the yellow bus I tuned in and was reminded of the terrors and scale of the forced migration that this place represented, in the museum in the memorabilia of that hell, a brass manilla possibly manufactured along the River Avon, Bath, England.

Thus I got to know about the communities of escaped slaves, self emancipated black people and others who bought and leased land in the area. Looking out over glacier scraped undulating land from the door of the Cabin in the community named with such hope as Dawn, we were told that, once, as far as you could see there were black settler farms. I learned about Josiah Henson and his difficult relationship with his novelised life as Uncle Tom and the significance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in focussing the abolition movement. Following the thread, the construction of the still compliant gratefully released slave and the white generated iconography of the Underground Railway I came back to that white supremacy, white settler, legacies of slaveownership, colonisation.

Unravelling these threads of Uncle Tom I learned about a newspaper owned and edited by a black woman, Mary Ann Shadd, the black provincial press, here was once an advanced thriving region of black communities. We learned about resistance, the young escaped slave recaptured and an entire community turning out to stop the train and release him. The independent black business woman who refused to leave a whites only part of a cinema, at least we know about Rosa Parks…but I had not heard of Viola Desmond, now on the Canada 10 dollar bill. Communities that sent soldiers to fight in the US Civil War to free their enslaved brothers and sisters. Connected communities that followed the progress of escapees up the Railroad and prepared a welcome home for them. Ringing the freedom bell and building a house for them. Communities dispersed but still connected, an annual homecoming attracts thousands.

At Buxton there were no healing waters, the coke machine was lined up with museum text and disturbingly normalised images of the brutalisation of enslaved people. Visitors look back at random African cultural artefacts from the timbers of a thoroughly sanitised slave ship experience. I wondered who this was for, to shock white children or for white liberals to look at. Here was the ghost of Uncle Tom in a display about railway porters, leaving the land for servile work, pushed off the land maybe as that poison of white settler supremacy gathered strength. Just a few black farmers left, agribusiness moving in, the alliances of white capital and the absence of social repair was poignant. Here in Buxton there was contact between those who had had their land taken away from them and those who had been taken from their lands. I wanted to know more.

I wanted to know more. I wanted to know more about the white people, how did this happen. In the cluster of moved buildings that remain of Dawn, near Josiah Hensons grave, we sang in the chapel a song from the Underground Railroad ironically better known by the English as their rugby supporters anthem. In the brief silence maybe we reflected on our accountability in this. Seeing the branding irons of the master’s initials and having been beaten severely in his days of enslavement for trying to decipher and learn to read those letters, Henson vowed never to learn to read or write but toured with his story, ghosted and published by someone else. A white man perhaps. Then repurposed by Stowe, a white woman.

We learned of Henson’s intervention at the Crystal Palace 1851 World Fair when the white US shipper would not release the wood shipped from Henson’s land and prepared by him for display, Henson had painted on the wood the information THIS IS THE PRODUCT OF THE INDUSTRY OF A FUGITIVE SLAVE FROM THE UNITED STATES, WHOSE RESIDENCE IS DAWN, CANADA.

So much more now fast receding in memory as I travel again facing backwards leaving London Ontario in the street light glow. The plaques the plaques….Time to look forwards and reflect…walking whilst white.

I visited Uncle Toms Cabin Historic Site Museum

Chatham-Kent Black Historical Site

Lucan Area Heritage and Donnelly Museum

Author: rswpost

Exploring connections between landscape, place and people. on foot and online. Working collaboratively and harnessing the participatory potential of social media.

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