Charmaine Nelson worked to paint a picture for the audience, one that detailed the experiences of Canadian slaves and the horrors they endured throughout history.
The renowned scholar, known for her groundbreaking contributions in the fields of black Canadian studies, visual culture of slavery, and race and representation, delivered the first 2017-18 public lecture of Brock’s Walker Cultural Leader Series on Oct. 19.
Her address drew more than 150 people who gathered at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines to listen to her presentation, Colonial Print Culture and the Limits of Enslaved Resistance: Examining the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth-Century Fugitive Slave Archive in Canada and Jamaica.
A professor of Art History at McGill University, Nelson has published seven books and held a number of prestigious research chairs across North America. She is currently the William Lyon Mackenzie King Visiting Professor of Canadian Studies at Harvard University for 2017-18.
As the first and currently only black professor within the discipline of Art History at a Canadian university, Nelson, through her website, is an advocate for the field of Black Canadian Studies.
Her latest research, which she shared in her talk, attempts to understand the black experience in Canada by examining fugitive slave advertisements for details about the process of creolization in slave minority (temperate) and slave majority (tropical) locations in the British Empire.
Nelson explained how she reconceptualizes fugitive slave ads — once produced by slave owners seeking to recapture their runaways — as portraits of enslaved people. The ads can provide information on a group of people who often leave no record of their own, she said.
These portraits, however, are imperfect, since the subject is an unwilling participant and the depiction is written by the white slave owner. In addition, only slaves considered sufficiently valuable were pursued through advertising.
Fugitive slave ads provided detailed racialized descriptions of enslaved people, including complexion, hairstyle, clothing, language, accents and bodily marks. In some cases, the ads offered rewards for the recapture of a fugitive slave, encouraging white participation in the criminalization of fugitive slaves.
While the ads provide a portrait of enslaved people, they are also a lop-sided truth, Nelson explained. Some owners maligned fugitives with sweeping generalizations about their character, while others detailed specific crimes the enslaved person was alleged to have committed. Such descriptions helped associate blackness with slavery and criminality.
Nelson draws on a variety of archival sources in her research to flesh out these portraits, tracing fugitive slave stories through estate ledgers, bills of sale, poll tax records and workhouse and jail ledgers.
Nelson’s talk also explored the link between print and slave culture. Printed newspaper ads in the 18th and 19th century permitted white slave owners to assert their ownership over long distances.
Although printers facilitated slavery by asserting rights of white people to own slaves, the abolitionist movement eventually used the same fugitive slave ads, with their references to injuries, scars and branding, to show the horror of slavery.
As Nelson pointed out, many Canadians are unaware of Canada’s history of enslaving black and indigenous peoples.
“Slavery is not a black history,” she explained, “but a multi-racial, transatlantic history. Who were the slave owners, the ships’ captains, the printers, the jailers?”
The narrative of the Underground Railway, which Canadians eagerly embrace, spanned a period of about only 30 years, Nelson explained. She went on to challenge listeners to consider why the preceding two centuries of slavery in Canada have been erased from history.
In concluding her talk, Nelson encouraged the audience to change the lens through which they see history. The opportunities in the field of Canadian slavery history are immense, she said, while directing her words to students. Since so few people are studying the black Canadian experience, there are many contributions to be made.
The talk is part of the 2017-18 Walker Cultural Leaders Series, organized by Professors Keri Cronin, Linda Steer and Amy Friend the Department of Visual Arts and funded by the generous legacy of Marilyn I. Walker.