We're Rooted Here & They Can't Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women's History // Review

Article excerpt

This collection of essays about African Canadian Women--Black women--developed out of concern "that the history of Black people in Canada and of Black women in particular is missing from the pages of mainstream Canadian history" (from the Introduction). However, in their introduction the authors also acknowledge the works of 12 Black Canadian women who have published books on the history of Blacks in Canada.

Taken together, the essays provide a rich woman-centred tapestry of Black life in Canada. Their histories unfold from their escape from slavery through the underground railroad into post-emancipation life in settlements and cities in Canada. Using both original and secondary sources the six essays examine the social, political and economic conditions which shaped the existences of Black women in Canada "from their arrival...to the immediate post-war period." Although the authors provide evidence for the existence of Blacks in Canada since the 1600s, the actual lived experiences which from the basis of the essays date from the 1700s to the late 1900s.

The well-researched accounts of Canadian slavery of Blacks correct the persistent misconception that Canada was only a benign observer of American slavery. They also provide information on the Black women as political participants, freedom advocates, educators, farmers, women pioneers, community organizers, religious purveyors and more. They challenged their oppression, cared for their sick, supported their poor, rescued their community from tyranny, educated each other and laid the foundations for the later twentieth-century "upliftment" efforts. These essays challenge the credibility of all the history written about Canada which makes no reference to the presence, lives and experiences of Blacks.

The book offers a comparison of the migration patterns and social experiences of the earliest Black women in Canada, and their descendants, with aspects of later-period Black female immigration to Canada. The collected works also show that although the slavery-driven exodus of Black women into Canada was fundamentally different from later period migration of Blacks, on the whole, the post settlement experiences of both groups bear similarities.

Some of the historical accounts provide intimate examination of the lives of outstanding Black women: Harriet Tubman (freedom/resistance fighter), Margaret Garner (mother), Harriet Shepherd (mother), Mary Bibb (educator), Mary Ann Shadd Cary (publisher/journalist). These women engaged in some of the most courageous human feats of all time, and in some cases so little was found about their full lives that their stories appear in one paragraph. Of all the fleeting accounts, that of Marie-Joseph Angelique must be read by all women. Even through brevity Angelique's episode is philosophically expansive; she stands apart and above.

Some of the essays acknowledge gaps in the historical records of the Black women but the authors turned this absence of data into a compelling methodology. The gaps in official records about Black lives so clearly identified by the authors emphasized the institutional antipathy of white Canadians to Black presence in Canada. These gaps in recorded information about Black community and family life are also seen to be indicative of the widespread educational barriers imposed on Blacks of that period; educational disenfranchisement was cogently related to the experience of slavery. And Bristow, for example (p. 69-142), raises awareness of this by her strategic questions necessitated by the unrecorded life scripts and experiences of the women: "Where," she asks, "did these women come from?... Were women single or married? Were any of them widowed? Did they have children, and if so how many? …