Teaching the African Diaspora in Canada

Black Loyalist Heritage Centre
DSU students in front of the Black Loyalist Centre

As a scholar of African American history, I teach students about the experience of Africans in the Americas. Through survey courses and upper level undergraduate courses I teach students more than names and dates or contribution/compensatory history.1 For example, I take time to share this difference in my survey courses (both in African American History to 1865 and from 1865 to present). I explain to students that the course will not just illustrate how certain Black people “added” to an already cemented history, or focus solely on the “exceptional” Black leaders.  Instead, the course objective is to understand the African Diaspora by comprehending the interplay between social factors like gender, race, capitalism, and white supremacy and the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow segregation and how it has affected Black peoples and their lived experiences.

One of the first discussion questions I ask is about the term “African Diaspora.” The African Diaspora generally refers to the geographical locations from where the transatlantic slave trade forcibly displaced African peoples. While sometimes called the triangular trade due to the shape of travel and exchange between Europe, Africa, and the Americas, the transatlantic slave trade is more so a crisscrossing of peoples and goods across the Atlantic Ocean for European profit.  One outcome was that financial gain from African enslavement in the Americas (i.e. capital generated from human bondage and cash crops) went back to Europe.  This occurred within European colonies that belonged to the Dutch, Spanish, and English.  Second, capital generated from slave labor benefited the European continent in the Industrial Revolution.2

699900The transatlantic slave trade, as Michael Gomez concludes in Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South, created the basis for what we call African American culture. Gomez contends that everything from African American dress, religion, music, food and general ways of life stemmed from the dozens of different ethnic groups that survived the Middle Passage, the six-part journey that started with kidnapping Africans from the continent’s interior, and ended with their enslavement in the Americas.

The African Diaspora, to which the institution of transatlantic slavery gave birth, is central to a course focused on the pre-1865 period. Students learn that as early as the 1400s, Europeans first indentured and then only enslaved Africans for capital gain via cash crops and the building of what would become North, Central, and South Americas.3 Eventually, after Bacon’s Rebellion, European inability to successfully enslave Native Americans, and the failure to indenture enough Europeans, Africans became the source of forced labor.

But as I lecture on the institution of slavery, the slave trade, and the diasporic life Africans created, many of my students still do not see their country or even their continent as really part of the African Diaspora. We watch Roots, the television miniseries, and although I point out places where the slaveholders go to Annapolis (1 hour and 45 minutes west of Delaware State University where I teach), what they see on screen is not what they see in their everyday lives.4 This is difficult. In my earlier blog post, “A Slave Cemetery at Serenity Farm,” I wrote about the cognitive dissonance that professor and archeologist Mark Leone discusses during his excavation of the Wye Plantation. “When you excavate, there is no pain,” he states.  “What you have to do to understand the evil of slavery is read the Maryland Slave Narratives and you will think you are in the deepest part of the most vicious south.”

These two points– the historical sites and the contextualized narrative – have to come together for a full  understanding of the African Diaspora. And a trip to Canada–learning and seeing the African Diaspora in Canadian history–became an opportunity to do just this.

Canada plays an important role in the long struggle to freedom, especially during the years of institutionalized slavery.  It is filled with stories of “Canaan.” This makes Canada a great place for students to study in order to get a sense of the African experience outside of the United States. Canada is close enough to be affordable for many students but far enough away to give them an international experience.

Last year, I created and led my first short-term educational excursion to Canada. This year was my second (click here to read more about it).  My pedagogy of African American history, the diaspora, and the implementation of the educational excursion was key to this process.

I conceptualized the trip as the class–not an extension of the class. When I advertised my trip to all  students, faculty, and staff at DSU, I envisioned it as a way to take my teaching and class into the community.

I built this trip from the ground up. Finding a tour company on my own provided me with the autonomy to plan a specialized trip. I designed an excursion where students would interact with “teachers” of Canada’s African diasporic history. I made sure we did not only rely on the tour company to find a tour guide from their directory or from the tourism sector. Instead, we opted for guides and docents who knew the geographical areas we traversed and connected them to the African Diaspora.

The autonomy I had planning the trip with Four Winds Tours allowed me to keep affordability and comfort front and center without comprising the purpose of the trip. It was important that we pace the trip to avoid fatigue, and arrange days where we could comfortably walk to our activities. We stayed downtown in a very nice hotel and had 3 dinners at local restaurants. The cost for participants was roughly $1650, which  included the round trip flight, food, transportation, and admission to all activities. A DSU grant covered some of the expenses.

African Heritage Tours
Staff of the African Heritage Tour (Dr. Carolyn Thomas on the far right)

I wanted an up close and personal tour of the communities, establishments and people – the peoples of the Diaspora. African Heritage Tours, owned and operated by Dr. Carolyn Thomas, helped us understand the local perspective. Riding around Africville, North Preston, Darmouth while listening to Dr. Thomas, her daughter, and another staffer discuss the communities in which they grew up was invaluable. As a community leader, Dr. Thomas shared insights on the African Diaspora locally. We learned, for example, that she was instrumental in making arrangements for Rosa Parks to receive an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from Mount St. Vincent University. A catered lunch at the home of Dr. Thomas’s niece, Mrs. Gina Mae, illustrated the hospitality we experienced on our visit to Canada.

Picture 3-Martha Mutale at Caribbean Bliss [Kami Fletcher]
Dr. Audrey Jones, Martha Mutale, and Dr. Cherisse Jones-Branch at Caribbean Bliss
Further, I connected local groups who were active in addressing the current issues of African Nova Scotians.  Through St. Mary’s University’s SMASS (St. Mary’s African Student Union) we met Martha Mutale, who welcomed us to Halifax, provided great dinner conversation, and offered a unique student perspective of Nova Scotia.

The tour provided students with an opportunity to visit Dalhousie University where we listened to lectures by Dr. Isaac Saney, Dr. Chike Jeffers, and Dr. Barbara Hamilton-Hinch. Their presentations centered on the history, culture, identity, and current state of Nova Scotians.

Dr. Barbara Hamilton-Hinch lectures
Dr. Barbara Hamilton-Hinch lectures

As I reflect on this trip, and others I have organized, I think studying abroad is an excellent way to deepen students’ understanding of a subject. Too often, students of color–and students at HBCUs–do not get to experience any type of international travel. Limited access to funding and institutional support, location, time, and costs all prohibit these experiences. Even shorter, week-long faculty-led educational excursions can be difficult to afford. As an instructor, I am committed to bringing an affordable and enriching study abroad experience to my students at DSU. The combination of tours led by trained local guides and docents–especially those with a knowledge of black history–and the exposure to key historical sites ensured that students would leave with an enriched understanding of the geographical importance and historical significance of the African Diaspora in Canada.

Kami Fletcher is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Delaware State University. She received a Ph.D. in History from Morgan State University in 2013. Her research centers on African American burial grounds, Black towns, and early 20th century Black female undertakers. Follow her on Twitter @kamifletcher36

  1. Gerda Lerner popularized contribution and compensatory history in “Placing Women in History: Definitions and Challenges,” Feminist Studies (1975): 5-14.
  2. The quintessential work on this idea is by scholar Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).
  3. For more information on the transition from Africans as indentures and then only utilized as enslaved persons, see T. H. Breen and Stephen Innes, “Mine Owne Ground”: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore 1640-1676 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).  See also Engel Sluiter’s “New Light on the ’20 and Odd Negroes’ Arriving in Virginia, August 1619,” William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 2 (April 1997): 395-398.  Also, the story of Anthony and Mary Johnson best illustrates this transition.  See chapter one, “Emergence of Atlantic Creoles in the Chesapeake,” in Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2000).
  4. To date I have only showed the 1977 version; starting fall 2016 I will show the recent remake of Roots.
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Comments on “Teaching the African Diaspora in Canada

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    Thank you again for a wonderfully educational trip!

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    thanx mucho for this report! it would be a great continuation and extension of this splendid teaching project to cross the Atlantic and learn about the African diaspora, caused by (neo) colonialism and enslavism, but ongoing, in the European “hinterlands” of the transatlantic…to widen the perception even more…

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      Sabine, thank you and I am absolutely planning an educational excursion to London, Liverpool and (possibly) France for 2018. The international slave museum is at the top of the list! I will be sure to blog about it!!

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    This is wonderful way to learn and do research to bring new ways for learning of the African Diaspora with field school to the people of our communities.

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