15 August 2022

The Dearth of a Nation

by Sheila Nopper

In this article, Afua Cooper blows the whistle on Canada's history of slavery and gives a voice to unsung heroes of the past.

Afua Cooper is a poet and writer whose work includes Memories Have Tongue, Utterances and Incantations: Women, Poetry and Dub, and (with co-editors Peggy Bristow and Dionne Brand) We're Rooted Here and They Can't Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women's History.

In this article, Afua Cooper blows the whistle on Canada's history of slavery and gives a voice to unsung heroes of the past.

Afua Cooper is a poet and writer whose work includes Memories Have Tongue, Utterances and Incantations: Women, Poetry and Dub, and (with co-editors Peggy Bristow and Dionne Brand) We're Rooted Here and They Can't Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women's History.

Her forthcoming book, The Hanging of Angelique (Harper Collins, 2004) will chronicle the story of the slave woman, Marie Joseph Angelique, who was hanged after she was convicted of starting a fire that burned down part of Montreal. Cooper was also one of the pioneers who, along with Lillian Allen, helped to establish dub poetry (rhythmic political poetry that emerged primarily in Jamaica, Canada and the UK in the late 70s)as an art form in Canada.

In its musical dimension, she has contributed to compilation recordings that include Womantalk:Caribbean Dub Poetry and Your Silence Will Not Protect You. She recently released her independently pro- duced debut CD, Worlds of Fire In Motion (see Herizons, Summer 2003). Herizons contributor Sheila Nopper spoke with Afua Cooper about the political issues and stories explored on her recording.

Herizons: A theme that runs throughout your new CD is that there is an umbilical cord to Africa that links you to the spirits of your ancestors, one that nourishes the flames of resistance against the racism that exist today for both women and men.

Afua Cooper: That is a beautiful summary of my work. I come back to this theme of the African diaspora -of Africa's children abroad -because I see people of African descent in this so-called 'new world' still fighting a lot of terrible battles. It's something that I cannot escape from. In Ontario and parts of the United States, black men are victims of the prison industrial system. As we go out west (in Canada), we see Native men being incarcerated, and then, in the former Caribbean, South American and African colonies, we see people in those countries now being burdened by the debts from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

So we are in the postcolonial or neocolonial phase that they're calling globalization.

Your CD — and much of your work — honours the contributions of unsung heroes. Some have had limited historical documentation, but you are also uncovering voices that were never recorded in academic history books. This seems to me to be a feminist approach in that it acknowledges that the personal is political. How do you see it?

Cooper: We talk about diversity in Canada and we talk about multiculturalism, and we celebrate those things. But when you look in the halls of power -the academy being such a hall — or in other places of power, this diversity is not reflected, especially in the curricula and the faculty. So you may have a diverse student population, but when you're actually looking at the history and sociology courses, they're all very, very Eurocentric…So it's important that these voices come up because you know (black) people my age in Canada went to high school without seeing their faces reflected in the textbooks. And my children's generation also come up and see themselves as invisible. And then if the grandchildren's generation is still invisible — this thing has got to stop! We have to make multiculturalism not just something that we talk about every Caribana, or whenever you dress up in your native clothes. It has to be a reality. It has to be something that we see. So it's my passion that I do this work, that I say, 'Hey, you know, Mary Bibb started a school in her home for black children in Ontario because black children could not get an education in the public school which was a segregated system.

Mary Ann Shadd started a newspaper — one of the first women publishers in Canada.' Yet, when you read many feminist texts, her name is not there. What's going on? Why is it when we talk feminist foremothers, they're all white? What about the brown women and the black women and the yellow women and the red women? These lives are as important as the lives of people from the dominant culture.

I'm Canadian and I would like to hear the multiple stories that make up the history of this nation. It is critical. Marie Joseph Angelique is mentioned in one of your songs and her story sheds light on one of Canada's lies— or myths: that we didn't have slavery in this country.

Cooper: I just came back from St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, across the river from Brockville, Ontario, and I met people there who had Ph.D.'s in Canadian History who did not know that slavery existed in Canada. These are people who spent seven years studying Canadian history! You know, we play up the Underground Railroad — and I must say that I do have a publication called The Underground Railroad: Next Stop Toronto (laughter) — and that's history that Canada loves to present for national and international consumption. It's the image that people have of Canada, as a haven, and indeed it was a haven during this period when oppressed African Americans came over into Canada. But they say when Britain conquered Canada in 1760, something like 4,000 people — black people and native people — had been enslaved, and slavery continued under the British dispensation until 1833 when it was abolished. Many academics know about it, but it's not something they talk about.

Yes, many people are not aware of it.

Cooper: The problem with academic texts is that only 50 people read them. So you may write a brilliant article talking about slavery in Montreal or wherever, but only your colleagues know about it. In that way, it remains hidden and the history of black people remains invisible. The academy is the most elitist of the institutions because knowledge is so confined and knowledge is so restricted. "

The Child is Alive" was inspired by a birth scene in the movie Sankofa, and in that same song you also conjure up the spirit of Nanny, the Maroon freedom fighter in Jamaica. Could you elaborate on the connection between those inspirations?

Cooper: I invoke Nanny a lot. She's there in the psyche of every Caribbean person and every freedom— loving person around the world who knows about her. Nanny was a Maroon Queen and Maroons were free Africans who lived in free villages in the mountains in the Caribbean — Nanny was Jamaican. These people, their ancestors, escaped from slavery and established free communities in slave societies. So you could see that their daily life itself was a revolution, because to be living free in a slave society meant that the slaveholders and slave owners plotted every day to wipe out your existence because you're such an example to the enslaved people of freedom and liberation. So for us, Nanny was a wonderful person because she was also a military leader, a strategist, a midwife, and a sorceress — just a very able leader — and she's my inspiration.

In the movie, Sankofa, a slave woman runs away from slavery and she's caught. For her punishment she's given 100 lashes and she dies, of course, her belly bulging in front of her. Then a midwife on the plantation says, 'Well, the woman is dead but let's try and save the child.' So I linked the midwife woman to Queen Nanny of Jamaica and said this is Nanny's niece. Of course it's all poetical.

In your song/poem "Memories Have Tongue," you share some of the stories of joy and sorrow of your grandmother's life. It strikes this chord deep down inside which resonates with the essence of who we are — as women and as human beings — which is ultimately about love.

Cooper: My grandmother, the one in this poem, is my father's mom, and she was really about love. She loved the grandchildren, and my parents always said that she was the reason why we were bad, because they couldn't discipline us in her presence. She would always be taking up for us or buying us stuff and all the things that grandparents do, or are supposed to do. She just showed us unconditional love.

Often times, you do not get unconditional love from your parents. When you start to rebel or wear tight pants or baggy pants or whatever, usually your grandparents will say, 'Oh, it's okay.' I think everyone deserves to have that one person in her or his life who shows them unconditional love or who is an enlightened witness. The beautiful thing about that kind of person — it could be a grandparent, a friend, it could be anyone — is that such a person will say to you, 'I've been there. I've been living so long. Believe me, this will pass.' A person like that gives you hope. But she was also a great storyteller. She has since passed on, but she has given me a wonderful gift and I'm ever so grateful. She gave me the gift of story.

And I want to thank you for sharing your gift of storytelling with Herizons.