March 11, 2024

Professor Nelson discussed her research as well as her initiatives in uplifting the Black Canadian community with the Massachusetts Daily Collegian. Visit the Collegian, or read the article below!

The following article was originally published by Eve Neumann, Collegian Staff, on February 29, 2024.

Charmaine Nelson on Black History in the American North and Canada

By Eve Neumann, Collegian Staff

February 29, 2024

The American South is one of the most focused-on regions within the studies of slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Over time, the illusion that the American North and Canada have been “safe havens” for slaves to escape from the horrors of the South and tropical regions have been widely spread as fact. Studies on slavery in the American North and Canada are limited and the lack of historical studies in this topic has resulted in research gaps on the racism studied throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Charmaine Nelson, a University of Massachusetts Provost professor of Black Diasporic Art and Art History, is one of the few scholars studying the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the American North and Canada. Growing up in Toronto, and spending 17 years teaching at McGill, the repercussions of the erasure of history is evident to her.

Canada has an extensive history of slavery, with the practice lasting over 200 years in the region. According to Nelson, there is no history on the transatlantic Canadian slave trade taught in schools, and there is a lack of common knowledge that it even occurred.

“Canada and the U.S. North… [are] two regions that have completely neglected their histories of transatlantic slavery to the point of creating a mythology that says they were only abolitionists,” said Nelson. “The level of hypocrisy in the American North and Canada is the same in terms of the profound erasure of centuries of histories of enslaving,” she added.

Without the knowledge of this history comes the illusion of the “halo” around Canada’s head, she implied. The systemically racist systems that exist in America because of years of slavery, according to Nelson, are simply not as widely acknowledged in Canada.

“If you erase Canadian slavery and you know that transatlantic slavery entailed the enslavement of Black Africans, then you have no conception that Black Africans have a centuries long presence in your nation, so Black people are erased,” said Nelson.

From this, Nelson began studying the Black Diaspora and the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the American North and Canada intensely, publishing many books and articles and spearheading research within a field that very few are involved in.

As both an art historian and a scholar, Nelson frequently mixes her knowledge of art with her knowledge on transatlantic slavery. She explained that a lot of the art can be categorized as the “visual culture of slavery.” When focusing on Black Diaspora and the visual culture of slavery, Nelson’s work takes her everywhere. In the Transatlantic Slave Trade, her ancestors were dispersed from Argentina to the Caribbean, to Canada and to Europe.

“I pick where I’m moving but I understand that nationhood doesn’t and should not bind me in that, because the experience of the Diaspora is transnational and transatlantic,” she explained.

Right now, she is focusing her research on fugitive slave ads. Fugitive slave ads were advertisements placed by an enslaver when a slave would resist through flight. The advertisement would offer an extremely detailed description of the slave and then offer a reward if they were captured and returned but a threat if anyone were to help the slave. Nelson explained that enslavers were so invested in creating these fugitive slave ads because they were so economically invested in the slaves themselves.

Fugitive slave ads are some of the most detailed descriptions of slaves at the time and one of the best archival sources of depictions of the enslaved, Nelson explained. She pointed out that these fugitive ads are a stolen likeness of the slaves.

“That discrepancy between the stolen, unauthorized likenesses in print of people you are trying to re-enslave and the upper-class white person sitting for their marble bust at the same time is just hard to comprehend,” said Nelson.

Nelson is one of the first to provide such an extensive analysis into the Canadian fugitive slave ads. Many archives of these ads are not yet digitized, which Nelson points out is another blatant underdevelopment in the study of Canada’s history with slavery. If one wanted to do research on slavery in Jamaica, Nelson explained that they could “sit at home in our pajamas and find most of the primary research” because of its accessibility. To find information about Canada, one would have to go in person and study the microfilm.

Nelson has plans to dip further into the archives of her research. In November, her Slavery North initiative received a grant from the Mellon Foundation to expand her research. In the past, when collaborating on her research, the lack of scholarly knowledge about her field made it hard for Nelson to progress.

“They don’t push my research forward because they are asking basic questions… so where’s the opportunity for me to actually convene and sit, talk to share with, someone where they are working on Quebec and I am working on New Brunswick… hardly ever happens for us,” she said.

With the grant, Slavery North has plans to start a fellow’s program. There will be an undergraduate honors student, a master’s student, a Ph.D. student and an artist collaboration where they are each going to be doing their own research. With these researchers working together, Nelson’s hope is that the field will grow and the current researchers will help uplift other scholars.

“What I want to do is light a fire under this in terms of how I can help to induce rapid growth of these fields and to support the scholars, the artists and the students who I know are doing the work but mainly in isolation,” Nelson said.

Due to the lack of Canadian acknowledgement in their role in slavery and racism, Nelson is hoping to uplift the Black Canadian community, one of her methods being the launch of Black Maple Magazine, one of Canada’s first national Black magazines.

Black Canadians have long been shut out of the media landscape, Nelson explained. Even though the United States has more Black representation than Canada in their media, the experiences that African Americans have had culturally, linguistically and socially differs from that of Black Canadians.

“I got to the point where it’s like, I’m sick of not having any place that’s actually a Blackness that’s reflecting my national and ethnic experience,” Nelson said. “What does that mean, that I don’t exist? That my perspective doesn’t exist, that my culture doesn’t exist, my questions don’t exist?”

Black Maple Magazine offers not only academic articles (including one section titled Chrysalis, that features her past students works), but also pop culture, political articles, features and self-care and wellness.

Her health and wellness articles are directed specifically to Black Canadians, providing them with information that the Canadian health administration lacks in their predominantly white mainstream information.

“Anybody with interest in health and wellness might benefit from those articles but gearing them towards a knowledge of how those specific issues or products or illnesses affect a Black and a Black Canadian population more than others,” Nelson explained.

All of Nelson’s research and work is geared towards a better understanding of the Canadian and the American North’s ties with slavery and racism.

Nelson said, “There’s a level of hypocrisy in Canada that is hard to describe around these issues, because if you’re saying it never happened when it happened for centuries and then you’re pushing it on your neighboring country, like who are you? What are you really?”

There is now a shift in the academia of transatlantic studies. With the spread of Black scholars and Black students, those in academia are now beginning to change their way of studying to question their knowledge of history and to highlight different perspectives and challenge what has been known, she explained.

“Part of this shift is that there’s more Black people coming in to supervise Black students and other students who are open to having a different lens on these issues and these histories,” Nelson said.

Eve Neumann can be reached at @email.