Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 20, 2009

African-American Heritage Travel in “The Year of Obama”

It goes without saying that since the election of Barack Obama, the general travelling public has become even more aware of Black history than ever before. A frontier has been crossed; the United States of America and the world in general have moved forward. And, as is the case with all significant current events, history will assess how the “event” altered the course of events in human civilization.

Leading up to the election of Obama in the fall of 2008, I had the opportunity of visiting Albany, Georgia where many say the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. really began.

A visit to that city’s Civil Rights Institute was a moving experience (given especially what was imminent) but it was also an opportunity to become aware of the significant niche market of African-America Heritage travel.

A literary connection

Shortly after my return from Georgia, I also had the opportunity of reading Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes

“Let me begin with a caveat to any and all who find these pages. Do not trust large bodies of water, and do not cross them. If you, Dear Reader, have an African hue and find yourself led toward water with vanishing shores, seize your freedom by any means necessary. And cultivate distrust of the colour pink. Pink is taken as the colour of innocence, the colour of childhood, but as it spills across the water in the light of the dying sun, do not fall into its pretty path. There, right underneath, lies a bottomless graveyard of children, mothers and men. I shudder to imagine all the Africans rocking in the deep. Every time I have sailed the seas, I have had the sense of gliding over the unburied. Some people call the sunset a creation of extraordinary beauty, and proof of God’s existence. But what benevolent force would bewitch the human spirit by choosing pink to light the path of a slave vessel?”

─ From The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

(Note: This book has been released in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand under the title Someone Knows My Name.)

From a novelist’s point of view

Now I am going to go really out on a limb and declare that the most important lessons in life that I have learned, I have learned from novelists. And I will perhaps be even more provocative by saying that when novelists are especially adept at what they do, they fulfill many roles. They are philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, geographers (landscape shapes human culture), neuroscientists, idealists, and relentless humanitarians. The list could go on.

But what I admire most about novelists who engage in highly literate journeys is the power of their imagination; their ability to do excellent research but also to engage in imaginative identification. The latter of course is passed along to the reader.

There is no shortage of excellent to outstanding literature (fiction and non-fiction) written about the African-American experience and about the institution of slavery, but Hill’s book came at just the right time, in so many senses of the word.

The Book of Negroes is a both a story and history; also very comprehensive historically and dramatically. It is a story that is well-researched and which gives another important overview of Black history in North America.

But it is also a novel that takes the reader well beyond the obvious on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. And that is the freedom that good fiction permits; even though the more profound the impact of the subject matter on human civilization, the greater the responsibility of the novelist to “get it right.” And, although I had some minor reservations about the novel, in my view Lawrence Hill does get it right.

Fact and fiction

Integrating fact and fiction is always problematic; even in the conventional and non-fiction form of historical writing which is of course always subject to some interpretation. The New York Times called The Book of Negroes a “wonderfully written fictional slave narrative … populated by vivid characters and rendered in fascinating detail.”

And Hill’s “narrative” does indeed skilfully tell the full story at great length through a single character, Aminata Diallo, a young girl who is born in Bayo, West Africa, in 1745 and kidnapped and sold into slavery. The book follows her lifelong struggle to free herself and others from slavery. Her most significant achievement along the way may be learning to read, and using that primarily self-taught skill as a key tool in achieving her eventual personal emancipation, as ambiguousl as Hill depicts it.

But through his fictional account of the complex historical events that took an already existing slave trade to the Americas, Hill’s The Book of Negroes also serves as a touchstone for an exponential awareness of the proverbial “man’s inhumanity to man” especially as it devastated the lives of African slaves; and shaped forever the lives of so many of their descendants.

Understanding how African-Americans have played a pivotal and integral role in the evolution of North American history and culture, may well be the essential “travel experience” inherent in the African-American Heritage sites that now, more than ever, give us a critical outlook on human behaviour.

African-American Heritage Sites

There is of course no shortage of such historic sites and destinations to visit; and if African-American Heritage travel interests you, a good place to start is the National Parks Service site Our Shared History

Another good site is AfricanAmericans.com

Albany, Georgia is certainly a destination that is replete with meaningfulness and a profound sense of history, and a destination that has many more travel stories just waiting to be told.

The African-American-Canadian experience

But I would also like to draw your attention to two African-American Heritage sites here in Canada, both of which by the way are travel stories that may take you by surprise.

Birchtown/Shelburne, Nova Scotia

In 1775, the British were “losing it,” in more ways than one. Lord Dunmore, who at the time was the Royal Governor of Virginia, came up with a plan that he hoped might hamper the efforts of the rebellious colonists to achieve the independence that in hindsight is seen as inevitable; a tipping point had been passed.

Therefore, to any slave who would escape from his rebel master and fight on the side of the British Crown, Dunmore offered freedom. Almost immediately more than 300 Blacks made their way behind British Lines and formed what was known as the Ethiopian Regiment. In so doing they were hoping to strike a blow for the freedom of all Blacks.

When eventually the British realized they were losing the war, the British Commander-in-chief at New York, Sir Henry Clinton, issued the Philipsburg Proclamation. It stated that any Negro who deserted the rebel cause would receive full protection from the British, freedom, and land in Nova Scotia. Estimates suggest that many thousands of people of African descent joined the British. Ultimately however, they had to leave the United States and were subsequently evacuated from New York on a fleet of ships to Nova Scotia, and settled primarily in the area of what today is Shelburne County in the southeast part of Nova Scotia.

However, it was not as simple as it may appear. Anyone who chose to become a “Black Loyalist” and to emigrate to Nova Scotia had to have a bone fide certificate of freedom and to present it on boarding one of the vessels leaving New York harbour. This significant historical document is now called the Book of Negroes and is the title of Lawrence Hill’s book as it is published in Canada.

The Book of Negroes is considered the most important document relating to the immigration of African Americans to Nova Scotia following the War of Independence because it includes the names and descriptions of 3000 Black refugees who were registered as sailing on the vessels that left New York.

With a little poetic license and using a highly symbolic and dramatic device, Hill has his central character, Aminata Diallo, as one of the recorders who entered the names and descriptions of soon-to-be free African Americans in the Book of Negroes.

Birchtown , where Black Loyalists landed in 1783 was once the first and largest free African-American settlement in North America. Named after General Samuel Birch, who signed the papers to free Black refugees from slavery at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, it is located in Shelburne County on the northwest arm of Shelburne Harbour. In its collection the Shelburne County Museum has numerous artifacts from an archeological dig in Birchtown.

For more information, see also Historic Shelburne, and The Black Loyalist Heritage Society .

The Buxton National Historic Site and Museum

In southwestern Ontario, less than an hour from Detroit, is the Buxton National Historical Site . What was known as The Elgin Settlement was founded in 1849 and became a haven for the fugitives of the American system of slavery in the pre-Civil War years, in part because it was located near the northern terminus of the Underground Railroad.

Although Black people lived in Canada since the early days of transatlantic settlement, very few arrived directly from their ancestral homeland in Africa; the earliest arrivals were slaves brought from New England or the West Indies.

However between 1763 and 1865 most Blacks who migrated to Canada were fleeing slavery in the United States. After the War of 1812, the Black community in Ontario continued to grow as a steady influx of runaway slaves from the southern United States crossed over the border. And then in 1833 the British Parliament’s Emancipation Act abolished slavery in all parts of the British Empire.

By 1851 there were more than 35,000 people of African descent living in Ontario; many of them in the southwestern part of the province, in the communities of Buxton, Dresden, Chatham, and Windsor.

Although these people had escaped slavery, life was never easy. They were refugees in many senses of the word. And even as late as the 20th century, there were documented cases of systemic discrimination against African-Canadians, especially in southwestern Ontario.

It has been said that “history hurts”; and the wounds are often grievous. However historical travel can also give a much-needed perspective on the past, the present, and the future.

See also:

The Ontario Black History Society, a non-profit registered Canadian charity, dedicated to the study, preservation and promotion of Black History and heritage.

The Harriet Tubman Resource Centre on the African Diaspora.

The Civil Rights Institute of Albany, Georgia: Footsteps to Freedom

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