1. Viola Desmond
“We can celebrate Viola Desmond on the money and want to see ourselves reflected. But we can also know that Black women can go into a grocery store with money with Viola Desmond’s face on it in our wallets and be accused of stealing.”
(Evelyn C. White wrote an excellent piece following the selection of Viola Desmond for the $10 bill reflecting on the importance of Carrie Best in publicizing Desmond’s story.)
Anthony Morgan reminded me this week in the context of Human Rights Day of Malcolm X’s quote from his famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech:
We need to expand the civil-rights struggle to a higher level — to the level of human rights. Whenever you are in a civil-rights struggle, whether you know it or not, you are confining yourself to the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. No one from the outside world can speak out in your behalf as long as your struggle is a civil-rights struggle. Civil rights comes within the domestic affairs of this country. All of our African brothers and our Asian brothers and our Latin-American brothers cannot open their mouths and interfere in the domestic affairs of the United States. And as long as it’s civil rights, this comes under the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam.
But the United Nations has what’s known as the charter of human rights; it has a committee that deals in human rights. You may wonder why all of the atrocities that have been committed in Africa and in Hungary and in Asia, and in Latin America are brought before the UN, and the Negro problem is never brought before the UN.
Malcolm X came to see strongly that the struggle of Black Americans was mirrored internationally by the decolonization struggles of the third world. The injustices faced by Black Americans should be seen and judged internationally, but also he recognized that the injustices suffered by Black Americans could not be comprehended and fought without an international perspective that recognized the connection between the violence done to Black Americans at home and the violence committed by America abroad upon the bodies of Black and brown people globally.
Malcolm X’s call to move from a framework of civil rights to one of human rights is interesting in light of the discourse around placing “Canadian civil rights icon” Viola Desmond on the $10 bill. Without diminishing Desmond’s significance or the real validation and jubilation felt by African Nova Scotians at having this history acknowledged, it’s important to think through how and why and for what purpose the state adopts particular narratives, and how these narratives of Black history serve the interests of the state.
One thing to think about is why Desmond’s story has in recent years become “the” story of Black Canadian history. As with the Civil Rights Movement and Black history more generally, a tokenistic approach is taken to the inclusion of Black history, where one or two narratives or people are taught in the illusion that name-checking Martin Luther King Jr., or Nelson Mandela, is sufficient in “accommodating” calls to challenge white history curriculums.
This is the heart of the constant complaint made of Black History Month, that rather than teaching Black History all year, and rather than actually dismantling white supremacist narratives of history that present white people as the creators and agents of history, a cosmetic sprinkling of “Black firsts” are added to posters to represent “diversity,” while doing nothing to actually challenge Eurocentric histories and mythologies.
In Canada, where Black history is frequently confined to teaching myths about the Underground Railway and that Canada was a free, non-racist haven for escaping slaves, while the addition of Viola Desmond to the history canon in recent years is welcome — and raises questions about the history of segregation in Canada and the presence of civil rights struggles here on Canadian soil — as is customary with the recognition of Black history, it seems to become only Viola, all the time. Viola on the ferry, Viola holiday in February, Viola in the Human Rights Museum, Viola on the money.
The adoption of one narrative of Black people, and Black women, while it gives rightful attention to Desmond, also becomes useful in suppressing Black history in other ways — as though there are no other Black women or Black histories that need to be recognized or understood.
Naomi Moyer, for example, created an art project aimed at recovering the histories of Canada’s radical Black feminists — women like Mary Bibb, Rosa Pryor, Chloe Cooley, and Sherona Hall. The histories of Black women, and particularly politically radical Black women, continue to be ignored.
I suppose someone at this point is going to say, “well, it’s a start. What are you complaining for?” I’m not complaining, I’m pointing out that just like the presidency of Barack Obama supposedly made America “post-racial,” the small inclusions of select narratives of a very few Black people in Canada are used to point to progress, while at the same time Black histories in Canada continue to be repressed, and Black injustices continue to be perpetuated.
It also can’t be escaped that the popular image of Viola Desmond, a light-skinned, attractive woman, fits the image of acceptable Black women that are universally promoted in the media. Again, this is not to denigrate Desmond or deny her achievements, but to recognize that darker-skinned women face particular discrimination and are specifically dehumanized. Desmond’s narrative — a light-skinned, respectable, professional business woman, who fits already determined civil rights histories — in this sense is much more palatable and more easily placed into the Canadian narrative.
With Rosa Parks, most often compared to Viola Desmond, left out of that history is the dark-skinned teenager Claudette Colvin, who refused to move on the bus nine months before Rosa Parks, but who was seen as not respectable and middle-class enough to become the symbol of the boycotts.
These dynamics aren’t incidental to these histories, they’re ingrained still in the ways Black women move around society, in criminal justice convictions, in who is more likely to be disciplined in school, in who is more likely to get a job, in who we are willing to see as beautiful, as valuable, and as closer to human.
In fact, part of Canada’s embrace of Viola Desmond very much has to do with the way the United States continues to set the template of Blackness for Canada. Desmond is often called “Canada’s Rosa Parks,” which Canadians then challenge by pointing out that Desmond was nine years earlier and was therefore first.
Interestingly, while much of the mythology attributed to Parks (that she was tired that day and spontaneously refused to move) is false and she was in fact a long time member of the NAACP who strategized against bus discrimination and planned their court challenge, is actually true of Desmond who did in fact not plan to challenge racial discrimination when she sat on the main floor. However, the embrace of Desmond in Canada has a lot to do with our feeling that the United States has the “real” Civil Rights Movement, and that therefore our Black history gains legitimacy when it copies or mirrors what we see as the authentic site of Blackness.
This actually ties into the idea in Canada that racism and injustice against Black people are mainly American phenomena — we can’t conceive of Black histories outside the model set by the United States. If they have Rosa Parks, we will have one too. Centring American-style civil rights struggles as the “real” blueprint for what Black oppression looks like continues the Canadian myth that racism isn’t the same kind of problem here.
Even placing a Black woman on the money follows the move in the United States to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. I actually think it would be interesting if Canada had also put Tubman on our money — after all, she lived in Canada as she planned her raids on Southern American territory, and we can recognize her history as ours as well. This in itself goes back to Malcolm X’s point about the internationalism of Black struggle: that both Canada and America can “claim” Tubman speaks to the ways enslavement forced movement of African people around the globe. Images of Tubman on the Canadian and America money would interestingly challenge the nationalism of the imagery we typically choose for our money – two countries sharing the same person suggests perhaps the artificiality of borders, national identities, and “civil” rights.
When the United States made the decision to place Harriet Tubman on the $20, some people objected to the image of a Black radical icon co-opted into becoming a symbol of capitalist exchange:
“By escaping slavery and helping many others do the same,” the writer Feminista Jones argued in the Washington Post, “Tubman became historic for essentially stealing ‘property’.
“Her legacy is rooted in resisting the foundation of American capitalism. Tubman didn’t respect America’s economic system, so making her a symbol of it would be insulting.”
Andrea Williams, a professor at Ohio State who has written about Tubman, did not disagree. “The irony of her image being exchanged in return for commodities in the future,” she said, “seems to recall the way that actual slaves’ bodies were serving as currencies of exchange.”
Contrasted to Tubman, Desmond herself was a business woman and entrepreneur, which as former Lieutenant-Governor Mayann Francis observed, gives a certain symmetry to this honour.
At the same time, there’s an irony to placing Desmond on money, given that she was convicted of tax evasion over the penny difference in the price of the floor ticket vs. the balcony seat. And what is so particularly Canadian it seems to me about Desmond’s case is how racial discrimination was never mentioned, either in her conviction or her appeal — just like polite, silent, Canadian racism, nobody said it was about race. There couldn’t really be anything more Canadian than that refusal to acknowledge race or racism while employing segregation and violently removing Desmond from the theatre, refusing her a lawyer, and not informing her of her rights. But it’s about the money, not skin colour! We don’t see Blackness here in Canada.
Writing about Harriet Tubman, Kirsten West Savali says, “that’s not progress, it’s hush money.”
Specifically, there is something both distasteful and ironic about putting a black woman’s face on the most frequently counterfeited and most commonly traded dollar bill in this country. Haven’t we been commodified and trafficked enough? Slapping a black female face, one of our radical icons, on a $20 bill as if it’s some attainment of the American dream would be adding insult to injury.
When nearly half of all single African-American women have zero or negative wealth, and their median wealth is $100—compared with just over $41,000 for single white American women—it is an insult. When black women are the fuel for the prison-industrial complex, with incarceration rates increasing 800 percent since 1986 and black girls being the fastest-growing population of a corrupt juvenile-criminal system, it is an insult. When African-American women earn on average 64 cents (pdf) for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men, compared with the 78 cents that white women earn for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men, it is an insult.
I don’t want Harriet Tubman’s face on a $20 bill; I want our people to be free from the chains of institutionalized racism and economic slavery. That’s how we honor her.
I don’t want Rosa Parks’ face on a $20 bill; I want black people to be able to travel from point A to point B without being targeted by discriminatory and violent policing tactics. That’s how we honor her.
This brings me back to Malcolm X’s argument about human rights. One of the arguments that emerged with Desmond’s placement on the $10 bill was that an Indigenous woman should have been the first honoured. This in itself demonstrates the way these projects divide and rule by creating literal competitions between marginalized groups — which one of you will be deemed worthy enough to be recognized by us?
But it also speaks to the ways the symbolism of these projects, often seen as the good in itself (at least we’re seeing a positive image of a Black woman) also work to cover up and deny human rights.
What would it mean to have an Indigenous woman on Canadian money — finalist E. Pauline Johnson, for example, in a country where close to 2,000 Indigenous women are missing and murdered? Where young Indigenous girls are trafficked, and 70 per cent of the street sex trade in Winnipeg is young Indigenous girls, and 70 per cent of those girls are wards of Child and Family Services? And what would it mean for that Indigenous woman to share space on the money with the image of the British Queen, representative of the imperial royal family in whose name colonization, land theft, and global genocide was accomplished?
There is what it means to Indigenous women to see themselves represented, but there is also the question of what it means for a state that disregards Indigenous rights, that denies Indigenous land claims, that attacks and arrests land defenders, that pollutes Indigenous lands and waters, that imprisons Indigenous men and women, where Indigenous people live without housing, sewage, and water on reserves — what does it mean to Canada when we put an Indigenous woman on our money, as though that means that Canada has made progress, or Canada “honours” Indigenous people, or Canada’s human rights abuses against Indigenous people are assuaged.
This is what Malcolm X recognized about civil rights — that asking countries to recognize us, or to give us rights, or to acknowledge us as human, was, as he put it to thank a man for plunging a knife 12 inches into your back and pulling it out six inches. He recognized that oppressed people could not fundamentally be “given” civil rights by countries who engaged in exploiting the human rights of other globally.
What does Viola Desmond mean on the Canadian money as Canada systematically engages in neo-colonialism in Africa? What does acknowledging the civil rights struggle in Canada mean in a context where Canadian mining companies exploit African workers, and collaborate with local militaries to brutally suppress and murder protesters? Where Canada carried out a coup in Haiti and the country remains under UN occupation? Where Canada participated in the NATO-led destruction of Libya? And so forth. My own mother’s family lived under colonization, under this current Queen, whose image is on every Canadian bill.
The strategy of using the images of civil rights icons to paint themselves as liberal and progressive, while papering over abuses abroad, co-opts Black struggle to project the image of Canada as benevolent, which in turn ensures public ignorance of and support for Canadian military ventures in Africa and elsewhere. As Malcolm said:
No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver — no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.
We can celebrate Viola Desmond on the money and want to see ourselves reflected. But we can also know that Black women can go into a grocery store with money with Viola Desmond’s face on it in our wallets and be accused of stealing. We can go to movies and they’ll take our money to still not see Black women represented, especially not dark-skinned women, or our stories equally told.
The Harriet Tubman bust in St. Catherines is regularly defaced with feces — one can only imagine the indignities that will be visited upon the image of Desmond on the money providing a canvas for racists to not only deface, but to circulate those messages.
We may see Viola Desmond’s image as a validation of that struggle, a recognition of the injustices we have endured on Canadian soil. But we should also know that the same country that will put Desmond’s face on the money and praise itself for doing so will imprison Black women at ever-increasing rates, and will still brutalize us and deny us our rights just like they did to her. We might enjoy seeing her face, but we should never kid ourselves that it means Black women are valued in Canada. And when we allow Canada to determine our value by literally assigning us a place on the money, we should ask what that recognition means and why we still believe our value is granted by the same countries that have always profited off our bodies, our labour, and our pain.
The Board of Cape Breton University fired president David Wheeler and voted down the faculty contract.
Reports are that allegedly Wheeler didn’t follow the directions of the board. Wheeler has been fighting to maintain academic standards and protect the academic mission, while the board wanted cuts. The rumour is that the university has been heavily dependent upon international student fees, especially from students from Saudi Arabia. Allegedly, those fees have dried up since the Saudi government delisted CBU as an approved school because the students were returning without improved language skills.
Wheeler apparently recognized that without the teaching faculty the university had no hope of rebuilding, and that maintaining academic standards was foundational to the reputation of the university. Allegedly, while Wheeler wanted to negotiate a reasonable collective agreement, the board wanted to see cost savings. None of these rumours are confirmed, but if true, this narrative explains why the Board fired him and rejected the collective agreement at the same meeting.
Historian Todd McCallum reminded me of the firing in the 1940s of Dalhousie’s President Carleton Stanley. Stanley was ousted in a power struggle with James McGregor Stewart (of Stewart McKelvey fame.)
Barry Cahill has an extensive essay on the history of Stanley’s dismissal. The whole history is a cautionary tale and case study in the problems with corporate boards interfering with academic decisions and policy. Some highlights:
It was J. McG. Stewart who would prove to be Stanley’s nemesis. A Halifax corporate lawyer who joined the board in 1929, Stewart, like Stanley, was a self-made man. Both had graduated from their respective universities – Toronto and Dalhousie – with high honours. The two philologues, one the former holder of a chair in Greek, the other a former tutor, occasionally quoted Greek literary texts in their letters to each other. When Stanley arrived in Halifax, Stewart was already the most influential business and political lawyer in eastern Canada.
Stanley’s second struggle for academic freedom occurred soon after the first, and occasioned his second serious disagreement with Stewart. He resisted Stewart’s efforts to persuade him to dismiss the four professors who had supported G. Fred Pearson, then chair of the Dalhousie board, in his campaign to oust Stanley from the presidency. The Pearson “intrigue” culminated in Pearson’s resignation, not Stanley’s dismissal. On that occasion Stewart supported the president against the chair and his faculty partisans. Pearson was obliged to resign, and Stewart was rewarded with the vice-chairmanship. Stewart showed his appreciation by attempting unsuccessfully to dragoon the neophyte president into dismissing the four professors who were implicated.
The chief difficulty between Stanley and Stewart was that Stewart held very decided ad hominem views on a subject about which the president believed that the board, both individually and collectively, was not entitled to hold any opinion whatever: the hiring, promotion and termination of faculty and staff. As Stanley declaimed to the board during the final crisis of 1944-45, “It is obvious, of course, that while he is President, the Board will approve his recommendations about appointments and promotions”.23 Nothing could have been less obvious to Stewart, for whom the board did not necessarily approve the president’s recommendations about anything – especially faculty appointments.
Stanley would not tolerate the governors interfering directly in matters of academic preferment, nor would Stewart forbear attempting to influence appointments, the final decision in which, then as now, lay with the board. “And this sort of thing has gone on for more than thirteen years”, complained Stanley in 1944 with regard to Stewart’s chronic interference in academic matters over the entire course of Stanley’s presidency.
Matters came to a head during World War II, when Stanley insisted on the military compensating the university for the use of Dalhousie land and buildings. Stewart, feeling that Stanley was discrediting the university, began engineering a coup to oust the president. This financial crisis was deepened in December 1943 when, in Stanley’s words, the university “partially lost its opportunities…to secure money from business firms.” A $20, 000 grant from the government to sustain the medical and dental schools hardly made a difference. Stanley complained that Stewart was urging him to close down the university.
Following an address made by Stanley at the Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa on June 5, 1944 where he compared his progressive regime with the past administration, the campaign to remove him intensified.
After months of various complex schemings, the Board held a meeting on November 10th to which Stanley was not invited, where the governors decided to approach Stanley quietly to demand that he resign. When Stanley refused, the Board voted for his resignation on January 23. Stanley, defeated by the manoeuvrings of the Board, drafted a letter of resignation.
Thus ended Stanley’s 14-year reign. His dismissal was much more than a scandal in academe. It precipitated the movement which ultimately led to the founding in 1951 of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). It also followed by two months the dismissal of Homer Price Rainey from the presidency of the University of Texas. Comparisons between the two are instructive. Like Rainey, Stanley by 1931 was known as a “liberal educator with a leaning toward the arts [and] an able administrator”. Like Rainey, Stanley defended the rights of faculty to secure tenure and free speech and was dismissed by a reactionary board controlled by big businessmen – of whom J. McG. Stewart was far and away the biggest and most influential. Unlike Rainey, however, who was a native returning in triumph to his homeland, Stanley was a “come-from-away” – an American-born resident of Toronto and Montreal. He had less support than Rainey among faculty, students and alumni, little in the wider community and none in government. Though Dalhousie, unlike Texas and Toronto, was not a state or provincial university, government influenced its administration through order-in-council appointments of governors such as Stewart. Like Rainey, Stanley remained in academe after his dismissal but he did not obtain a position commensurate with the one he had lost. Unlike Rainey, he did not attempt to climb into politics on the back of the affair, nor did he publish in later years an unrepentant memoir of the controversy which had culminated in his dismissal.
Despite not being a member, Stanley persistently tried to have the AAUP censure Dalhousie’s board of governors for violations of academic freedom, as it was shortly to do in the Rainey case. According to Frank Abbott, the AAUP’s writ did not run in Canada, “and it could not be expected to perform its employee-protection functions on behalf of its Canadian members” – much less Canadian non-members. “Presumably the AAUP could place a Canadian university on its non-recommended list”,but Abbott could find no occasion when that had been done. By and large, Canadian university teachers were no more interested in the AAUP than were Canadian universities. Or, for that matter, than the National Conference of Canadian Universities (NCCU) was in the concept of a separate Canadian association of university professors comparable to the AAUP. At the time of CAUT’s founding in 1951, according to Abbott, the AAUP “had managed to recruit fewer than 100 Canadian members, and of these, 63 were at the University of Manitoba. For the most part, faculties across [Canada] continued to spurn the AAUP and to reject proposals to establish local chapters.”
For Stanley, academic freedom was pre-eminently “free speech in the form of comment on public events”, which, as Horn points out, “could be dangerous”; for Stanley it was fatal. His addresses to the university at the beginning of the academic year and at convocation, many of which were printed or published, and almost all of which were extensively reported in the local or national press, were studied messages which seemed deliberately to court controversy. For Stanley, the university president, far more so than the university professor, was the supreme pedagogue, the teacher of righteousness. The president did not merely teach the students; he taught the university as a whole and the community at large. His was a window on the world. Indeed it was his perception of his role as a public intellectual that prompted Stanley, quite unlike his socialistic friends Frank Underhill and F.R. Scott, to steer clear of partisan politics.141 In Stanley’s case, the Second World War did not reinforce Horn’s “well-established preference of Canadian academics for keeping their heads down.” On the contrary, Stanley stuck his neck out, risking (in Horn’s sanguinary metaphor) decapitation. In his determination to preserve liberal education and the small university, Stanley offended many and alienated some, including magnates such as Stewart, on whose pleasure his survival depended. Stanley was always ready and willing to make a last stand on academic freedom, which for him was what made the university “a bulwark of freedom.”
Academic freedom, though not at issue in Stanley’s firing, bore directly on Stanley’s conceptualization of the rights and privileges, prerogatives and responsibilities of the university president. For Stanley there was no distinction between the university teacher and the university president where academic freedom was concerned. They were equally privileged to be its beneficiaries and obliged to be its defenders. The position of Dalhousie’s board, however, was that a university president who practised academic freedom was going too far, setting the worst possible example for professors and damaging the university’s public reputation. Moreover, relations between the board as an employer and the president as an employee lay outside and far beyond the scope of academic freedom. In response to official representations, the chair of Dalhousie’s board of governors assured the AAUP that academic freedom was not involved in the Stanley affair.
Returning to his Victoria University roots, Carleton Stanley fell back into teaching English at United College (later the University of Winnipeg) but retired five years before the dismissal of historian Harry Crowe. “In the history and mythology of academic freedom in Canada”, writes Horn, “only the Harry Crowe case at United College in 1958 looms larger than the attempt in 1940-1 to dismiss Frank Underhill.” The Carleton Stanley case, on the other hand, looms not at all in either. Stanley wanted to have his cake and eat it; to defend academic freedom and practise it more liberally than any professor. It was a matter of his claiming for university presidents a fundamental freedom which neither boards nor presidents wanted them to have, and of which, in their view, professors already had quite enough. Academic freedom was fine, so long as it remained, in Horn’s words, “Not a burning question.” Stanley, however, took an idealistic and rather ultramontane view of academic freedom, which he considered a sacred trust. University presidents were to set an example for the professoriate by practising what they preached, and in so doing raise public consciousness about the great national and international issues of the day and enlighten the despots who made up the governing boards. How could university presidents credibly and effectively defend academic freedom if they did not practise it themselves?
Time will tell if the firing of David Wheeler resonates as a scandal, or if universities will continue to be eroded by corporate boards instituting austerity measures without regard for academic standards. Of course, these boards have no problem paying retired presidents nearly half a million dollars or spending $300, 000 to send a team of elites to MIT.