Statement from the Office of the Chair on Black History, Anti-Black Racism and State-Sanctioned Violence

June 9, 2020 by Amy Ratelle

Statement from the Office of the Chair on Black History, Anti-Black Racism and State-Sanctioned Violence against Indigenous and Black Peoples

As historians, at this pivotal moment in time, we celebrate and honour the work of generations of historians who have actively and intentionally produced knowledge meant to challenge the legacies of slavery, racial violence and colonialism that are at the root of anti-Black racism. At the same time, we must reflect honestly on the role of the discipline of history in serving, for many decades, as a bastion for the production of knowledge about the past that reinforced white supremacy. We must acknowledge that historians of African descent have often not been sufficiently recognised for the role they have played as agents of change in ways that have transformed our discipline for the better.
We are an intellectually diverse department. Not all of us directly confront or engage the issue of anti-Black racism in our work. We might not agree on what the solutions should be to the issue of anti-Black racism. We may not be in the same place in terms of our sense of its role in our own lives. Nevertheless, we share an ethical and professional responsibility to ensure that our pedagogy, our writing and the institution in which we work challenge those racist legacies. This is especially the case as we witness how historical injustices have led, in recent months, to catastrophic consequences for people of colour in general, and people of African diasporic heritage in particular. The slave trade, the ‘unfinished revolution’ of emancipation and two centuries of post-slavery racism in terms of access to basic social services are at the historic root of the disproportionate death toll due to COVID-19, currently being suffered by black communities around the world. These genocidal histories are also the root cause of the pandemic of police violence that traumatizes Black communities and claims Black lives.
As historians we can stand in solidarity with students and colleagues in our wider community. The University of Toronto’s Black Students’ Association has sent out a statement and drawn up lists of resources for those wishing to support victims of police brutality. Professor Hilary Beckles, Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies and a leading historian of the Caribbean and The Black Canadian Studies Association have both issued powerful statements that perhaps speak, in different ways, directly to historians and scholars who live and work in Canada (Prof. Beckles' statement ; BCSA statement).

As a department we have a responsibility to promote a rich and equitable understanding of the historical experience. This is a moment to affirm a commitment to sending students out into the world who are prepared to be part of the solution to the crisis of anti-Black violence. We should never be complacent and believe that we have ‘arrived’ at a moment when we no longer need to reflect on our own complicity in structures of inequality. This department can build on its equity and diversity statement to ensure that we are a space where the histories of Black people are fully represented, where Black students always feel welcome, and where their dreams of who they might become are truly nurtured.
Whatever we may teach, we can all acknowledge that the history of the modern world is deeply rooted in colonial structures built on institutionalized and racialized violence that continue to exact a terrible toll on the lives of Black and Indigenous people, including here in Canada. We recognize the deep and ongoing connections between the forms of systemic violence and police brutality faced by Black and Indigenous people across this hemisphere. That is a past we all share, to the privilege of some and the disadvantage of others. As historians and keepers of memory, we are tasked with the role of helping society to look back in order to look forward, so that the pasts that some of us study, and their legacies of violence in the present, do not always have to be the only road map we have for our collective future.

Co-authored by Melanie J. Newton, Associate Professor of Caribbean History and Alison Smith, Chair, Department of History (with endorsement from Professors Chris Johnson, Nakanyike Musisi, Shauna Sweeney and Tamara Walker)