Professor Debra Thompson is a leading scholar of the comparative politics of race and focuses her research and teaching on relationships among race, the state and inequality in democratic societies. Her first book, The Schematic State: Race, Transnationalism and the Politics of the Census, which came out in 2016 with Cambridge University Press, maps the changing nature of the census from an instrument historically used to manage and control racializied populations to its contemporary purpose as an important source of statistical information.
Her latest book, The Long Road Home, is a much more personal mediation on the meanings of blackness and belonging. Published by Simon & Schuster, Thompson shares her family’s history of refugee African American slaves who escaped the United States for Southeastern Ontario via the Underground Railroad. Professor Thompson has previously referred to her family’s African-American roots in her op-ed pieces for the Globe and Mail, but her book marks a lengthier and more in-depth exploration of identity, blackness, and belonging.
We spoke to Professor Thompson about the journey she took to write this book.
Q: How did the idea to write the “The Long Road Home” come about?
So, it’s a bit of a long story, and it’s one that I actually end up telling in a chapter of the book. The book opens with something my father had said in the early days of 2020, months before COVID and the George Floyd protests. We were talking about American politics – probably something terrible Trump had done that week – and he said, “You know Debra, your daughter was the first Thompson born in America since Cornelius Thompson escaped slavery. It’s been over a hundred and fifty years, and some days I think we came back too soon.”
And those words just struck me. The idea that my daughter was tethered, somehow, to our last ancestor born on American soil, the one who risked life and limb to flee to Canada via the Underground Railroad. The idea that even in the year 2020 America still wasn’t a safe place for African Americans, that the American Dream would always be just out of reach. At the time I knew that I was coming back to Canada; I had already accepted my position at McGill and I was in the middle of planning a cross-continent move. And despite what my Dad said about returning to the land of my ancestors “too soon,” I had a lot of mixed feelings about moving. I couldn’t shake a pervasive feeling of disappointment. I had moved to the United States in 2010 in part because it was where I felt I was “really from,” but also, perhaps more naively, to vindicate, to absolve, to claim a debt of blood and belonging for the generations of my ancestors who lived and died in bondage. And here I was, escaping a different, 21st century version of white nationalism and unabashed American racism by fleeing to Canada, just like Cornelius Thompson did. I felt like I was letting my ancestors down, somehow.
I was thinking about all this and trying to manage the crushing anxiety of an international move when someone from the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History reached out. The museum used a monthly pub talk featuring faculty from the university as a fundraiser; would I be interested in presenting my research? I told the program coordinator that my new work on Black Lives Matter wasn’t ready yet, but I was moving back to Canada and had a lot of feelings about it – could I present on that instead? She said sure.
The presentation happened in mid-February 2020, just a few weeks before COVID-19 stopped the world. The room was packed with my friends and students, but also more than a hundred people I didn’t know. The title of my presentation was something like, “Return: Some Probably Incoherent Ideas about Race, Democracy, and the Boundaries of Belonging.” I started with those words from my father, and then talked about the ways that racism is baked into American political, economic, and social institutions; how Canadians are in denial about the realities of racism in this country because we believe the United States is where the “real” racism is; how democracy is founded on the idea of “the people,” but it’s not always clear who that is; how slavery is often cast as America’s original sin, but the country was also founded on the near-genocide of Indigenous peoples; how the freedom to move and the freedom to stay are among our most precepts of social justice; how the idea of home is slippery, intangible, complicated, and contradictory.
I didn’t know what to do with the presentation afterwards. The people who had come to hear me speak loved what I had said; many emailed me to say that my words resonated deeply. But I couldn’t publish it as an academic essay, it was too personal. I thought it might work as a long opinion piece. I reached out to the Globe and Mail to see if they’d be interested in running it. The opinion editor, kind of randomly, turned out to be an old friend of mine. He read the essay and wrote back pretty quickly to say he wanted to publish it. He also said, “Deb, I think this should be a book.”
I said, “Don’t be ridiculous.” And then, a week before the piece was scheduled to go out, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officers. And I changed my mind.
Q: As an academic and political scientist, there’s usually a personal remove from the professional discourses you engage with in your day-to-day life as a professor. What was it like writing something so personal, for a much broader audience?
I write in the book that using my experiences as an entry point into a broader inquiry about race, Blackness and belonging makes me deeply uncomfortable. And I stand by that! It is absolutely wild to me that a bunch of strangers are now going to know that I have a dog named the Artful Dodger. Or the acute anxieties of being a Black parent or how utterly traumatic the racism at my first job was.
In political science, we seek to make generalizable theories about political phenomena, and so personal experiences and anecdotes are not considered to meet the evidentiary standards for reliability or replication. But in Black Studies, the disciplinary home I also choose to associate with, storytelling is tradition, repetition is sacred, and writing is the process of turning bewilderment to awe.
As I write towards the end of the book, “The centuries-long curse of enforced exile and homelessness experienced by those of African descent has long served as a useful and critical standpoint from which to reconsider how the world came to be the way it is. Black Studies as vocation isn’t just interdisciplinary but anti-disciplinary and un-disciplinary in that we seek the knowledge through which we can achieve racial justice in this world or we will remake it so those who follow will.”
Q: The concept of “home” can be a deeply emotional, and evocative concept for most people, and can play a significant role in how we and others see ourselves. When writing your book, what struggles did you face when pondering the notion of “home”? What did you learn about yourself, your family?
Home is a slippery concept. It’s never just about where you live or where you’re from. It’s also about membership in a community, a sense of belonging, the people you claim as your own and those who claim you. This passage in the book tries to spell out how complicated it all is: “Home is a particular place at a moment in time even as our concepts of it transcend both time and space; it encompasses desire and nostalgia, brings together memories and longings, our future children and our ancestors long gone, democratic processes of conflict and consensus, the local and the global, inclusion and exclusion, the material and the ghostly, and corporeal and the intangible.”
While I was writing the book I wanted to leave space for the idea that home is ambivalence; that home might not be about a settled location, but rather is deeply embedded in movement between places and uncertainty in the process of becoming.
Q: In your book, you write about how your father “talks in the same rhythmic riddles that characterize barbershop talk in African-American communities and cultures” and how he is “also staunchly, proudly, fiercely Canadian.” How does your book address and explore language as an important component in the expression of culture and belonging?
The last substantive chapter, which takes place in Montreal, is where I try to explore the relationship between language, race and belonging most explicitly. The chapter spends a lot of time thinking about the way that “language politics” enables anti-Black racism to flourish here, and the discourse around race and racism in Quebec manifests differently from other parts of Canada, often in more insidious ways. It was a really hard chapter to write for a lot of reasons.
There’s a long history of transnational Black activism in Montreal dating back to at least the early twentieth century; political life in Quebec and in Montreal has its own kind of tenor and norms that aren’t always obvious until you live here; a lot of the debates about, for example, whether or not systemic racism exists in Quebec are happening in French and in a way that is quite different from the way the debates happen in English; and, kind of importantly, I just got here, and there are many, many others who have been thinking, researching, and writing about these dynamics for much longer. Most importantly, I wanted to be fair and not polemic.
I don’t think everyone is going to agree with the analysis I present in that chapter – for example, I vehemently disagree with the emerging consensus that non-Black educators should be able to say the n-word in their classrooms – but it’s based on research that doesn’t often make it into the public sphere as these debates are taking place, and I stand by it.
Q: In a June 5 2020 Op-Ed for The Globe and Mail, you wrote about the culture shock Canadians face when acculturating to life in the US, a difficulty that you attribute to “narcissism of minor differences, a Freudian theory that suggests communities that have adjacent territories and close relationships are likely to be hostile and contemptuous because they are hypersensitive to the tiny differences between them.” How is this culture shock described in your book, via your personal experience of living and working in the US and your return to Canada?
The culture shock for Canadians who move to the United States (and Americans who move to Canada) is often so much worse than for others because we often expect things to be the same, or at least similar enough that the differences won’t really matter, and that is just not the case. The book obviously speaks to the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between Canadian and American forms of racism, both interpersonal and structural. Canadians tend to think that racism is something that happens in the United States and not here, or that if there is racism here it was somehow imported from the United States in spite of our best efforts and against our collective will.
We routinely use comparison in the service of Canadian deniability. It’s our national pastime, an obsession that works to hide, entrench, and perpetuate the persistent racial inequalities that define nearly every socioeconomic indicator of Canadian society. And yet, American racism is, in some ways, very different from Canadian racism. We have a different political history, different political institutions, and different political structures – these are consequential for the peculiar ways that racism becomes embedded in social, political and economic life. And so part of the book is about detailing the nuances of Canadian and American racism, both in comparison and in relation to one another.
I also talk about how, growing up as a Black Canadian, so much of my knowledge about African American culture came from pop culture; it was only after I found the rich literature of African American Studies at Harvard and later moved to Chicago that I realized what a hollow and contrived image of Black life I had been provided by the cable television shows of the 1980s and 1990s. And speaking of the culture shock of Americans in Canada, there’s a fun, quick scene in the Montreal chapter about my American partner’s incredulity at the giant statue of Jesus outside my daughter’s public school here in Montreal.
Q: In 2021, you were awarded the Principal’s Prize for Media Engagement, in the category of Emerging Researcher. Some of your op-eds, which were featured in the Globe and Mail, discussed the Black Lives Matter movement and contemporary concerns of race and politics in both the US and Canada. What was that experience like after recently joining McGill in 2020?
It was strange and fortuitous timing to move back to Canada at precisely the same moment when many people were looking for insight into what we mean when we talk about anti-Black racism, a topic that is fraught, uncomfortable, and dominated by uninformed opinions. I felt at the time that many people wanted to have conversations about racial injustice, police violence, white guilt, and more, but just didn’t have the vocabulary, didn’t know where to start, or were so, so worried about saying something wrong or offensive and making things worse. It was surprising, in some ways, to find that my research was in high demand from folks outside academia.
I had never really been part of the world of “Equity, Diversity and Inclusion” consulting. I’m pretty skeptical of it, to be honest. But almost immediately after starting at McGill I started getting requests to talk to folks in government agencies, in the private sector and in non-profits organizations about the dimensions and durability of Canadian racism, the ways that we all unintentionally reify power and privilege, and how we, collectively, can work to dismantle racist social structures. A one-off presentation is never going to be enough to make a real impact, but the compromise I made with my conscious was to not pull any punches. I tried to lay out, as clearly as I could, the systemic, compounding, institutionalized nature of racism, and especially the ways it is embedded in law, policies, and everyday practices.
I wanted people to be able to make the connection between the racism of police violence and the racism in health care, in school discipline, in hiring and promotion practices, in the K-12 curriculum, in standardized testing, in graduate school admissions, in the refusal to recognize foreign credentials, in the welfare office and foster care system, in residential patterns and the availability of public services, in unrepresentative legislatures at municipal, provincial and federal levels of government, in literally every facet of political, economic, and social life.
These kinds of requests are not as frequent now as they were then, which is expected given that the public’s attention has waned even as racism has not. But this kind of public engagement was important in helping me to recalibrate my expectations of my career. I still write for the Globe and Mail on occasion and obviously this book is meant to reach a broader audience than my academic research. I’ve also got a few projects I’m working on that I am really excited about, which fall more squarely in the realm of public facing scholarship: an abolitionist politics reading group called the Subversive Academy and a podcast collaboration with the Institute for Research on Public Policy called In/Equality. I now see this kind of public scholarship as a fundamental part of the work I want to do and the kind of academic I want to be.
Q: The Underground Railroad is a well-known image of Black History in North America. Why was it important for you to revisit the Underground Railroad’s place in your own personal, familial history in “The Long Road Home”?
The Underground Railroad is just part of my family’s history. It’s how we got here in the mid-nineteenth century. I think about it often. It’s fabled and almost mythical, and for good reason. But like most of history, it’s also been sanitized. Collective memories, as I write in the book, are often only made possible by collective forgettings. And so, when I think of the Underground Railroad I think of the bravery required to flee, the sacrifices that were inevitably made along the way, the people left behind or lost along the way, the terror that must have marked each step. I think a lot about the actual journey. Rebecca and Cornelius Thompson somehow made their way to Shrewsbury, Ontario, from (we think) Prince George County, Virginia. It’s over 500 miles and the road from hither to yon was, without a doubt, full of danger.
Freedom-seeking movement is an important theme of the book. Obviously, I am interested in the parallels between my ancestors who fled to Canada and my own choice to move to the United States (and then, later, to return to Canada once more). But the book is most fundamentally about the tensions between home and abroad, fixity and mobility, the familiar and the foreign, rootedness and displacement and the ways that home can be, somewhat paradoxically, more about movement than destination.
Q: Your book is a deeply personal exploration of Black identity in North America, with particular focus on examining race by retracing your ancestors’ journeys from the US to Canada via the Underground Railroad. It reminds me of Saidiya Hartman’s “Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route”, where Hartman, like yourself, goes in search of an “ancestral” home, a past that remains elusive. Why are narratives such as these important avenues for readers and publics to discuss issues such as race and belonging? What does it tell us about the types of stories we want to hear?
What an honor to be compared to Saidiya Hartman! Her book and her larger body were, of course, huge inspirations in both the content and the tone of the writing. My book is being advertised as memoir, but I like to think of it as a mash-up of a memoir, social critique, and academic engagement. I’m in the book, but it’s not necessarily about me; readers will find that I pop in and out of the narrative arc, sometimes disappearing for pages and other times recounting something that happened to me years ago in great detail.
During the writing process, I was always trying to make the book more academic, more about the research and the theory. My editors were always trying to get more me in the book – more stories, more of my Dad, more of my experiences. The end result is a compromise, because both are important. I wanted to write a book that could introduce readers to the vast, incredible literature in Black Studies that has, for more than a hundred years, tried to think through the same question we are struggling with today: how can we build a more racially just world for everyone? And because I’m a teacher at heart, I know that the way to do this most effectively is to take abstract concepts – democracy, belonging, systemic racism, freedom, diaspora, justice, etc. – and find a way to make them more concrete and resonant through narrative.
At the end of the day, though, I wrote the book I wish I had when I started university. I am pretty clear in the book that the way that I have come to think about race, democracy and belonging was a long learning process. It did not come easily and I stumbled along the way. A lot. I wanted to give those to choose to read the book the space to learn as well – that’s why there’s a further reading guide, pages of endnotes, and reading group questions in the back of the book. People who want to change the world for the better aren’t simply born with that desire. We bring it into being once we realize that the world doesn’t have to be this way.
Q: After reading “The Long Road Home”, what books would you recommend to your readers, things you read or re-read while writing your book or that you simply want to recommend to those who enjoyed reading your story?
Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return was published twenty years ago and it’s still just gorgeous. There was a time when I carried it around with me everywhere I went. I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race (Chicago University Press) by Joe Soss, Richard Fording and Sanford Schram, which is an incredible piece of social scientific research from 2011. Legal scholar Dorothy Roberts has just published a damning condemnation of the racism of child welfare services in the United States: Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families – and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World (Basic Books, 2022). And rhere are so many great non-academic books that have recently come out! My book has a long list of further reading, featuring both academic and popular non-fiction works. But the three that have inspired me lately are: Mariame Kaba and Andrea Richie, No More Police: A Case for Abolition (The New Press, 2022); Robyn Maynard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Rehearsals for Living (Penguin Random House Canada, 2022); and Katherine McKittrick, Dear Science and Other Stories (Duke University Press, 2022).