Road to 200: Pr. Charmaine Nelson - What does art history reveal about racism today?

Charmaine Nelson is Professor of Art History in the Department of Art History & Communication Studies. Her research and teaching interests include postcolonial and black feminist scholarship, Transatlantic Slavery Studies and Black Diaspora Studies in Canadian, American, European and Caribbean art and visual culture. She is currently the William Lyon Mackenzie King Visiting Professor of Canadian Studies at Harvard University for the 2017-2018 academic year. Professor Nelson spoke with us about her work, from fugitive slave advertisements to racism in Canada.

Your research focusses on visual representations of black Canadian history and culture. Could you provide some examples of the kinds of art you study?

There’s one Canadian painting I’m obsessed with by François Malépart de Beaucourt. The painting was circulated for years under the title, “Portrait of a Negro Slave”. What intrigues me is how portraiture changes when you have an unfree subject, such as an enslaved person. In traditional high art portraiture, such as oil paintings or marble-sculpted portraits, the relationship between the sitter – the person being represented – and the artist, is one where the sitter is in control. An enslaved subject, though, would have been forced to pose for the portrait. The making of the portrait, then, becomes a coercive situation. Because blackness at that moment – and still today in Canada, sadly – was perceived as foreign, owning a black slave was a message to the community that that individual had the money to purchase this “exotic” person. When you think about all those layers, it really complicates the notion of what is Western portraiture.

What can fugitive slave advertisements tell us about Canadian slaves?

There’s an enslaved man named Joe who shows up in five different ads by an owner named William Brown, who owns the Quebec Gazette, and the ads say Joe is African-born. Joe probably had several African languages when he arrived here. The first ad says he speaks French and English tolerably; by the last ad, he’s fluent and running the press. Joe gets creolized in Canada, but when he first got here, who could he speak to? Even if he met another enslaved person, he didn’t even speak English or French yet. How did that feel for him, to be born in Africa and end up in Quebec City?

Fugitive slave ads reveal a burden of surveillance and profiling under which enslaved Africans lived. A lot of these people started their lives in the Caribbean and were moved against their will into what became Canada, wrenched away from their family and friends. On a plantation in Jamaica with 800 other enslaved people, there’s at least someone who speaks your language, someone who will help you comb your hair, someone who will shave you – all of these things for Africans are communal. If you’re the only enslaved person in a household in Montreal, what happens to your culture, your spirituality, your language? One of the characteristics of the enslaved minority in Canada is that it was so heterogeneous that the next enslaved person in the house over may not even speak your language.

To me, the experience of isolation itself is a form of psychological trauma and abuse. I think a sense of superiority has been maintained here in terms of white Canadianness, that it didn’t happen here because we didn’t see it happen here. This [misconception] is part of what I’m pushing back against as well.

How is the experience of racism both a physical and psychological phenomenon?

If you have a young black boy in the home, you have a conversation with your son about how to act when the police come for him: where to put your hands, how to identify yourself, how to show that you’re not doing anything wrong. This is a conversation that I imagine most white Canadians and even Canadians of other races do not feel they have to have.

The psychological burden of racism is that often we talk in society about anti-black racism and young black boys. But many of the people who get physically assaulted or murdered by the state are black adult men. It’s sadly common for a black Canadian man who is 20, 30, or 40 years old, to have been asked to show ID, or been stopped many times when they’re doing nothing. And the psychological burden is not just for the person being targeted; it’s also for their loved ones who wonder, how do I live a normal life without constantly fearing for my spouse or child?

You have acknowledged that identity is a vital part of your scholarship. How does your identity shape your research?

When I started as an undergraduate student, I loved art history in part because I loved writing and I also loved art. But then I wondered, where am I in this class? I understood at that age that black people have been in Canada for a while, so why are we never spoken about? When I teach the class on the visual culture of slavery, many of my students come in my class thinking, ‘I’m taking a class about black people.’ But what I want them to understand is, how is slavery only about black people?

In the case of “Portrait of a Negro Slave”, no scholars before me bothered to figure out who this “negro slave” was. This is why identity matters to our research: as a black woman, I look at her and wonder, who are you? That matters to me, to know who she is and to try to think about her life trajectory.

What’s on the horizon for research in Black Canadian Studies?

There’s a history of blacks in Canada since 1605 but sadly, there’s no place in Canada where you can get a degree called Black Canadian Studies or African Canadian Studies. We need to establish a stand-alone departments for that, offering a variety of degrees. This is not farfetched: in the [United States], there are hundreds of colleges and universities that offer degrees in African American Studies. I use the States as a comparison because we have parallel histories. I’m the only [tenured professor] in a Canadian art history department doing black Canada. Not all of the academics focused on black Canadian studies are working at institutions that are producing MAs and PhDs, which is the next generation [of researchers]. What will be on the horizon will depend on us: How many of my PhDs will get jobs in academia, and how many of them will stay as not just Canadianists but black Canadianists?

In terms of the field itself, there are human biologists who study slavery in the States [from a scientific perspective]. No one has approached it from that angle yet in Canada. There’s undone work, especially in specific histories or specific types of subfields of slavery studies, that no one has yet touched for Canada that are well underway in other parts of the Americas.

What’s the greatest challenge you’re facing right now in your own work?

The greatest challenge in my work right now is making sure I maintain consistent funding to be able to do fieldwork travel. A lot of my archives are in Britain, so I need access to those archives, most of which are not digitized but are on microfilm. The challenge going forward is, I can only supervise so many students at a time. If we don’t get universities in Canada to step up and realize that this is a body of study worth pursuing, then the speed of research is stymied by how few of us there are.