Notes For a Talk: Excavation: A Site of Memory, Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

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Images from the Dalhousie Art Gallery and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic Installations

Introducing Excavation: A Site of Memory

Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, November  6, 2014

My ancestors, the Black Refugees, were people with emotions, feelings, imagination and great ingenuity. They had to be, had to be ingenious in order to survive. They had agency, a sense of themselves, and something beyond themselves. They shared this with other early Africans in Nova Scotia, those enslaved, the Freedom Runners as I prefer to call them, the Black Loyalists and the Maroons from Jamaica.

This installation stands in opposition to the paternalism and racism that tried to shape their experiences. It stands in opposition to the language used to describe African people. I remind myself: they were not the language. They were people.

There were efforts to erase us, to pretend we did not exist. That we did not count. Everything that I learned growing up, that I learned in community and that I’ve seen since has challenged this idea, actively resisted this idea. My life’s work, and this installation as part of it, has been a way to talk back to that absence in the historical record:  A way to demonstrate and document resistance, resilience and defiance, sometimes in quiet ways, and sometimes in more vocal ways– but resistance nonetheless– to say we are here, we were here, we are here.

And I am here, because they were.

I recall the first experience of going to the Nova Scotia Archives in mid 1970’s perhaps 1975. I was researching the African United Baptist Association (AUBA) for a special issue I was editing of GRASP,  the newspaper of the Black United Front, an advocacy organization for people of African descent in Nova Scotia.

I remember reading old original copies of the AUBA minutes from the late 1800s into the 1900s and being struck by the detail and the information they contained—a picture, a landscape of Black communities. It felt as if I was actually touching my history. Up to that point, in schools and even university, I had  little, if anything about me. There was the Nova Scotia school book you see in the display case with a few paragraphs about Negroes of Nova Scotia.

And of course that—Visits to Other Lands geography book with the African children—Bunga and Simba—names that added to the name caller’s lexicon.

But that experience in the archives I think settled something within me, within my bones. From then on, and up to the present day, I’ve been engaged in a process– trying to understand, trying to make sense of my history, and  to find ways to bring that history, those experiences into public view.

It was also during that period—the late 70’s– that along with my friend and companion researcher, Savannah Williams, of Surry, Virginia, and then Public Archivist, the late Hugh Taylor, we mounted the first ever exhibition, a public display of a series of archival documents related to African people in Nova Scotia. It was exhilarating; it was tremendous to bring this material out of the stacks, out of the special boxes and folders and place it on public display. Many people came out to see that exhibit. They saw—witnessed—documents that had only accessed by academics and researchers.

My work here at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic has earlier roots, origins—dating back so many years ago. But, it was about 10 years ago during a residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts that I first conceptualized the idea for this installation. I had a small studio and created a pilot of some of my ideas.

The Intra-Nation Residency and artists came from around the world. When I mounted the newspaper ads for the ‘runaways’  whom I choose to call  freedom runners, there was shock and surprise, not only from the international artists, but from the Canadian artists too. “Not here in Canada, wasn’t that in the US? What about the Underground Railroad and freedom, “ etc, etc. It was difficult for them to grapple with Canada as a slave society.

Last fall, October 2013, I was able to fully install and realize the idea for this project at the Dalhousie Art Gallery. And now, here at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, it sits beside Prize and Prejudice: Nova Scotia and War of 1812. I appreciate the  opportunity to mount this work in another temporal site of memory.

The names you see on the large scrolls came from the archival record documenting enslaved African people, the  free Black Loyalists and the free Black Refugees—more than 3000 names. When I wrote some of the poems on display and that appear in my poetry collection, And I Alone Escaped to Tell you, I was unaware of the Black Refugee letters that you see in Prize and Prejudice—what a profound experience to read them and to think of the imagined narratives I created out of my deep engagement with our history. Standing before the display case of artifacts excavated at Beechville, my home community, once called Refugee Hill, left me emotionally drained, and at the same time, full of the spirits of my ancestors who walked the same ground as I did as a child.

They were real, they were there. I am because they were.

The Poem The Passage, that sits above the Memory Table has the line “the Severn in full sail behind us.” The Severn, was a slaver—a ship that kidnapped Africans. In Prizes and Prejudice you will see the history of this ship given a new name, the Liverpool Packet.

Of late, Tall Ships sail into Halifax in all of their glory and splendor.  Standing watching them, I think not of their splendor but that their earlier versions were also slavers, like the Liverpool Packet– sailing the Middle Passage capturing my ancestors.

Some say, this is difficult stuff—why do we need to drag up the past.

But as writer, essayist James Baldwin once wrote:

                     If history were past, history wouldn’t matter.   

                     History is present…You and I are history. We carry our history.

                     We act our history.

 This installation is one way I act my history, our history.

I am because they were.   I am who they imagined.