Speakers for the Dead is an NFB documentary created by Jennifer Holness and David Sutherland. It tells the story of a town in rural Ontario, where a White farmer buried the tombstones of a Black cemetery to make way for a potato patch.
(Holness & Sutherland, 2000)
Greetings gentle readers. It has been some time since I’ve written. As you will recall, I began a master’s degree in September 2010. When I set out on this journey, I had no idea the slippery slopes that lay ahead. I still don’t. I am in the midst of it right now. Every mountain I climb makes me realize there are more ahead. To quote my friend Jennifer’s father, “never say whoah in a hard place.” And so, I keep on, keeping on.
This semester I am taking an image based, Cultural Production Workshop taught by Deb Barndt. Deb is a professor in the Environmental Studies Program and she coordinates the Community Arts Practice Certificate. Deb, in a word, is a powerhouse. Her work integrates global and local food systems, popular education and activism. One of the requirements of this course is a journal so I have decided to attempt here to write in this blog in order to chart the progress I am making in my program. I am working towards a project that will use performance and locative media to create a psychogeographic walking tour of the Grange’s hidden Black histories so my posts will reflect what I am learning. It is my hope, gentle readers, that you will accompany me on this journey.
This is post #1 and I will start by looking at the work of Katherine McKittrick. I’m currently reading her book, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. McKittrick is a professor at Queens University, though; I have heard that she lives here in Toronto. Her area is geography. She probes the intersection of race, feminism and space. For me, this is new territory (ok I intended that pun). I am interested in McKittrick’s work because I am trying to understand why Black history is excluded from Canada’s foundational narratives. There are numerous examples of Black Canadian histories that have been suppressed, overwritten, absent or literally paved over. Marie Angelique, for example, a slave woman who allegedly burnt down Montreal, isn’t even mentioned in most history books. The shattered tombstones of a Black cemetery in Priceville, Grey County (see film above) provides evidence of the lives of early Black settlers who were pushed out of the way make room for the current White settlement. I want to tell these stories, starting with the stories of the Black history of the Grange area of Toronto where I live. I want to breathe live into accounts of people like Peggy Pompadour, a slave of Peter Russell, the administrator of Upper Canada. We know about Peggy because historians like Afua Cooper have rescued fragments of letters and newspaper ads in the archives that mention her.
So why am I looking at geography? Well, geography is about space and space is a way of making meaning. My thinking is that by studying space, it will give me some clues about how/why Canada does that complex dance of imagining itself as a multicultural country yet absenting histories that do not fit the narrative of British and French founders.
As a media artist working with locative media, I’ve been drawing on the concept of space but I’ve never tried to articulate it using words. So I’m attempting here to summarize what I’ve gleaned from McKittrick about the concept of space.
Katherine McKittrick explains that geography isn’t just about the land, the physical space, it is the way we ascribe meanings to it. De Certeau, in his famous text, Walking the City, describes how we write the story of the city through walking. “The networks of these moving, intersecting writings compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator, shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces.” (De Certeau, 1984 p.93)
People generally think of space as something external to ourselves. Space just is. This makes it seem neutral, inert, not something we have any control over. We see space as the container we inhabit but we are not aware that we ourselves actively created it.
Since we humans are the ones making the meanings, then space is about us. It is, in fact, a mirror image of ourselves, and our power relationships. McKittrick says that inequities in our society are produced because of the way we ascribe meaning to space inequitably. We map our power relationships to space and the bodies that inhabit space so we reproduce inequalities through our production of space. (McKittrick, 2006 p.xi)
Ok, enough about space for today. I will keep reading and write more another time. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your responses.
De Certeau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley, California, USA: University of California Press.
Holness, J., Sutherland, D., & National Film Board of Canada. (2000). Speakers for the dead. Montreal: NFB.
McKittrick, K. (2006). Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the cartographies of struggle. Minnesota, MN, USA: University of Minnesota Press.