(Black) Community Historiography
- Sharon Hepburn (Author)
Crossing the Border: A Free Black Community in Canada. University of Illinois Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Stephen Kimber (Author)
Loyalists and Layabouts: The Rapid Rise and Faster Fall of Shelburne, Nova Scotia 1783 - 1792. Doubleday Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Maureen Moynagh
Given how little there is in the way of Black Canadian community history, two new books presenting accounts of the Buxton settlement in Ontario and of Shelburne, Nova Scotia ought to be particularly welcome. While Sharon Roger Hepburn’s Crossing the Border: A Free Black Community in Canada ultimately represents a useful contribution, Stephen Kimber’s Loyalists and Layabouts: The Rapid Rise and Faster Fall of Shelburne lacks the kind of rich, nuanced and critical historiography that is warranted.
Hepburn traces the development of Buxton from its conception and founding in order to try to account for its status as the "most successful all-black community established in Canada before the U.S. Civil War." She compares it not only to similar communities in Canada, like Dawn and Wilberforce, but also to free Black communities in the US like Brooklyn, Illinois and the Beech and Roberts settlements in Indiana. The force of these comparisons is ultimately to credit Canadian legal structures and political receptivity to fugitive slaves as well as William King’s paternalist approach to free Black settlement with the stability, relative prosperity and longevity of Buxton as a community. While she does represent the racist opposition to the founding of Buxton in ways that belie the mythology of Canada as Canaan, and while her portrait of King, an abolitionist who became a slave-holder upon marriage, is not uncritical, Hepburn writes against the grain of recent Black historiography and without explicitly engaging in the debates her work addresses. Nor does Hepburn offer any discussion of methodology; Crossing the Border is fairly conventional narrative history.
Nevertheless, her use of rich, archival materials ranging from census data and marriage records, to maps, deeds, newspapers, voters lists, and association records yields a detailed picture of the Black settlers in Buxton. Hepburn represents their educational pursuits, the place of churches in the community, the types of employment settlers engaged in, and offers a description of community structure, all of which highlights the ethic of self-reliance that developed in Buxton. In fact, the central contradiction in Buxton’s founding between King’s declared interest in creating the conditions for independent Black citizens to thrive and the considerable evidence of his effort to control every facet of community life is in some sense mirrored in the structure of Hepburn’s book, which focuses on King in the first five chapters, and on the community members themselves in the remaining five. Still, there is much of interest here, such as the presence of several interracial couples in the community, the relatively high literacy rates, and the racial integration of Buxton’s churches and schools. Had the descriptive narrative only been accompanied by analysis and an explicitly theorized historiography, Crossing the Border would have been a much stronger book.
In Loyalists and Layabouts, Stephen Kimber writes about the founding of Shelburne, Nova Scotia by Loyalists, both White and Black, at the end of the eighteenth century. Kimber begins by confessing that he is not a historian, but a journalist, and that he is aiming at what he calls, somewhat redundantly, "historical narrative non-fiction," largely by focusing on the stories of those he regards as the "central characters" in the history of Shelburne’s founding, and by narrating that history from the point of view of those historical figures. It is clear, then, that this is not a book to which scholars will turn for a responsible, well-researched history of a Loyalist community. A glance at Kimber’s very thin bibliography confirms that this is a popular retelling of the available historical narrative. For a scholarly account of Black Shelburne, nothing has yet surpassed James W. St. G. Walker’s The Black Loyalists: The Search for the Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone 1783-1870, which Kimber cribs extensively for his representation of the Black Loyalist residents, their relationship with abolitionist John Clarkson, and the eventual exodus of many to Sierra Leone in 1792. There is a place for popular history; in fact, as a means of making more evident the role Black people have historically played in the founding of Canadian communities, popular histories are as urgently needed as scholarly histories. But Kimber is no Adam Hochschild, and Loyalists and Layabouts is no King Leopold’s Ghost.
This book disappoints in a number of respects. The heavy-handed alliteration and hackneyed phrasing of the book’s title are reproduced throughout the text in a way that quickly becomes tiresome. For the portraits of Shelburne community members, Kimber relies heavily on extant historical accounts, and on memoirs like that of David George, which he then re-interprets and re-narrates, imputing motive and sentiment, not to mention drawing conclusions that he confesses in his notes he has no evidence to support. Readers interested in learning about the lives of figures like George, Boston King, and John Marrant would be better served by consulting their narratives and diaries, available through Canada’s Digital Collections under Black Loyalists: Our History, Our People. Discussion of racial inequality and the unjust treatment of Black residents of Birchtown, the segregated Black community on the periphery of Shelburne, or indeed, of Birchtown’s role as safe haven for runaway slaves in the province is confined to three pages. Kimber’s aim is ostensibly to make the history of Shelburne’s founding "come alive" through his loosely historical portraits of its Loyalist settlers, but a non-academic audience would be both better served and, I submit, more effectively engaged by a more responsible and analytical account of Shelburne’s early years.
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MLA: Moynagh, Maureen. (Black) Community Historiography. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #203 (Winter 2009), Home, Memory, Self. (pg. 158 - 160)
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