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Book Excerpt: Fear of a Black Nation

Ottawa Citizen

July 28, 2013

By David Austin

Book Excerpt: Fear of a Black Nation

UPI TELEPHOTO | Photograph by: File photo , UPI Telephoto

Sometime in 1997 I encountered a person who helped to crystallize for me the significance of an event that had happened decades earlier in Montreal, and especially of what that event meant for Black politics in the city.

I was working as a youth worker in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce district of Montreal. One afternoon, when I was foraging for lunch in a local grocery store, an older woman I had never seen before approached me. With a look of dismay on her face she unexpectedly asked me, “Did you hear what happened to Stokely?” I was perplexed — I had no idea that she was referring to the Stokely. Sensing my confusion, she continued: “You know, Stokely Carmichael.” She told me she had just learned he had been diagnosed with cancer.

The woman’s name, I soon found out, was Josie Wallen. In our brief conversation she spoke of Stokely’s impact on her when she was a young Black woman trying to make sense of her place in the world in the 1960s. She described his presence and importance in almost spiritual terms. That she referred to him not only by his first name but also by his older name (he had long since become Kwame Ture) was a sign of endearment for a man whose words and deeds had captured the imagination of people around the world.

Stokely Carmichael was a symbol of Black defiance, militancy, humanity, and freedom at a time when Blacks in Canada and the rest of the Black diaspora were redefining themselves and renegotiating the terms of their racialized existence. The iconic figure of Stokely was central to a moment that dramatically changed many lives. Josie Wallen’s sadness and sense of imminent loss were obvious.

Later, moved by our brief conversation, I inquired among my older friends about Wallen and discovered that she was one of the organizers of the October 1968 Congress of Black Writers, held at McGill University in Montreal. She was among the hundreds who had crowded into a packed university ballroom and classrooms over a period of four days to hear an array of prominent Black figures speak. Then, a few months after the Congress, another momentous event occurred: a Black-led student protest based on an accusation of institutional racism erupted into chaos at another English-language university in Montreal, Sir George Williams (now known as Concordia University). Given that I had already done research and writing about the Congress and Sir George, I was very curious about Josie Wallen.

In 1997, many members of Montreal’s Black community had not seen her in years, decades even, and they were surprised when they heard about my chance encounter with her. But for a brief moment between 1968 and 1969, the event that she was part of, and the city of Montreal itself, had become a centre of Black Power. Josie Wallen was part of a network of individuals and groups in the city’s small Black community, people who were fighting to define their place in Montreal and Canada. Like members of other communities in the Black diaspora, Montreal’s Blacks dreamed, fought, protested, and organized. They acted autonomously and yet were also an active part of a wider movement for change that touched the lives of others around the globe. That moment in Montreal was neither fleeting nor by chance. Rather, it was part of a larger complex of events and developments that sent ripples across Canada and through the United States, Britain, and the Caribbean.

My book’s title, Fear of a Black Nation, recalls the name of the classic Public Enemy album, Fear of a Black Planet. My slightly altered title hinges on the competing nationalists that emerged in Canada in the 1960s, and the fear that nations are “blackened” by the increased and public presence of Blacks.

Still, I do retain “Fear of a Black Planet” as the title of chapter 8, not just because of my appreciation for Public Enemy, but largely because the phrase best captures the worldliness of what I describe as bio-sexuality. That term — bio-sexuality, or bio-sexual politics — refers to a primeval fear of Blacks that is based in slavery and colonialism and the recurring need to discipline and control Black bodies — to force Blacks in particular to conform to the racial codes that govern their relations with other groups. It is a phenomenon intimately connected to both a fear of Black rebellion and self-activity, or self-organization, and an intense anxiety about the biological and political spread of blackness through Black-White solidarity and sexual encounters. It is about the perceived or potential threat that Blacks represent to the state. Far too often race is seen as a “Black problem” or an issue that can be separated from politics in general. The fear that the political presence of Blacks in Montreal engendered in 1968-69 and beyond, reminds us of the prominent place that race continues to occupy in our consciousness and the role that racial oppression plays in our daily lives.

Bio-sexuality has deep roots in English-Canadian and French-Canadian history and is reflected in official and popular attitudes toward people of African descent. It is a phenomenon that plagues the Americas and the global North. It functions in primordial ways that are deeply embedded in the subconscious, haunting intimate relationships in a manner that is tantamount to having George Orwell’s Big Brother in the bedroom. As state security files documenting the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s surveillance of Black political groups and individuals in Montreal in the 1960s reveal — alongside the panic that governed the police analysis — this sheer sense of dread is hardly new; and the persistence of racial exclusion is an indication that we have collectively failed to understand the history of “race” and its deep-seated psychology; how race permeates all sectors of society in ways that limit the life chances of Blacks and serve as an obstacle to human freedom in general.

In the post-9/11 world, it has become common to argue that Arabs are the “new Blacks.” Given the anti-Arab hysteria — illegal incarceration, extra-judicial measures, torture, racial profiling, and cultural and religious indifference — that has characterized the past decade and more, this sentiment is understandable. Opposition to the presence of Muslims and Arabs in North America is not new. Many of the Africans who were enslaved in the Americas were Muslims, and the Arab presence in the United States dates back to at least the late nineteenth century. In his book, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, Mousafa Bayoumi alerts us to how official Arab-phobia between 1909 and 1944 excluded Arabs from naturalized citizenship on the grounds that only Whites were eligible for this entitlement. In essence, Arabs were placed in the peculiar position of having to be declared White in order to circumvent the ruling, and they were nominally permitted citizenship in the 1940s when U.S. oil interests in Saudi Arabia became an important consideration in Arab-U.S. relations. By 1967, in the midst of the civil rights movement and the Arab-Israeli conflict, Arabs had become the object of intense surveillance and repression.

An honest historical account of our times will no doubt record the global post-9/11 backlash against Arabs and Muslims as a moment in which the open and official sanction of repression against these people became routine. Still, if Arabs are to be called the “new Blacks,” what does that mean for the “old Blacks” in the here and now? While Muslims and Arabs are perceived as a domestic threat in North America and Europe, the physical presence of actual Black peoples, their living bodies and the geographical space that they occupy, continues to sustain the Black-White/master-slave binary. In the 1960s, many Blacks challenged this relation and concluded that overcoming systemic racial exclusion involved negating the system responsible for producing it. Blacks assumed a place at the forefront of the struggle to transform the United States and, despite its small size, the Black population in Montreal played an active and seemingly disproportionate role in this struggle in Canada and within the Black diaspora.

For Blacks, past experiences with alliances have been largely fraught with the difficulties of White paternalism and unequal power dynamics. We need surely to take a step forward in our understanding of how the prevalence of race and racism limits life possibilities for people of African descent and hinders progressive attempts at overcoming the fundamentalist economics and politics of madness that govern our era. If we can do that, perhaps we can take another small step toward constructing an idea of freedom that considers humanity — and being human — not as a finished product, but as a work in progress. Only then will we be able to consciously account for the price that human existence — especially in the global North — has exacted on the entire planet; and work toward a freedom that is bold enough to question the meaning of our existence in a world whose survival as we know it is being called into question.

Reprinted with permission from Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex and Security in Sixties Montreal by David Austin (Between the Lines, 2013).