In the 1960s, for at least a brief moment, Montreal became what seemed an unlikely centre of Black Power and the Caribbean left. In October 1968 the Congress of Black Writers at McGill University brought together well-known Black thinkers and activists from Canada, the United States, Africa, and the Caribbean—people like C.L.R. James, Stokely Carmichael, Miriam Makeba, Rocky Jones, and Walter Rodney. Within months of the Congress, a Black-led protest at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) exploded on the front pages of newspapers across the country—raising state security fears about Montreal as the new hotbed of international Black radical politics.
Fear of a Black Nation. Race, Sex, and Security in Sixties Montreal
By David Austin
Between the Lines (May 2013)
Paperback, 256 pages
David Austin’s much-anticipated book Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Security in Sixties Montreal was released at the end of May 2013, available just in time for the Black Canadian Studies Association (BCSA) conference at Brock University. The book represents the culmination of two decades of formal and informal inquiry by the author including extensive conversations and interviews as well as international archival research. It describes experiences and self-organizing activities of Blacks in Montreal in the late 1960s, and offers unique information and insight about activities leading up to and following the 1968 Black Writers Congress at McGill University and the 1969 occupation of the computer center at Sir George Williams University. Furthermore, Austin analyzes the Canadian state response to these events through a critical reading of RCMP files that not only document the surveillance of Black students, community members and groups (and their allies) during this time but, in the observations, comments and actions recorded by the agents, also expose a profound fear of Black political organizing in Montreal and its potential national and international consequences.
biosexuality, “a primeval fear of Blacks that is based in slavery and colonialism and the recurring need to discipline and control Black bodies”
While Fear of a Black Nation is centered on Montreal in the late 1960s, its reach extends from slavery in 17th century New France to today. As Austin described in a recent interview, his approach required a deep archaeological dig to unearth narratives that had been silenced and made invisible, with which he then attempted “to write through history in order to make sense of where we are today.”[i] Emphasizing the importance of understanding how the past lingers and continues to influence us in the present, Austin situates Black political organizing in late 1960s Montreal within the contexts of broader North American and world histories, anti-colonial struggles, and theories of race. His close and layered reading of the activities surrounding the Congress and protest at Sir George serve to both highlight Black agency and social – political resistance to institutional and systemic racism, and to reveal the dread on the part of the state that was generated by an increasingly visible Black presence in Montreal during this era. Austin shows the threat perceived in Black – White political solidarity and socializing, pointing to what he refers to as biosexual politics or biosexuality, “a primeval fear of Blacks that is based in slavery and colonialism and the recurring need to discipline and control Black bodies” (p. 11). Recorded comments by RCMP officers about Black – White racial mixing, particularly about relationships between Black males and White females, suggest how the Black male was seen as an inherent threat poised to violate. These comments point to the “afterlife of slavery”[ii] and deeply entrenched racial codes that continue to inform our attitudes and govern our everyday interactions.
Deconstructing the longstanding Canadian myth of two founding nations, Austin highlights the accompanying conception of the French and British as two founding “races” and how the identity of the ‘French race’ as subordinated by the English in Canada led to an identification of the French in Québec with Black anti-colonial struggles and the African American Civil Rights and Black Power movements. As Austin discusses, comparisons to and appropriations of Black experience by oppressed groups were not uncommon during the sixties, for example, among students and white feminists. The notion of French working class Québecers as nègres blancs, however, ‘took on a life of its own’ once the idea was popularized by Pierre Vallières in his 1968 Nègres blancs d’Amérique, published in English in 1971 as White niggers of America. Austin’s astute analysis of Vallières’ work and of race politics in Québec strongly grounds this work in the province’s history, culture and politics while revealing the afterlife of slavery and complexity of race as it continues to permeate all aspects of Québec and Canadian societies. The continuing relevance of such critical structural and systemic analyses of race and nationalism today could hardly be more starkly evident, as the Parti Quebécois announces proposed changes to the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms that, in the guise of “religious neutrality,” will prohibit the wearing of all religious symbols including hijab, yarmulke and turbans by public employees including government workers and anyone working in daycares, schools and health services. The government justifies this proposal for the legal adoption of a common set of “Québec values” by asserting a perceived need to “set clear rules for everyone” that will eliminate the “discomfort” caused by religious accommodation and “build a strong Québec identity.” “To maintain social peace and promote harmony,” the government website asserts, “we must prevent tensions from growing.”[iii]
On the last weekend of May 2013 students, scholars, and artists gathered to share and discuss Black Canadian histories, experiences and scholarship at the BCSA conference titled Where are you from? Reclaiming the Black Presence in Canada. This was an ideal occasion for the debut of Fear of a Black Nation, and Austin, a founding member of the BCSA, spoke on Black Canada, race and the state in a presentation with historian Barrington Walker. In the summer months that followed, Fear of a Black Nation was launched through a series of media interviews and appearances by Austin: at the UNIA in Montreal in conversation with author H. Nigel Thomas; in Ottawa at Octopus Bookstore in conversation with journalist Adrian Harewood; and in Toronto at A Different Booklist. The significance of the locations and styles of the launch events should not be overlooked. Such choices reflect and reinforce the location of Austin’s work within a tradition that understands intellectual work and activism as inextricably linked, and that emphasizes oral history, grassroots autonomous organizing, popular education, face-to-face dialogue, and accountability to community. How this book has come into being and been presented to us suggests how we are to receive and engage with it—with patience, deep reflection, in conversation with others, and with an emphasis on bringing theory and practice together in ways that help us to better understand what Austin calls the “irrational-rational logic” that facilitates the survival of race and the racial codes that continue to govern White supremacy.
[i] Wojtek Gwiazda and David Austin (2013, June 24). “‘Fear of a Black Nation,’ new book on Black activism and 1960s Montreal.” Radio Canada International, http://www.rcinet.ca/en/2013/06/24/fear-of-a-black-nation-new-book-on-black-activism-and-1960s-montreal/
[ii] In the opening chapter of Fear of a Black Nation Austin explains Saidiya Hartman’s use of this term and Jared Sexton’s related call for further examination of the system and practices of slavery and its long-term destabilizing effects.