Protest and outcries against systemic racism almost always focus on Black men and boys. Yet, Black women and girls have experienced a long and painful history of police brutality, but have not received the same attention and awareness as their male counterparts. In February 2015, law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and the African American Policy Forum coined the hashtag #SayHerName to contest the invisibility of Black women killed by police and draw attention to the long history of state-sanctioned violence against Black women that is too often forgotten.
To fully grapple with the police killings of Breonna Taylor in the United States and Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Canada, we must understand the legacy of slavery and its ongoing impact on Black women’s lives and experiences. Crenshaw notes, “We don’t tell the stories about the disrespect that Black women experienced. So not too surprisingly, when the police treat Black women in ways that are continuous with that legacy, we don’t have the stories.” Far too often, Black women are sidelined from discussions about race, race relations, and racism because their stories have been historically erased or ignored.
While it is impossible to identify just 5 “must read” books that tell stories of both the racist violence against Black women and their refusal to yield to such oppression, the following books are crucial to understanding the past in the present. These books describe in harrowing detail the unfathomable violence experienced by enslaved Black women and their resistance, varying from practical to dramatic, across the Americas and connects the long history of slavery and anti-Black racism in Canada to discriminatory practices and policies that continue today.
Afua Cooper’s The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal is a powerful retelling of Marie-Joseph Angélique’s story—a slave condemned to death for starting a fire that destroyed a large part of Montreal in April 1734. This historical work dismantles notions of Canada as “racism free” and reveals Canada’s 200 year record of slavery.
Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes tells the sweeping story of Aminata Diallo, abducted as a young girl in West Africa in 1755 and transported to a plantation in South Carolina. Years later, Aminata escapes slavery and make her way to freedom in Nova Scotia, where she encounters a society steeped in anti-Black racism, and joins 1,200 former slaves on a harrowing journey back to Africa.
Sylvia Hamilton’s And I Alone Escaped to Tell You uses a variety of archival documents to re-imagine the lives and experience of early Black Nova Scotians—from slaves to freedom runners—and their struggles for freedom. This moving poetry collection captures the hopes and dreams of the formerly enslaved in Canada.
Dionne Brand’s At the Full and Change of the Moon tells the story of Marie Ursule, a slave on a Trinidad estate who leads a mass slave revolt, and the interconnected stories of her descendants across the United States, Canada and Europe, whose lives are haunted by the legacy of slavery and resistance.
Robyn Maynard’s Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present traces the history of Black life in Canada from slavery onwards, drawing specific attention to the violent realities and additional challenges facing Black women and girls, and re-imagines a more just and equitable society in Canada.
As we celebrate Black History Month, it is important for us to recognize that we live in the long shadow of slavery. Black women and girls, in particular, continue to live in poverty and poor health, experience violence both in the public and private spheres, and face challenges accessing employment, housing, and public services. As we debate race and race relations in Canada, we cannot proceed without first acknowledging that slavery is a Canadian story.