'Fear of a Black Nation' pulls Black voices out of Canadian historical erasure

Voicing the Black Power movement in 1960s Montreal

| November 21, 2013
'Fear of a Black Nation' pulls Black voices out of Canadian historical erasure

Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex and Security in Sixties Montreal

by David Austin
(Between the Lines,

Perhaps because David Austin's Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex and Security in Sixties Montreal is the first of its kind, it has, ambitiously, set out to accomplish a great deal.

An academic text whose title recalls the classic 1990 Public Enemy album Fear of a Black Planet, it aims to provide a viable counter-history of Black Power and Black liberation organizing in 1960s Montreal -- a topic left mostly untouched by Canadian history.

Through the analytic lenses of diaspora, memory, and biopolitics, Austin chronicles the history of Black Canadian intellectuals and political leaders organizing themselves in parallel proximity to a burgeoning twin movement south of the border.

Austin presents the reader with a painstakingly researched record spanning across borders and movements to contextualize the organizing happening in Montreal in and around the Congress of Black Writers and the infamous -- now seemingly forgotten -- Sir George Williams Affair, which remains the largest student occupation in Canadian history.

Austin talks about these pivotal events in Canadian history alongside the global traditions of Black consciousness and radicalism and more broadly, within the larger history of global leftist and liberation organizing. 

Race, empire, and history

Before Fear of a Black Nation can even begin to look at the ways in which Black people organized in Montreal in the 1960s, the text must negotiate the fact that history and empire have dictated a specific racial narrative that dominates the global racial discourse and shapes how bodies are raced well beyond what borders demarcate or signify.

Early chapters in the book set up the conceptual triad of "settler, savage, slave" and discuss how this racial formulation is inextricably linked to the colonial project in North America and elsewhere, ultimately prefiguring the ways in which bodies were raced in 1960s Montreal during the height of Black radicalism.

Austin presents the reader with a primer on the history of slavery in Canada and, more specifically, in Quebec. By chronicling this history and using it to contextualize the emergence of radical Black liberation movements in 1960s Montreal, Austin acknowledges and works to counteract the Canadian state's tendency -- one which persists to this day -- to deny slavery, colonialism, racial hierarchy and racism within its own borders and identify these problems as exclusively American.

Too often, Canada's only history of systemic oppression is said to be on the basis of language. Austin devotes a great deal to countering this erasure and critiquing how Quebecois activists of the time appropriated the language of racialized oppression despite enjoying white privilege and being colonizers themselves for example "nègres blancs" or "white niggers." At the same time, there were also complicated alliances between Quebecois organizers and Black organizers of the time -- something Austin does not gloss over.

Austin grounds his counter-historical record and arguments in theorist Richard Iton's concept of the Black diasporic subject, which includes both recent immigrants, largely from the Caribbean, as well as the post-slavery diaspora in North America.

Iton situates the Black subject in the Western diaspora by using the concept of "geo-heterodoxy." He claims that the "capacity to imagine and operate simultaneously within, against and outside the nation-state" is central to the Black subject's positioning in the diaspora. Even while agitating for civil rights and inclusion within state structures as a matter of survival, for Iton and Austin, the Black diasporic subject also possesses an "anarchist-inflected imagination" which resists, both ideologically and materially, the machinations of racist colonial nation-states.

Paradoxically, Black diasporic subjects both seek state recognition and understand the severe limitations of that recognition: in many ways, the state itself is predicated on and sustained by the racial hierarchies generated by colonialism and slavery. The limitations that define state recognition for Black subjects extend to the official historical record too; History with a capital "H" is shaped in large part by the state.

The histories that are validated by the state serve state interests, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that certain narratives are accepted and others denied. It is from this positioning that Austin sets his text up to counter dominant discourses of erasure around racism and colonialism, as well as the vilification of the movements built up to counter those structures.

Most Canadians don't have a cultural memory of Black Power because as Austin demonstrates, it's a chapter missing from our history. But even if they did, would they support the movement or the ideology behind it?

Political Black bodies, white anxieties

White anxiety figures prominently in Austin's discussion of state repression directed at Black liberation movements of 1960s Montreal. As RCMP records from the time indicate, the state took the threat of what Austin calls a "contaminating Blackness" very seriously. Numerous official dossiers articulate a deeply held fear of an organized and growing Black resistance that constituted "an extreme threat."

The RCMP worked in concert with the CIA and FBI in surveilling, infiltrating and sabotaging Black organizing circles, even running its own version of the infamous COINTELPRO called PROFUNC. These details are often left out of conversations about the Black liberation movement today.

Also, Austin views this white anxiety through the lens of biopolitics, noting white fears around Black male sexuality and criminality and racist ideological holdovers from slavery. He centres white fears of Black male bodies, particularly when gathered together with revolutionary intent.

For this reason, the 1968 Congress of Black Writers held at McGill University was a critical mobilizing moment both for Black organizers and the RCMP in its tactical history of subversion and extra-legal (or outright illegal) campaigns against Black Canadians.

Austin documents beautifully how the Congress itself grew out of radical Black organizations like the Caribbean Conference Committee and ultimately fed into the Sir George Williams Affair, which was the ultimate culmination of white anxieties around Black bodies amassed with political intent.

The student occupation of the computer room at the Sir George Williams University remains the largest student occupation in Canadian history. The occupation was led by Black students and it was in protest of an incident of racism by the administration. The fact that the Affair isn't more widely known or appreciated speaks to the histories we validate and value, and the role the state plays in influencing these cultural choices.

All the Blacks were men, but some of them were brave

It is somewhat surprising that there isn't any real analysis of gender within the Black Power movement for the first 80 pages of the 200 page text given Austin's analysis of Black movement leaders and repressions using the lens of biopolitics. The subtitle suggests that the book aimed to do otherwise: "Race, sex, and security in 1960s Montreal."

While there is an acknowledgement that there were no women speakers at the Congress of Black Writers and that there was sexism within the larger movement, there is little substantive discussion of women organizers and the repression they faced alongside their male peers. Throughout the book, women are used as framing devices and profiled briefly, perhaps due to lack of original material.

Either way, an analysis of women and the kinds of repression enacted on their bodies either does not come through in the text or exists as an afterthought, which is disappointing. In this sense the book fails to provide a true, complete counter-history of Black radicalism of 1960s Montreal -- there are so many voices we don't get to hear and that silence is deafening.

Overall, Austin does an admirable job at documenting an impressive amount of history that was previously unwritten and linking that history to how race operates in modern North America.

The text strives to access the timbre of a specific moment in time, and in painting a portrait of 1960s Montreal as a centre for Black intellectualism, radicalism and liberation organizing, gives readers an alternate vision of the politics of the city. Ultimately, the author's attempt to access Black radical consciousness of the time is imperfect but restores a large part of an incredible legacy of resistance.


Muna Mire is an organizer, writer and a Black girl from the future. A recent University of Toronto grad, she is a member of the editorial board of {Young}ist, a young people-powered media start up. You can find her freelance work at Bitch, Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere. Her interests include progressive politics, movement building, postcolonial literature, feminisms and speaking back to The Man.



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