James Fisher Reviews A Must-Read History Regarding Slavery in Canada
It Was Dark There All the Time
Goose Lane Editions
The rose-coloured glasses, through which Canadians regard slavery in this country, have been cast off by the truths illuminated through the Black Lives Matter movement. But it wasn’t until I read this book by Andrew Hunter that I came to know the extent of the injustices, particularly among United Empire Loyalists in the Niagara region. Hunter puts these injustices under a crystal-clear lens.
Little is known about Sophia Burthen or her family. An interview she had with Benjamin Drew in 1855 is the nugget of her recorded history that Andrew Hunter has taken and thoroughly examined in this book. He follows her footsteps from the moment she and her sister were abducted from outside their home in New York State, blindfolded and put in the hold of a ship (where “it was dark there all the time”) that took them into what was a British territory until her last known whereabouts in Ontario (Canada West).
Lawrence Hill writes It Was Dark There All the Time is “thoroughly researched, self-reflexive, and soulful.” And indeed it is. The entire book takes a holistic approach to the telling of Burthen’s story. Mr. Hunter follows every lead, researching the lives of any person, Black, white or Indigenous, that comes into contact with Sophie at any point in her life.
Prominent is Joseph Brant, aka Thayendenegea, in whose household Burthen was once employed. Drew includes frequent poignant ‘letters’ to Sophia, asking the questions Benjamin Drew didn’t. (The text of his interview is also included). This book is a labour of love, written for Sophia and so many others who had no voice.
“I wrote this book to honour you and to trouble whiteness,” the author writes in his final letter to Sophie in the Acknowledgements at the end of the text.
Notably, before he delves into the research he has unearthed, Hunter makes this statement in Chapter Two, “On Whiteness”:
I am a white man. I realize that many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) readers do not need to hear another white man’s words, particularly words shaped by the life of a Black woman who lived enslaved in Canada that draws on the writings and cultural expressions of BIPOC voices. I know that there will also be white people who don’t want to hear the critique of whiteness that runs throughout this story. To BIPOC individuals and communities: I hope that you will take up this narrative and come to see it as a valuable contribution. To white people, particularly Canadians: you need to read this or any book that discomforts us in trying to get beyond feel-good narratives of our histories; we are implicated; we cannot continue in innocence or feigned ignorance of a damning legacy that we continue to benefit from and defines our place in the world. We need to accept a past that has shaped, and that we continue to reshape in, the present.
Hunter is correct: “you need to read this book.” As you can see, he doesn’t say this out of hubris, but from the viewpoint of a white settler who is trying to grapple with the sordid past of his ancestors, and shine a light for those who wish to travel with him on a mission of enlightenment and reparations. A remarkable book, so well-researched and executed perfectly. A must-read for those desiring to know more about the history of Blacks in Canada.