mitchellirons

rough notes

Halifax, The Act of Forgetting, and Africville

with 3 comments

In another life I’d have called this not “The Spadina Bus” (cf The Shuffle Demons), or even “Crosstown Traffic“. I realized when I awoke this morning that I’d have to make a trip up to the library at Mount Saint Vincent University, but first had to stop at the library at Dalhousie University, thereby turning my day into an academic milk-run.

Half of my morning, it seems, was spent on the road.I’m not a fan of the bus rise toward MSVU, situated as it is on the Bedford Highway. Each trip on the No.18 Bus drives me past the Fairview Cove Container Terminal, which breaks my heart every time. The scene, in some ways, is non-descript: one is afforded a view of Halifax Industry In Action, followed by a small park, and finally the McKay Bridge looming in the background across The Narrows. What’s troubling about this image is not what is seen, however, but what has been effaced from the landscape, what has been lost to time by systemic racism.

I’m thinking, of course, of the former community of Africville, a small village of 400 Afro-Canadian ‘residents of Halifax’ (placed in quotes because they lived here, but were never welcome in the city) that was demolished in the 1960s in the name of progress – the construction of the bridge (1970), the container terminal (1982), and ostensibly to “improve” the quality of life of a people who had forever been refused municipal services and infrastructure and deeds to their land. To think that this group of families, who lived, worked, and prayed together, who were an integrated, tight-knit community, lost their homes, their community and their heritage ultimately to facilitate the construction of roads to the suburbs and a container terminal to ship goods to the interior turns my stomache inside out.

Sometimes I wonder how the tragic nature of the Africville story is compounded by this sheer number of goods being transported and cars being driven in and around the site of the community. Being stuck in traffic, with eyes focused on the garish “Speedy Print” (or is it “Speed Auto”?) sign, and with our minds left to wonder if we’ll make it home in time to watch the latest television programming revived since the end of the SAG strike is how we allow ourselves to forget about the dark side of our past. The act of forgetting is not passive. Forgetting may not be deliberate, but it is not accidental, eiter. We choose what is important to us, and for too many people, what’s important at Fairview Cove is not the travesty that is Africville, but a chance to beat the traffic on the Bedford Highway, or having the proper change ready for the McKay Bridge’s toll.

There should be some sort of signifier built on the side of the Bedford Highway to force people to think, and to force them not to forget, but to remember and realize and know the Africville story. A memorial does exist, in Seaview Park, Seaview Park Memorial to Africville. Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.but I doubt that many people who drive in and out of town everyday ever stop at this site – a small and tarnished, yet hallowed ground wedged between a bridge and a container terminal. A memorial on the side of the Highway would appropriately force people to think about the past. The Highway does not cover the area that Africville stood, I know, but it is so heavily used, and simply too close to the site to simply leave alone. A road-side sign will not do. A cairn, or any small monument would be appropriate: what is needed is physical object large enough in size to force us to remember.

Aristotle, or at least some crackpot Aristotilean critics, suggests that the opposite of forgetting is not remembrance, but catharsis, that forceful knock-out punch of emotions that can set the record straight and help the subjects move on toward reconciliation and denouement. That’s what this part of Halifax needs – a cathartic reconciliation. It would be a small step, but a step in the right direction, nonetheless.

(originally written 2 March 2008)
Links of Interest:
CBC.ca Africville Archives – Video Footage and Radio Reels.
Africville: Urban Removal in Canada / P. Brown (1996).
The Ethnic Cleansing of Africville: Identity Politics in Canada / K. Peterson (2004).

Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia.Destination Liberty, Black Loyalist Society of Nova Scotia.

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Written by mitchellirons

March 7, 2008 at 12:12 pm

3 Responses

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  1. I do have some sympathy for the people who lived there but the whole Africville issue has been hugely twisted and exaggerated over the years.

    The first thing people need to realize when it comes to Africville is the context. Was it a poor area? Yes. Was it unique in Nova Scotia in the 1950s and 60s? No. There were comparable rural areas with a similar standard of living across Canada and most of them happen to be populated by whites.

    People also need to separate the act of demolition of Africville from the earlier treatment of residents (which I’m not sure is more than an accident of history – they had been there for about 150 years – but I don’t really know enough about it to comment). I don’t believe that the housing projects themselves were hugely racist and malicious acts. In fact, I think they were an attempt to fix the problems of poor housing and service levels that people tend to complain about. In retrospect it would have been better to invest in the neighbourhood but large scale redevelopment was popular back then. It also happened in predominantly white areas of Halifax.

    Finally, people should be careful not to exaggerate the scale of Africville. It was a few dozen houses with a few hundred residents. Only a small minority of Halifax’s black population lived there and the land is mostly Seaview Park today. Africville did not encompass the entire MacKay Bridge/Fairview Cove area.

    Once again, I’m not trying to claim that black people didn’t suffer discrimination back in the 50s and 60s, but Africville has been turned into a weird cause célèbre totally independent of facts and historical context.

    The image of Halifax as a “racist” city within Canada also irks me somewhat. The only reason the image exists is because it *actually had black people* before 1970s-era immigration changes. People who think Ontario, Quebec, or the West were any better are fooling themselves.

    Haligonian

    March 13, 2008 at 3:23 am

  2. […] Greatest Hits ← Halifax, The Act of Forgetting, and Africville […]

  3. Haligonian,

    Thank you for your comments. While I don’t quite agree with all of your thoughts, I do encourage you to continue speaking up on the issue.

    Please check out the 1971 Africville Relocation Report, linked at http://mitchellirons.com/blog/2008/03/13/africville2/ , for greater context on the issue.

    mitchellirons

    March 13, 2008 at 10:47 pm


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