On the Second Emancipation Day in Canada
On the Second Emancipation Day in Canada
The second ever nationally recognized Emancipation Day in Canada, 1 August 2022, finds me and NourbeSe Philip at brunch in Toronto. We meet at Café Diplomatico on College Street on the Monday after Caribana, itself an annual summer celebration, presencing Blackness and Black people, in dis place. We begin here, in dis place, in displace/ment. I was in time to catch the spectacular and spectacle of Caribana, proud and awed by the power, color, sound, and throngs of Blackness, Black people, and Black culture. At Café Diplomatico, Philip and I brunch: both of us women, friends, both mothers whose children are celebrating a recent birthday within a day of each other, and both poets who think about language and space and power and translation and ancestors and responsibility to the work that we do; but I’m an apprentice in this company and I’m honored for this time spent.
I’m an Acholi poet. I work in a tradition in which the poem is invitation and invocation. I’ve been learning to think and write alongside the work of NourbeSe Philip, to “try my tongue,” to be a jamette poet in this long project of breaking silence.1 My provocation in this essay is modest: to foreground ways my thinking on place is informed by Philip’s essay “Black W/Holes: A History of Brief Time” and essays on dis place / displace, like “Dis Place—The Space Between,” from her essay collection Bla_k.2 Philip begins “Black W/Holes” with a memory of a racist who attacks her with “You fucking people are all over the place!” and goes on to reflect how the man’s racism is in step with a long narrative that defines the presence of Black people here as unfree, unwanted, and misrepresented, both historically and in the present.3 “Dis Place” is a long essay that defines the jamette poet as one who writes “from rather than about” a place, one who locates the “silence around a text” and dis place: “Not on the margins. But within the very body where the silence exists.”4 I’ll be thinking about how to read the silence in this landscape in this time (as I write this, 2022), a hundred and eighty-nine years after the proclamation by the British that slavery would be illegal and that the enslaved people would be free on its lands and in its colonies. I begin with these questions: What is dis place? What is the work of language being imposed on us all in these days, in this place, particularly for those of us who are seen as “all over the place”? And how do I find language for dis place and displacement as a jamette poet, one for whom (as I learn from Philip) the space between the legs is a political, social, and artistic location to write from? What is my work as Black, woman, and poet?
At brunch, we catch up with each other, sharing friendship, community, and family news, but I’m aware that I have to write this essay, and on this, too, I turn to Philip for guidance. She generously captures our thinking at Café Diplomatico in the following offer, first written in my notebook and then sent by email afterward:
Notwithstanding that there were material changes that came en train of our bodies being legally emancipated, how then do we mark, acknowledge and celebrate that we always understood that we never were that “thing” that was emancipated. We always understood what being human meant, over and above, indeed more expansive than, the status of legal chattel, that was created by the many legal fiats of slavery.
With the above in mind, what does it mean to celebrate, to take note of this second Emancipation Day in Canada when we have always known ourselves to be people? A line from Bob Marley’s 1980 “Redemption Song” returns—“None but ourselves / can free our minds”—and so emancipation remains a gulf between those who understand Emancipation Day as arising from a declaration, and those who want to acknowledge the reality of the lives of Black people through these hundred and eighty-nine years for whom this declaration of emancipation remains bound by legal, social, cultural, and economic unfreedoms. For many, Emancipation Day is, When? Where? How? What? and Really?
Dis place as memory, as present
I take the VIA Rail train from Kingston, Ontario, where I currently live, love, and work, to Toronto, and I get off at one of the city’s busiest train stations, Union Station, where a lenticular photograph by the Toronto artists Camille Turner and Camal Pirbhal is installed opposite the VIA Rail train ticket counter. It is a huge and colorful and impressive image featuring crowds of people in that train station lobby. As you walk by it, some faces in the photo come into focus, then blur. People take photos of it and pose beside it and then walk on by. According to the didactic by the work, House of Bâby is a
portrait of eighteen Black and Indigenous people who were enslaved by the Bâby family of Toronto, Windsor and Detroit. Although their unpaid labour produced great wealth for the family, they were recognized only as property and were unacknowledged in the official historical narrative.
It is entirely fitting that this photograph is here at Union Station, a space of constant movement, people coming and going, meeting and separating, sometimes stopping to look, to see, to remember. As a signifier, this lenticular photo reminds passersby that the great wealth and power accumulated in these lands originated from the labor of enslaved Black and Indigenous people. Fittingly, this is also Caribana weekend, the largest cultural festival in North America that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to Toronto annually. In “Black W/Holes,” Philip writes,
What happens when “you fucking people are all over the place!”? As in Caribana. Where hundreds of thousands of black bodies take over the streets of Toronto. This collectivity of black bodies, that is truly all over a specially-allocated place is always seen as a potential source of trouble. . . . No mention is made of the $200+ million that Caribana brings into the province’s coffers.5
Turner and Pirbal’s work disrupts the invisible legacies of Bâby and echoes Philip’s claim that there is a long and undisputable connection between capital production and Black people and Indigenous people and who is and is not deemed to benefit from that capital production. However charged the presence of Black and Indigenous people is, the haunting is undeniable and unforgettable.
Dis place as echo
Recently in Gulu, Uganda, my hometown, an elephant statue was unveiled at Ker-Kwaro-Acholi Airfield Road, a prominent spot for anyone coming into the city.6 Accompanying the statue is signage: “Welcome to Gulu City. Home of Kodi pa Lyec.” We from Gulu, as kodi pa lyec, understand ourselves as people of the elephant. The elephant is important in all of Acholi; it is a totemic animal: our origin story includes the elephant as do many of our folk tales, our proverbs, our cosmological and physical worlds. I think about this elephant statue as a symbol of reclamation, especially because these are the after times of two decades of war in Acholi (1986–2007), a time during which thousands of people were kidnapped, killed, and maimed in the conflict between the government of Uganda and, mainly, the guerrilla group the Lord’s Resistance Army. So on this trip from Kingston to Toronto, when I come across Brian Jungen’s recent installation at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), I’m stunned by the brilliance of his Couch Monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill (2022), a reconfiguration of leather couches into the shape of an elephant that was then cast in bronze.7 On the wall of the AGO, I read the didactic:
He was inspired by the story of Jumbo, a captive circus elephant who was killed by a train in St. Thomas, Ontario, in 1885. The artist called this creature a “couch monster” because capturing and training an elephant for the circus involves breaking the animal’s will and spirit. An elephant no longer, it becomes a monster created by humans for their own entertainment. The work’s Dane-zaa subtitle, Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill, which translates to “my heart is ripping,” reflects the sadness and cruelty of keeping live beings in captivity.
I sit on a bench close to the installation and watch people take photos of Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill. Some people pose by the elephant; some wait for others to clear away, then take a photo. One woman tries very hard to get her dog to balance on the elephant’s trunk as her friend takes the photo. Stay, she keeps telling the dog. Stay.
A hundred and eighty-nine years after the proclamation of the illegality of slavery, stay is not an invitation. As one who claims Acholi heritage, I’m deeply aware of the history of Arab slavery in my own homeland in the nineteenth century and the work of the British colonialists to bring this horrific practice to an end. Acholi was enveloped into the colonial project as part of the Uganda Protectorate, and I think about how to read the history of Acholi resistance against colonialism, even as the British fought against slavery over there. Explorer David Livingstone’s mantra of colonialism as spreading commerce, civilization, and Christianity was never a project to benefit us, nor was it ever based on a relationship of respect between people.
Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill is a heart-rending statue; the couch monster balances its huge frame on a ball as a real live elephant would have in the circus. Across the world in Gulu, Acholi, the statue elephant is poised and elegant, while this one here, in dis place, has its head bowed, its trunk a balancing pole or a bench for folks to pose with. We, wan kodi pa lyec, in Toronto and across the world, how can we remember? What do we know about the dignity and poise of the elephant that we are? What is Emancipation Day for an Acholi poet? What is the work of a jamette poet?
Dis place as w/hole
On 30 June 2022, NASA released a finding, as they sometimes do, about the in/credibility of a black hole.8 It’s a super massive black hole, they say. They quote billions of light years away from earth and billions of solar masses in size containing millions of suns and gymnastic level mathematical formulations to retain the awe we must feel as we think about our miniscule presence here, right now, in this place. In “Black W/Holes,” Philip presents the definition of the “primordial black hole: A black hole created in the very early universe,”9 and immediately returns to unpacking the long history and reach of white supremacy and then back to the spatiality of Black neighborhoods in Toronto, a brilliant ontological layering of physics, history, and geography. The “rhythming” of space: black holes as super black. Super Black. Super blackness. Super Blackness. Super blackblackblackblackblack but not black black, like us?
How does this language even pretend to make sense of itself?
Philip’s subtitle for “Black W/Holes” is “A History of Brief Time.” She writes, “Today—the black skin is not so much a passport as an active signifier to those manning borders of the brave new world order of everything that must not be allowed in.”10
They say we’re made of stardust.
They say we’re mostly water.
They say we’re more alike than unalike.
They say all blood bleeds red.
But what happens when you can’t touch/understand/see/know the power of the black w/hole?
You all lose, man. You all lose.
Displace as page
As we sit at Café Diplomatico, Philip and I laugh about how sometimes ideas stay latent and keep us hostage as we wait. We chat.
About the Pope’s visit to Canada.
About that 1452 papal bull “Dum Diversas” (which translates into “until different”) and how the reverberations of that document still abound. How Pope Nicholas V issued that we / us / people like us would be “consigned into perpetual servitude.” There is a distinct and strong relationship between the Doctrine of Discovery and how we find ourselves here, in this present. So in the context of this moment of “brief time,” what might an apology, declaration, a retraction, an understanding of the nonsense of that papal bull and its power and devastation over hundreds of years be like, sound like?
In what language?
With what words?
From whose mouths?
What is Emancipation Day in the era of “Dum Diversas”? What is Emancipation Day without the acknowledgement of the effects of the Doctrine of Discovery?
How do we wait for folks to acknowledge what we have always known—that we were, we are people?
A couple of years ago, I wrote this poem in collaboration and conversation with Philip.
if/once we were any moor any of us with our heads in our laps drags his talons slowly ever & seemingly deliciously over dry mounds inpiles & piles of skin
scraps of skin dead skins of any moor any of us with our heads in our laps dead white & sometimes grey flakes in a heap inpiles & piles mounds even on the carpeted floor beneath his right leg
once & only once once & once again with his c a r v e n o u s voice over e once again again v e r y t h I once again again again n g & e v e r y o n e o n c e we were are we are we are we are people
The idea that we have always known that we are people is the central thought of this essay. Emancipation as a political move, not a moment of cognition for us. I want to think about Emancipation Day as a direction, a charge from the intent to work toward a more equitable future, but the word charge is more than a spark.
Dis place as charge
Charge as price
Charge as accusation
Charge as entrusting with duty
Charge as electrical energy
Charge as responsibility of someone else
Charge as attack
Charge as heraldic practice
Charge as instruction from a judge
Charge as quantity of explosive
Charge as the expectation that I am someone or somewhere in that emancipation declaration. Always without language beyond the “thing.”
Charge as the electricity in the air from the plumage riding the sky, the sexy dancers, the throb of music vibrating under our feet, and the undeniable presence of power at Caribana.
Dis place as dis place
By the time slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, we in Acholi were still in the throes of the horrific slave trade that was ongoing. For at least four decades, the Arab slave trade had decimated and devastated Acholi, so when Sir Samuel Baker arrived and set up shop at what would become Fort Baker and then Fort Patiko, he turned to fighting the Arabs and the supporters of the slave trade. One might think that afterward he would have tipped his hat and accepted the thanks of the Acholi for his part in helping eradicate the slave trade and gone home to live happily ever after. But no. The man worked with others to envelope Acholi into the British Protectorate that would eventually become Uganda. This to say that there is a complicated relationship with the British who
1. Abolished slave trade
2. Set up shop as colonizers
3. Began the practice of forced labor and taxation in Acholi
4. Tortured, hanged, and gassed Acholi resistors
5. Brought Christianity and Christianization at the expense of African religions
6. Enforced education (bringing us into the English-speaking world) at the expense of our African knowledges and knowledge systems
In the most recent issue of the PMLA is an essay by Jordan Burke on my father’s Song of Lawino.11 Burke begins with a vignette, sharing how Okot p’Bitek witnessed the 1962 Independence Day events. He writes about Dad’s recollection of being in Gulu as people tore the Union Jack and set it to flames, while in Kampala there was a somber event where the Union Jack was lowered and the new Uganda flag was raised. We knew. We understood the need for what would be called the anticolonial stance. Anticolonial, anti-imperial—Who are you to claim to give us freedom, independence? When was it ever yours to take, to give?
I turn again to Philip: “We always understood what being human meant, over and above, indeed more expansive than, the status of legal chattel, that was created by the many legal fiats of slavery.”
I sit on the bench in front of Jungen’s Couch Monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill. It’s a sunny afternoon in Toronto, hot even. Inside the AGO, I see pieces by Jean Basquiat and Arthur Jaffa, artists reminding me about resistance, abstraction, beauty, power, and the deep understanding that we know. We’ve always known what it was to be human. Outside on the bench, I watch as people stop, pose, laugh, take photos, move around and through the representation of this massive bronze-cast elephant that’s balancing on a ball. We remember. We know.
Juliane Okot Bitek is a poet and scholar. Her most recent poetry collection is A Is for Acholi (Wolsak and Wynn, 2022). Juliane owes much of her poetic and scholarly thinking to the brilliance of M. NourbeSe Philip and is grateful for her generosity and friendship. She lives on the lands of the Anishnaabe and Haudensauness people and is an assistant professor at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario.
 M. NourbeSe Philip, She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks (1989; repr., Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2015). On the jamette poet, see Philip, “Dis Place—the Space Between,” in Bla_k: Essays and Interviews (Toronto: BookThug, 2017), 256.
 M. NourbeSe Philip, “Black W/Holes: A History of Brief Time,” in “Black Canadas,” special issue, Transition, no. 124 (2017): 118–36.
 Ibid., 118.
 Philip, “Dis Place,” 252 (italics in original), 262, 270 (italics in original).
 Philip, “Black W/Holes,” 130.
 The elephant statue was officially unveiled on 22 April 2022 by the paramount chief of Acholi, LawiRwodi Acholi David Onen Acana II.
 See Couch Monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; https://ago.ca/exhibitions/couch-monster-sadze-yaaghehchill.
 NASA Chandra X-Ray Observatory, “Chandra Shows Giant Black Hole Spins Slower than Its Peers,” 30 June 2022, https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/chandra/images/chandra-shows-giant-black-hole-spins-slower-than-its-peers.html.
 Philip, “Black W/Holes,” 123.
 Ibid., 119.
 See Jordan Burke, “Lawino in the Library: Anthropology, Modernity, and the Profession of African Literature,” PMLA, no. 137 (May 2022): 407–23. See also Okot p’Bitek, Song of Lawino: A Lament (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1966).