23/09/2020

There is no place on in the world that is an absolute haven from racial, or any other form of oppression. But the North American nation comes close

Just look at that. In what looks like the final stage of talks with the Queen about their future, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are set to drop their HRH tiles once and for all, bringing them one step closer to the relative freedom they so desperately seek. Cue the comparisons to King Edward VIII. 
But where Meghan Markle is concerned, there are historical parallels that havent had nearly as much attention: the notion of Canada as a promised land for black people. 
Lets go back to the beginning of last week. On the same day of the Sandringham summit, the first step in plans to make Canada and other parts of North America Meghan Markle and Prince Harrys part-time home, the Academy Awards announced that London-born actress Cynthia Erivo had been nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her role in Harriet. The film is a biopic of Harriet Tubman, the African American abolitionist, activist, and Civil War veteran who escaped from slavery in the state of Maryland in 1849, and then returned 13 times over 11 years to lead groups of other enslaved people on the punishing trek by foot north to freedom. 
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The network of secret routes and shelters, and the allies who assisted the fugitives, was what most of us know as the Underground Railroad. Tubman was a conductor, as per the parlance. In 1850, the Congress of the United States passed a piece of legislation shattering to the lives of black Americans, the Fugitive Slave Act, which made it legal for Southern slaveholders to go north to capture escapees and return them to lives as property. With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law also called the Bloodhound Law in cold reference to the bloodhounds that were used to literally track the scent of runaways Tubman had no choice but to remove both herself and her flock entirely from under US jurisdiction. And, so, she took herself and them across the border. I wouldnt trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer,” she said in 1868. I brought em all clear off to Canada.  
Though the two appear to be unconnected on the surface, as a black Canadian myself, I see a poetic coincidence. For better or worse, in both these human dramas, Markles actual, and Tubmans historical Canada is a promised land for these women of African descent.  
I grew up with this narrative of Canada as a freedom destination for black people. The image of bare black feet treading forested ground was central to the black history available to me. An enduring memory I have is of a documentary titled Fields of Endless Day, produced in 1980 by the National Film Board of Canada, which told the history of black settlement in Canada, in part through dramatized vignettes.
It opens with a dramatic monologue by a black man in period costume of sorts recounting the flogging of an escaped slave. Canada to go, Canada to go, the determined man kept repeating as he was being punished. Go to Canada!
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Later, introduced in 1991, was a commercial about the Underground Railroad that ran regularly on national television as part of a series of historical snippets called Heritage Minutes. The 60-second dramatization shows a black woman, Liza, gazing anxiously out the window of a lodging in a small rural outpost along the border between the United States and Canada. As we see her reunited with her family following a tense emotional crescendo, a voiceover says, Between 1840 and 1860, more than 30,000 American slaves came secretly to Canada and freedom. 
Markles circumstances are a far cry from those of Liza or Tubman or, for that matter, Cynthia Erivo. But what they all have in common is a plight for self-determination with the same historical backdrop. And Markles example shows how difficult its legacies are to escape, regardless of what many the world over would like to believe. Lets not forget the engagement present one newspaper gave Markle: a meticulously researched family tree detailing her cotton slave ancestors. The bloodhounds sniffed it out. 
There is no place on Earth that is an absolute haven from racial, or any other form of oppression. Yet, to Canada she has gone. But in the months and years to come, after the royal dust has settled and the Sussexes are seen enjoying sweet liberty above the 49th parallel north, lets hope amnesia does not set in. Lets see how much Markle remembers that an Underground Railroad exists in the 21st century, and that many Canadians, present and hopeful, walk with brambles underfoot.
Nicholas Boston is an associate professor of media sociology at Lehman College, the City University of New York