Celebrating Black Voices
‘I will remember thee’. So ends the haunting lyric poem, ‘Away to Canada’, which forms part of this impressive online collection of Black history resources and embodies its particular strengths. The poem was written by Joshua McCarter Simpson sometime in the 1850s, giving voice to the enslaved African Americans who traveled via the Underground Railroad to freedom here in Canada. To do so they had to make excruciating choices, leaving behind husbands, wives, parents, children, and extended kin, all to claim the liberty that was promised them. The weight of that sacrifice runs throughout the poem:
Grieve not, my wife—grieve not for me,
Oh do not break my heart
For nought but cruel slavery
Would cause me to depart.
It reminds us that, as much as African Americans found joy in Canadian freedom, it came at the expense of their connections to their American families and communities. But, as ‘Away to Canada’ so powerfully conveys, they never stopped looking back:
Don’t grieve after me,
For ever at a throne of Grace
I will remember thee.
That spirit of remembrance is also visible in other sources in this collection, including Benjamin Drew’s A North-Side View of Slavery: The Refugee; or, The Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada, Related by Themselves, with an Account of the History and Condition of the Colored Population of Upper Canada, and Jim Henson’s Broken Shackles, which give us first-person accounts from men and women who escaped via the Underground Railroad. We learn about the plantations where they toiled under slavery, the names of the family members they left behind, and the letters they sent back and received from across the border that stand as testament to what neither slavery nor distance could ever tear asunder.
But these and other sources also tell us about the new lives these men and women built and the new communities they forged in Canada. As the collection moves into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we see this in dynamic, living color. They formed civic associations, founded literary magazines, told their own stories in print and on stage, and demanded equality and inclusion, not just in Canada but for communities around the world. These rich sources call out for further attention from researchers, and hint at future scholarship that honours the many untold stories contained within the collection.
They also invite us, this month and henceforth, to share in the same spirit of remembrance that runs through the poem that I opened with, and to honour the demands for equality and inclusion that run through so much of the collection.
Associate Professor of History
University of Toronto
Celebrating Black Voices is an exhibition that acknowledges and honours the social, cultural, and literary achievements of Black authors and artists in a wide variety of fields—poets, novelists, journalists, playwrights, musicians, memoirists, and many more. Special emphasis is given to the contribution of Black Canadians, though the exhibition includes works produced by Black writers over a period of hundreds of years and across the globe, from Canada in the 21st century to Ethiopia in the 14th. Also included are a small number of works by non-Black authors, whose writings—though often deeply problematic—may, when used with care, provide evidence for otherwise poorly recorded aspects of Black history. Launched to mark Black History Month 2021, Celebrating Black Voices is intended to be an ongoing project and new materials will be added to the exhibition regularly.
Click on any image throughout the exhibition to view or download in higher resolution, explore additional information and see additional digitized images.
This exhibition was curated by Pearce Carefoote, Alexandra Carter, David Fernández, Timothy Perry, Kyle Pugh, Natalya Rattan, Liz Ridolfo, John Shoesmith, Andrew Stewart, and Danielle Van Wagner at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in February 2021.
The online exhibition was prepared by Danielle Van Wagner and Andrew Stewart.