Sylvia D. Hamilton

Sylvia Hamilton

[A photograph of Sylvia D. Hamilton, from her professional page as Assistant Professor and Rogers Chair in Communications at the University of King’s College, Halifax http://www.ukings.ca/sylvia-d-hamilton]

Who counts as an historical subject? Who is worthy of our attention when historians tease out the narratives we call “history” from the amorphous past? And, moreover, who is the “we,” the “our” that can be found – sometimes explicitly, other times just a looming threat – in historical writing? For today’s post – the last in our celebration of Black History Month – I want to highlight Sylvia D. Hamilton, a Black Canadian filmmaker, and writer who has helped to shift both who counts as an historical subject in Canada and who counts as the historian, the always present “our” in historical writing. Sylvia D. Hamilton is therefore both historian and historical subject, both the one crafting narratives and the one centred in various stories.

Instead of the usual post where myself or Spirit write a tribute to an historical (and in this case, living) person, or set of persons, I will in its place allow for Hamilton’s own words to tell you where she is from and why she does the work she does. The following is an excerpt from her fantastic 2012 article “When and Where I Enter: History, Film and Memory.” Let her words inform you, remind you, or perhaps even challenge you into thinking about how Blackness is an integral part of the Canadian national project, and about how the same issues of anti-Black racism that exist in the United States punctuate Canadian history (and the many Canadian presents), as well:

Since our earliest days in Canada as African-descended people, we have striven to find a compass: to locate ourselves in this vast land, to plot our position on the physical and mental map of Canada…

I am the grateful daughter of Marie Nita Waldron and Gerald Mac Hamilton, the granddaughter of Ida Grosse and Gilbert Hamilton and of Hattie Kellum and William Waldron, and the great granddaughter of Charlotte and Charles Grosse. William Waldron was a sailor and watchmaker who came to Halifax from the Barbados at the turn of the century and married Hattie Kellum. All are the reason I can stand before you today.

I have become a seeker, trying to plot some of the co-ordinates, not just for myself, but also for others. For me, as a filmmaker and a writer, history and memory combine to create a lens through which I view the present. These joint themes figure in much of my work that draws on oral story telling, archival and other found documents and objects, and on geography to tell stories about African Nova Scotians and African Canadians generally.

My work re-inserts and re-positions African-descended people in our landscapes by presenting stories and images of people being witnesses to their own lives. Their experiences and stories are the evidence of their realities. I think that a true understanding of our past and its meaning, one rooted in our bones, is vital to our future.

 

Thank you to Sylvia D. Hamilton, for telling your story.

~ M

P.S. I encourage everyone who has access, to read Sylvia D. Hamilton’s article cited here. And I especially encourage everyone to watch her fantastic and at times heartbreaking documentary The Little Black Schoolhouse (2007) which chronicles the experiences of Black Canadians who were subjected to school segregation in Nova Scotia.

Bibliography

Hamilton, Sylvia D. “When and Where I Enter: History, Film and Memory.” Acadiensis XLI, no. 2 (Summer/Autumn 2012): 3-16.

 

 

 

 

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Sylvia D. Hamilton

Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita

It’s the third Friday of Black History Month, and in that spirit we’re highlighting another lesser-known black historical figure. This week, it’s Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita, a Kongolese noblewoman, prophet and religious-political leader.

Beatriz was born to noble parents in the Kingdom of Kongo (present-day Angola) in 1684. Europeans had disseminated Catholicism throughout the kingdom about two centuries before, and Beatriz was raised Catholic, but she did not take a passive role in her religion. She did not accept Catholicism as Europeans presented it. Instead, she promoted a Kongolese brand of Catholicism.

During Beatriz’s lifetime, Kongo was in a state of civil war that dated back to Portuguese military upheaval of the region in the 1660s. In 1704, Beatriz underwent a powerful spiritual experience that led her to assume a prominent role in the conflict as a religious and political leader. While ailing in 1704, Beatriz reported having visions of St. Anthony. These culminated in what she called her death: St. Anthony now occupied the body that once belonged to Beatriz, who had been trained as an nganga marinda, a community member who interacts with the supernatural realm in the interest of the community at large. In the body of an African woman, St. Anthony claimed to have a special and interpersonal relationship with God, who commanded that Kongo must be a united kingdom with one ruler. “The Kongolese Saint Anthony” (as they are called by biographer, John Thrornton) appealed to two of Kongo’s kings, but neither heeded the message. Having failed on this score, the Kongolese St. Anthony amassed a peaceful following and occupied São Salvador, the former capital.

In addition to sending missionaries out with their message, the Kongolese St. Anthony created their own religious doctrine, which they asserted was Catholic, but of a specifically Kongolese kind. They rewrote both the Ave Maria and Salve Regina (Salve Antoniana) to reflect Kongolese spiritual needs and priorities. And, particularly noteworthy this month, the Kongolese St. Anthony not only refuted that there were no existing black saints and insisted that Jesus, the Virgin Mary and other major Christian figures were in fact Kongolese, but also admonished priests who argued otherwise.

Predictably, the Kongolese St. Anthony, having undermined the authority of various established powers in the region, was executed for heresy by those loyal to one of the Kongolese kings in 1706. Though their life was cut short, the Kongolese St. Anthony’s approach to religion is an important reminder that, though European colonisers brutally enforced their ways among colonised and/or converted peoples, this process was not just passively received. On the contrary, colonised and/or converted peoples not only reshaped religious movements and doctrine to suit their own ways of knowing, believing and being, but also influenced the ways of life of the very peoples that sought to repress them.

~S

 

Bibliography

Alexander Ives Bortolot, Dona Beatriz: Kongo Prophet, In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001-.) http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pwmn_4/hd_pwmn_4.htm (October 2003; accessed 19 February 2016).

John Thornton, The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita

Women’s Political Council (WPC)

This week’s post is dedicated to the heroic Montgomery, Alabama-based Women’s Political Council (WPC).The WPC was begun by Mary Fair Burks in the fall of 1946, after Burks spent much of her life protesting Jim Crow laws by refusing to abide by them throughout the city. According to historian Danielle L. McGuire, “[a]fter a run-in with a white police officer… Burks decided to broaden her attack and form an army of women dedicated to destroying white supremacy” (76). In Burks’s own words, she was a “feminist before [she] really knew what the word meant” and felt that she had to spread her lone-woman protest to a broader, community-based one as when she “looked around[, …] all [she] could see were either masks of indiferrence or scorn” (McGuire, 76).

At the first WPC meeting in 1946, forty Black women attended and all shared their stories of experiencing racialized and gendered violence at the hands of White police officers in Montgomery. Initially beginning with sharing their experiences with each other, the women of the WPC spread their activism to include voter registration. It was thanks to these amazing women and their partnerships with other Black organizations that the rates of voter registration increased during the 1950s in Montgomery, Alabama. During the 1950s, the WPC continued to grow in strength and became known as the “most militant and uncompromising voice” for Black Americans in the South.

Although the WPC’s accomplishments in regards to voter registration in the Black community were very important, it was their protest of their mistreatment on city buses that they gained the most attention for. It is thanks to the WPC that the famed Montgomery Bus Boycott took place in 1955. Even before this famous direct action took place, the WPC had been planning a bus boycott to demonstrate against their mistreatment on city buses. The December 1st, 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks finally gave the WPC the opportunity to put their plans into action.

The women of the WPC fought for the dignity and respect that Black women were denied in the mid-twentieth century. Their battles, from voter registration to bus segregation, demonstrate the intersecting systems of oppression that affected Black women. The WPC fought against patriarchy and White supremacy, illuminating the radical and vanguard role that Black women have played in the fight for Civil Rights in the United States. We here at the Historical Hotties Blog tip our proverbial hats to the amazing and inspiring women that often put their lives on the line in their fight(s) against injustice and state-sanctioned oppression.

~ M

Bibliography

McGuire, Danielle L. At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York: Vintage Books, 2010.

Women’s Political Council (WPC)

Bayard Rustin

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[A photograph of Bayard Rustin]

In honour of the start of Black History Month, today’s Historical Hottie is the one and only Bayard Rustin – an all around historical badass that often gets written out of the “official” history of the mainstream Civil Rights Movement. Born in the state of Pennsylvania in 1912, Rustin was an outspoken socialist, Civil Rights advocate, and gay rights activist. As a Black gay man that was engaged in socialist politics and the Civil Rights Movement for much of his life, he was a constant target of hatred and violence amongst many, many groups in the United States (the FBI tried to use his supposedly “deviant” sexuality against him and the larger Civil Rights Movement, to name just one). He was one of the foremost leaders in the non-violent Civil Rights Movement, beginning in the early 1940s after he moved to Harlem.

Rustin is often overlooked or purposely forgotten in the history of the Civil Rights Movement because of his sexuality. Many different groups, both from within Black liberation movements and outside in broader American society, unfortunately criticized him due to his sexuality. Because of this, and also because of having been affiliated with the Communist Party, he was rarely given “public” notice despite serving as a key influencer, advocate, and adviser to some of the most prominent Civil Rights leaders (including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). Without him, the Civil Rights Movement would be remembered in a vastly different way – yes, he was that important to the Movement (but I’m in no way reducing it down to just one man or a handful of people)! He took an intersectional approach to oppression and injustice in the United States, pulling together diverse intellectual and activist ideologies that attacked capitalist, racist, and homophobic power structures. Rustin passed away in 1987, and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2013.

Bayard Rustin was a revolutionary in more ways than one, and helps to remind us that the current struggles going on today amongst Black communities in the United States are not isolated events but instead are part of a much longer history. Here’s to Bayard Rustin and all the Black radicals like him that have fought + continue to fight oppression!

~ M

Bibliography

Rustin, Bayard. Down the Line: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971.

Rustin, Bayard. Ed. by Bond, Julian. I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters. New York: City Light Books, 2012.

Bayard Rustin