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