Interview with Natasha L. Henry, author of Emancipation Day

Interview with Natasha L. Henry, author of Emancipation Day thumbnail

Interview with Natasha L. Henry, author of Emancipation Day

Posted on August 1 by Natasha L. Henry
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on Pinterest

Tell us about your book.
My book, Emancipation Day: Celebrating Freedom in Canada, is about the history and evolution of the August first commemoration of the abolition of slavery in Canada and the diverse people who celebrated this popular annual event.

Tell us a little about the overarching theme of your work and why you felt compelled to explore it.
Freedom is the theme that permeates throughout my book – the agitation for freedom by enslaved Africans throughout the New World, the legislation of freedom for slaves by the British government, the fight for equality during the Civil Rights era, and the ever-changing meaning of freedom to African Canadians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?
The most difficult part was accessing some resources at particular collections, museums, and archives. For a variety of reasons I was not able to establish contact with some institutions, which I naively thought would be automatic and that everywhere I reached out to would be eager to be of assistance. Unfortunately, this inaccessibility perpetuates the hiding of African-Canadian history, prevents this rich history from being learned and puts it in jeopardy of being lost to future generations. I had to come to the realization that while many people are working to preserve Black-Canadian history, not everyone is in the business of sharing the information to keep the history alive.

What inspired you to write your first book?
I always had a keen interest in uncovering Black history in Canada. As a Canadian-born student in elementary and high school I hoped to learn about the African-Canadian experience in school and that it would help me to develop a strong sense of self at that crucial point of my life. However, very little Black history was being taught in my school, which was and continues to be the case today. The primary focus has always been popular African-American history like Martin Luther King Jr. during a saturated Black History Month.

So to gain an understanding of my ancestral history in Africa and the Caribbean, I started reading a wide array of books and while this quest answered many of my questions, I was still left with the questions of what it meant to be African-Canadian and whether or not African-Canadians had any history in Canada.

Then I began researching on African-Canadian history and came across lots of facts and information, which I was eager to share with my peers, so I formed a Black history club in high school and approached my community centre to start a Black history summer camp for children.

I became intrigued to learn more and when I went on to pursue my university degrees I majored in Anthropology and African Studies. It took almost fifteen years for me to gain any substantive exposure to my African heritage within the educational system. Later as an educator, I encountered the difficulty of the lack of resources that recognize and acknowledge the perspectives, experiences and contributions of Blacks to Canada and throughout the Diaspora. I decided to participate in solving these concerns through curriculum development initiatives, which included developing and marketing African-focused curriculum resources. In my capacity as a curriculum consultant I created educational materials for teachers to support expectations of the Ontario curriculum. I have developed educator guides that accompany two groundbreaking African-Canadian history exhibits, “…and still I rise: A History of African Canadian Workers in Ontario 1900 to Present” by the Ontario Worker’s Arts and Heritage Centre and “Enslaved Africans in Upper Canada” by the Archives of Ontario in partnership with the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration. In 2008 I developed web content and designed supplementary teaching materials for the Committee to Commemorate and Memorialize the Abolition of the Slave Trade (CMAST) for the organization’s education initiative on marking the 200th year anniversary of the end of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

The current curriculum documents that my teaching colleagues and I must implement fail to address the complex impact of people of African descent on Canada’s nation-building and social development. For example, the topic of the enslavement of Africans in Canada, whose eradication is the main focus of my book, is still very much unknown or receives only an oversimplified account. Canada is not implicated in the forced migration of Africans across the Atlantic Ocean nor linked to the Transatlantic Slave Trade through the selling and buying of African captives, in the building of ships that were used by British traders to transport them, or in the exchange and consumption of slave-produced goods. The recognition of slavery in Canada deepens ties to the colonial powers, and rightfully labels Canada as a slaveholding society like our neighbours to the south.

The physical hardships of slavery have not been emphasized. The causes and consequences of slavery are not addressed and the impact of slavery on Canadian history is avoided. Most importantly, the information is not contextualized; why were enslaved Africans used? Why was slavery legally and culturally sanctioned for over 200 years in Canada? What was the experience of an enslaved African in Canada was like? How did they resist their imposed status? What did they do once they were liberated? How did they observe the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 that granted them their freedom? More resources that tackle the continuous omission of the African Canadian story, African-Canadian student disengagement, the persistence of stereotypes of Blacks in Canadian culture, and the ignorance of the Black experience and contributions to Canada are needed and I always wanted to make a contribution to this field.

I have constantly sought to expand the platform that I had for sharing the rich, diverse heritage of African Canadians. From my personal experiences, I know this would serve to combat the negative impact of an exclusionary curriculum that causes Black students to feel that they don’t belong and would help to replace the negative images they receive because of this exclusion or misrepresentation. A disconnection occurs for many African-Canadian children on a daily basis who ask their teachers about the presence of Black settlers in Canada, only to be misinformed that no one looking like them was part of Canada’s first colonies. A distortion of African-Canadian history affects Black students’ self-image, their racial group identification, and how they interpret their place in Canadian society. More accessible books and resources would permit them to learn about their ancestors, enhancing pride, self-worth, and a sense of belonging. It can empower African-Canadian students to set and pursue higher goals as they become more engaged in their learning and uncover examples of African-Canadian determination, success, and courage. The ability to name and lay claim to their predecessors and heritage through the acquisition of cultural knowledge is liberating, the idea that is highlighted in my book. They are also given permission to rightfully claim Canada as their own. Learning about ones cultural history during the formative years is important in the shaping of an individual’s identity because persistent exclusion has been found to result in the underachievement of some students. Cultural relevance has been substantiated to improve learning for a significant portion of students, and reduce the alienation that many are subjected to.

I want people to recognise the relevance of the historical context of the African-Canadian experience to today’s issues such as the unacceptable levels of intolerance and cultural ignorance at all levels of our society. It would also assist in a deeper understanding of the unfairness, injustice, and the human rights infringements that people of African descent along with Whites and Natives fought against and overcame to the benefit of all Canadians. An acknowledgement of the roots of racism and discrimination embedded in Canadian history is necessary to effect some social change today. We need a more inclusive Canadian story for everyone to become more enlightened, fostering understanding, tolerance, and appreciation of our historically diverse nation. My book helps to provide some of the history of Black Canadians for those who have missed it during their formal education. I endeavoured to capture and achieve all of this in my book, the opportunity for which found me.

In early 2009, after conducting a workshop on how to incorporate African-Canadian history into the Ontario curriculum, I was approached by Barry Penhale and Jane Gibson of Natural Heritage Books about writing a book on Emancipation Day celebrations in Canada. I truly appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the growing body of African-Canadian literature.

Who did you read as a young adult?
I read anything and everything – fiction, mysteries, romance novels, and historical non-fiction, particularly books on the African Diaspora. I enjoyed the Choose Your Own Adventures, Sweet Valley High books and other fiction series in middle school. In high school, I gravitated to Black fiction writers such as Toni Morrison, Walter Mosley, and Alice Walker, personal narratives like The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots, and history books like Great Black Leaders, Ancient and Modern, The Philosophies and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, and Freedom Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada.

What are you reading now?
The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. This book artistically follows the journey of an African woman, Aminata Diallo, who was captured, enslaved, and brought to North America. It traces her story and the deep history of a large group of Africans from a British military ledger called the Book of Negroes, which documents the names and vital statistics of 3, 000 Blacks – free, enslaved, and indentured – who served in the British Army during the American Revolution and received free passage to places like England, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. Hundreds of these settlers were the pioneers of Black communities in eastern Canada who made valuable contributions to the development of our nation. The Book of Negroes appeals to me because it successfully provides more depth and meaning to African-Canadian history.

Natasha Henry is the Director of Programs and an elementary teacher at a private school in Vaughan. Natasha is also a curriculum consultant and speaker, specializing in the development of learning materials that focus on the African experience. Natasha has developed the educational programs for two innovative exhibits on African Canadian history, …and Still I Rise: A History of African Canadian Workers in Ontario 1900 to Present, and Enslaved Africans in Upper Canada. She lives in Mississauga, Ontario with her family.

Natasha L. Henry

Posted by Kendra on December 6, 2014

Natasha L. Henry

Natasha Henry is a teacher, an educational curriculum consultant, and a speaker specializing in the development of learning materials that focus on the African Diaspora experience. Author of Emancipation Day: Celebrating Freedom in Canada, she is also the education specialist for Breaking the Chains: Presenting a New Narrative of Canada’s Role in the Underground Railroad, a project of the Harriet Tubman Institute at York University.