The white guilt texts have stopped. It’s been almost two months to the day since I wiped tears off my keyboard as I wrote about the pandemic of Black trauma in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet. Since then, timelines turned black in faux solidarity and back again. The “I’m sorry for the racism” messages have dried up. My friend was getting flowers from her former white colleagues. Those are long dead now. The 10-part slides on Instagram about how RaCisM ExIsTs In CaNaDa ToO! are now back to being about avocado toast or whatever.
On June 19, I watched more white people acknowledge Juneteenth — the unofficial holiday in the U.S. commemorating the day in 1865 when news of emancipation finally reached the last group of enslaved people in Texas — than I’d ever seen before. I had hoped that people would keep the same energy for Emancipation Day, the Aug. 1 anniversary of the day in 1833 when the Abolition of Slavery Act effectively ended slavery in most of the British colonies and thus, here in Canada. Because, in case an Instagram slideshow hasn’t told you yet, sLaVeRy ExIsTed In CaNaDa ToO! (I'm not going to track Canada's insidious history of racism, slavery, and colonialism; there’s Google for that.) But the momentum of resistance — at least from white people — does feel like it’s waning. As many cities across the country are now in Phase 3 of reopening businesses in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the “normal” non-racialized people so desperately wanted to get back to is almost upon them, the reality is that they’re starting to tap out.
Black people don’t have that luxury. The fight against anti-Black racism isn’t a “moment,” as I’ve heard this current reckoning on racism in our workplaces and in our justice system referred to. We are dealing with two pandemics: COVID-19, which continues to disproportionately impact Black people, and racism. True freedom is still far off. Emancipation Day celebrations have been a staple in certain communities for decades, but it’s not as simple as spending what would have been Caribana weekend partying in honour of Black liberation. Or taking part in virtual celebrations like the “Underground Freedom Train" Ride in Toronto. Or firing up a barbecue in my big brother’s backyard and dancing to Beyoncé as we revel in the beauty of being Black (because there are so many things about being Black that are truly beautiful). We can’t blindly celebrate freedom when we’re still living in systems that oppress us. Acknowledging Emancipation Day while also facing the hard uncomfortable truths about the reality of Black life in Canada is imperative.
“For us to talk about emancipation and liberation, or to say we have arrived at either, and celebrate some kind of a victory is completely inaccurate,” says Beverly Bain, professor of women and gender studies in the department of historical studies at the University of Toronto. She thinks any kind of celebration is premature — like a touchdown dance before the end zone. “What we are witnessing is the continuation of slavery, particularly in context with police violence. If we don't get killed by the pandemic, we'll get killed by the police. If these uprisings have shown us anything, it’s that we are in the process of liberation, and that emancipation is a long struggle.”
That’s why Emancipation Day 2020 comes with a litany of conflicting emotions. We’re toggling between celebrating our Black identities and grappling with the reality that the same things we love about ourselves could get us killed. While I understand the importance of the government acknowledging this day in Black history (the Ontario government officially recognized Emancipation Day in 2008 and there’s a motion to recognize it federally), I also know that it’s at the hands of the state that our bodies are at risk. The government also has to recognize its own complicity in the othering, marginalization, and endangerment of Black people.
This requires much more than just performative allyship (I don’t know what’s worse: potential cringey “Happy Emancipation Day” posts or silence from white supposed “allies”) and hollow gestures, devoid of action by those in power. “To fly the emancipation flag at City Hall and have the [government] do a whole celebration of Emancipation Day, while at the same time deploying more weapons, more money to police and to other state institutions that continue to imprison us, is just so problematic,” Bain says. “For Black people to be free, we have to start imagining a very different society.”
On the flip side, the vision of a different future is why Victoria Rodney, the associate vice-president of equity at the University of Waterloo, wants to celebrate. “Emancipation Day is about imagining how much more free we can be and how we've defined freedom in the past despite the very oppressive circumstances that we were under,” she says. And as for the people just getting on the Emancipation-Day bandwagon? An informal survey of the people in my life tell me that most of them didn’t know about its history until adulthood either (it wasn’t taught in my schools growing up). For many people, ignoring the day in the past has been easy — until now. “I think that anytime people start to come into more of an understanding of who they are, that's always something to be celebrated,” she says.
However, Rodney is not about the reductive racism 101 debates that this country, and social media, loves to engage in. “I'm much more interested in how we move forward,” she says. And how to move forward is something both Rodney and Bain agree on. Any conversation about Black liberation should include calls to defund the police. “There needs to be a focus on demilitarizing police so that we can abolish policing and prisons and other institutions that continue to imperil Black lives,” Bain says.
Change in this country, as we know, is a fickle beast that requires follow through and accountability. As my Refinery29 US colleague Danielle Cadet wrote on Juneteenth, “although we celebrate the day that commemorates Black liberation, we simultaneously continue to wait for it,” she wrote. “America must cash the cheque she wrote long ago.” Canada seems to have written its promise of freedom for Black Canadians in disappearing ink. Or maybe our cheque’s still in the mail.
Personally, I don’t cling to the hope of recognition from white people anymore, especially on a day that is supposed to be about honouring Blackness, but I also know that without their active participation, real change is impossible. Even though influencers feel comfortable enough to shill smoothies again, there is a cultural shift happening. And I’m choosing to use Emancipation Day as a time of reflection on what this “moment” means, and what Black liberation means to me. I asked Rodney what it means to her and her answer is going to carry me through the next couple months, whether white people are paying attention to our fight or not.
“I think about this question a lot. It means being able to feel joy — joy that is unencumbered by not being able to pay rent, or not being able to actually move through the world without worrying how you're being perceived by other people, especially cops.” she says. “Emancipation Day to me is just an affirmation of all that we are, what we have been, where we're coming from, and where we're going.”