Black Power in 1960s' Montreal and the Congress of Black Writers

Book Cover Fear of a Black Nation

The Montreal Congress of Black Writers took place over four days in 1968, and represented a landmark shift in Canadian Black consciousness. In his book, Fear of a Black Nation (which has just been awarded the Casa de las Américas Literary Award for Caribbean Literature), David Austin chronicles and analyzes the Black Power movement in 1960s' Montreal, and notes the Congress as the moment at which Montreal became central to International Black radical politics. 

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In August 1968 Le Magazine Maclean published an article by Boubacar Koné, a Senegalese journalist of Malian origin, on being Black in Montreal. Its title, “Être Noir,” could just as easily have been “Être et Noir” (Being and blackness) because, in recording the experiences of Africans, former British and French Caribbean subjects, and Canadian-born Blacks of several generations, the article captured the sense of change and sameness within Montreal’s Black population of the time. A political shift had begun to take place among both native-born Black Canadians and Caribbean immigrants, and particularly among people who increasingly drew inspiration from the Black Power Movement in the United States. Members of the growing Caribbean community began to turn their attention away from their original homes and towards the domestic needs of Blacks, including Caribbean migrants, who were now increasingly looking to Canada as a place to call home rather than as just a temporary stop.

The Montreal Congress of Black Writers, over its four days of sessions from Friday the 11th to Monday the 14th of October 1968 at McGill, unfolded in Quebec’s politically charged and culturally vibrant atmosphere. Strikes by police officers, teachers, and taxi drivers, coupled with the activities of anti-poverty groups, women, and student organizations in Montreal and the inspiration of the U.S. Black Power movement, contributed to the heightened political climate in the city as plans for the Congress were underway.

In the wake of King’s death that spring, Black neighbourhoods across the United States were burned to the ground as rebellion and frustration boiled over into the streets. Black Power was in the air, symbolized not only in the militant rhetoric and actions of the Black Panther Party, but in a cultural revival in which Blacks donned Afro hairstyles and, in some cases, African dress. The symbolic importance of dress and style was not lost on educator Yvonne Greer. As she recalled, the very sight of lawyer Richard Small dressed in African garb as he delivered his presentation at the Congress taught her that Blacks did not have to “become White.” They did not have to conform to the stereotype of an educated person, or ignore less privileged members of the community in order to be educated or professionals. The significance of African dress also caught the eye of one RCMP agent, whose memo noted that “the dress of 75% of the negros [sic ] present was of African type, possibly worn to indicate they were revolutionaries.”

On the opening day of the Congress—as hundreds of people turned up to discuss and debate the history and struggles of Black people and the contemporary meaning of Black Power in the face of widespread racism in the West, and the impact of colonialism and imperialism in the so-called Third World—disturbing news of a directly related event in Canada helped set the tone for the gathering. The custodians of the St. Croix Cemetery in Windsor, Nova Scotia, had recently refused to allow a young Black girl to be buried there based on a company bylaw that prohibited the burial of Blacks and Indigenous peoples.  This incident drove home the reality of racial discrimination in Canada. The shift in consciousness that the Congress represented was explicit in its official statement of purpose, signed by co-chairs Elder Thébaud and Rosie Douglas. It declared: “Modern white oppression . . . has always sought to justify its oppressive control over the other races by resorting to arrogant claims of inherent superiority, and attempting to denigrate the cultural and historical achievements of the oppressed peoples.

The organizers acknowledged that Black struggles took place on the cultural, spiritual, and political and economic fronts; and they recognized the importance of rewriting the history of those subjected to the violence and exploitation of colonial oppression. “Here, for the first time in Canada,” the text continued, “an attempt will be made to recall, in a series of popular lectures by black scholars, artists and politicians, a history which we have been  taught to forget . . . in short, the history of the black liberation struggle, from its origins in slavery to the present day.”  History and memory were, then, central to the conception of the Congress. The organizers saw memories of the past as a tool that could be used to recast the present and shift the prevailing power relations that devalued the humanity of Blacks. In this sense, the organizers understood the Congress, and the use of history, as a significant step towards both authenticating the past and ultimately confronting the economic and cultural underpinnings of White dominance, and the presumption of superiority that undergirded racial oppression.

The event—at least as based on the Congress souvenir program—began in a quite conventional way with registration at 3:00 p.m. on Friday afternoon at McGill’s Student Union Building, followed by an opening address by the co-chairs that evening and messages of greetings and solidarity from Congress leaders of delegations and official delegates. Fittingly, Rocky Jones—the only Black Canadian presenter—then delivered a short talk on “Canada and Her Black Community.” Over the next three days the audience and participants were treated to a variety of presentations covering issues ranging from the psychology of racism and the history of slavery and slave revolt, to African history, Black Power, and Third World liberation.

The electrifying, almost cosmic event ended with a series of “Resolutions” that were passed late Monday afternoon. That evening a “Congress Festival” was held in the Student Union Ballroom with the Trinidad and Tobago Expo Dancers, Raymond Watts and His Combo, and an “Afro Fashion Show.” From the outset the Congress of Black Writers became what would amount to a kind of contemporary laboratory, a window into the world of Black politics and part of an important moment in the sixties; and while the event was organized in response to racial oppression and colonialism, it also provides a lesson in the workings and dynamics of gender, race, sexuality, and class, both in Canada and abroad.

Excerpted from Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex and Security in Sixties Montreal by David Austin (Between the Lines, 2013), with permission of the publisher. 

February 20, 2014
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