Despite celebrating the inaugural Juneteenth National Independence Day this past weekend, there is an intense political debate in the United States around how slavery, race and racism are taught in schools. Even with Congress passing the bill to officially recognize the day as a federal holiday, some states continue trying to ban curricula that would examine the holiday’s historical significance.
Juneteenth commemorates the legal end of slavery in America on June 19, 1865, when slaves in Galveston, Texas learned they’d been freed. This was two years after the end of the Civil War and nearly three years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Juneteenth represents not only the commemoration of the end of slavery in America more than 150 years ago, but the ongoing work that has to [be done to] bring true equity and racial justice into American society,” said President Joe Biden at a White House ceremony. “This day doesn’t just celebrate the past. It calls for action today.”
Canadian MPs in the House of Commons passed a similar motion earlier this year to create a new federal holiday, Emancipation Day, to be celebrated annually on Aug.1. It marks the anniversary of Britain’s Parliament abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire in 1834. Emancipation Day has been unofficially celebrated in various places throughout Canada or, in some cases, coincides with other holidays (like Simcoe Day in Toronto).
Following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last summer, there has been increased pressure to officially acknowledge Juneteenth in the US.
But according to an Education Week analysis, at least 22 states have introduced bills that would restrict teaching critical race theory or discussions of racism, with five states already signing them into law. The proposed pieces of legislation would limit the teaching of concepts like racial equity, white privilege and systemic racism in favour of what some have called “patriotic education.”
I caught up with author Alison Clarke earlier this year to discuss her latest book, Phillis, and the impact slavery and racism have on society today. Taking a page from her own life, she explains how this knowledge helped her make sense of the world and of her experiences as a Black person, from childhood to the present.
Introducing Alison Clarke
Clarke is an award-winning writer and visual artist from Edmonton, Alberta, and the author of the book Phillis. The book tells the remarkable story of Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry. Phillis’ book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in 1773, while she was still a slave. Through a diverse blend of poetry and narrative prose, Clarke writes about Phillis as well as some of the artists and intellectuals she inspired like Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey.
Clarke, who also writes fantasy novels, wanted to create a multi-dimensional, organic world in order to tell Phillis’ story and talk about Black history. She opted to write in the first person from multiple people’s unique perspectives. Using deep research, Clarke writes about Phillis’ story, detailing some of the significant chapters in her life including the highs of her literary career as well as the cruel injustices she suffered as a Black woman in 18th-century America.
The following is a condensed version of our conversation.
When you first came across Phillis’ story and her book, what was your initial reaction?
I saw her story as monumental and inspiring. That she was a slave and yet she published her book in 1773, before slavery was abolished. I just thought it was an incredible story. In her poetry, she was bridging different worlds, and she knew publishing a book of poetry would be the gateway to getting her freedom. And she was right. It takes a lot of will, determination and belief in yourself to do it how she had to.
In her poetry, she speaks about being against slavery, but she had to be incognito about how she did it. Back in those days, Black people couldn’t really have that kind of fortitude or your life would be in jeopardy. I also think that it was not easy for her to have to align herself with people who believed slavery was right. She really was helping her people, not just herself. All those reasons resonate in her poetry, so I was intrigued.
In “Chrysalis” there are some pretty graphic descriptions. Why was it important for you to have detailed descriptions of what happened to people during slavery?
It’s important for people to remember. In the poem — and I also saw it in the research I did — slaves were made to dance. It was especially horrifying when they used the African drums. They made them dance to keep them limber, keep their circulation going. By making them dance to the drum, you create more trauma because you’re using their music and their culture, but you’re using it as a way to oppress them. They’re not doing it out of the kindness of their hearts. They’re doing it to keep the slaves limber, to keep their value up as property.
There’s a passage from “Chrysalis” that says, “Revealing Only what is necessary, keeping our Life, those private things, private. I think they took enough from us, they will not be privy to our private thoughts, too.” When I read that, the first thing that came to mind was the idea of trauma porn. How do you talk about the realities of what people are facing without getting into trauma porn?
We have to reveal the truth. We have to tell things as they are. If not, then they repeat. We cannot sugarcoat things. I remember watching Roots with my dad when I was a kid. It was hard to watch what they did to us Black people — and I say “us” even though it wasn’t me specifically because it was my people. We have to know about these things so we can tell others about what’s happened to us; to hide it and sugarcoat it is an injustice, to be honest. In Roots, it wasn’t sugarcoated. You saw people being whipped and what happened on slave ships. It was all very clear on that show.
I think everybody should watch Roots because it really showed me the genesis of how racism starts. Experiencing life as a Black child, even at eight or nine, I better understood what was happening to me and what oppression was. I understood that the economic reality of slavery was tied to the philosophical, sociological and health impacts of slavery.
But you don’t want to reveal too much.
Phillis doesn’t write about what happened on the slave ship in any of her poems. Not once does she refer to being taken from her family or being on a slave ship. I think it was just too hard for her to do as a human being, not just as an artist. I think it would have torn her apart.
What do you think Black people can learn from knowing more about the history of slavery?
They can understand what’s happening to them in real-time. Knowing what I did at eight or nine freed me in a way because, as a child of colour, I had to grow up very quickly. We have to navigate and figure out how to play the game of life from a young age. We have to not only learn to survive but also learn how to carve out a life for ourselves. It’s a battle for everything.
When I learned about the history of imperialism and learned that it was based on making people view themselves as lesser-than or that they’re not human, it makes it easier to create the system of slavery. It makes it easier for the colonial, imperialist powers that be to come in and exploit people. It makes it easier to use them for free labour because they’re not humans; they’re animals.
All this reverberates, and it all goes back to slavery because to create and encourage a system and an institution like that, you have to have certain parameters in place. The person you’re oppressing can’t create, isn’t an intellectual, so it’s okay to enslave them. So, when I hear about a lack of Black professors at universities, I’m not shocked, because we’re not given a chance because we’re not seen as intellectuals. Even though slavery is gone, the remnants are still in place.
The poem “My name is” is a great piece but also a really good place to start the book. You write, “It’s not easy. No, it is not easy. You get used to it, but not really, that pain, that gut flinch still remains, but I keep silent.” I read that and couldn’t help but think of microaggressions and implicit racism. What were you trying to convey with that line?
I’m talking about how Phillis, as a Black person, is trying to be present, but they wanted to put her in a certain role. She was the pet project, the guinea pig. I think it’d be very hard knowing that you’re not really part of the family like they want to portray you. And I just thought, if she was such a big part of the family, why was she not included in the will when the husband John Wheatley died? I think that’s the horrible reality of slavery: you feel this obligation even though you’re treated like property. Yes, they gave you an education, but you’re basically a pet project so they can say, “Wow, my slave can do this, and can do that.”
I think the reason they were so interested in getting her published, again, is to present themselves a certain way. People wanted to use her as a pawn. These are not easy things for Phillis to deal with or navigate, especially when you know the reality of the situation. Many of us would be afraid to be there, but she was playing life chess, and she did what she had to do, and she got that book of poetry published to inspire her freedom.
What do you think that Phillis would say about the state of race relations in North America if she was alive today?
I think she would think that we haven’t come very far. I think she would be mortified. I think if you look at someone like George Floyd and what happened there, among other incidents like the LA riots and Rodney King, I feel like we’re in a time loop that keeps repeating over and over again. All of us are exhausted. It’s heartbreaking.
What do you hope you’re able to do with your words?
Words are powerful because it’s a way to claim your voice. If you don’t use your voice, someone will speak for you. We have to use our voices as a way to reclaim things. When people try to muzzle us, that’s another form of oppression. Words are powerful because they’re thoughts manifested, and that can lead to action. But without knowing what people are going through, nothing is achieved. You have to hear from the people themselves.
And I think as an author, poet and fantasy author, I feel the human voice and speaking out is very important. We have to continue to create our own space, and when you think there’s not a space for you, you create (one) yourself. We have to create spaces for ourselves because no one else will do that for us. I’ve had to do it all my life and I will continue to until the day I die. That’s why our ancestors died for us: So we could have opportunities that they would never have. If we don’t at least try, we’re not honouring our ancestors, so we have to at least try.
Clarke’s masterful retelling of Phillis Wheatley’s inspirational story is the perfect read to celebrate the first official Juneteenth National Independence Day. You can purchase your own copy of Phillis from The Glass Book Shop or Audrey’s Books in Edmonton or from a Chapters (online only). You can also connect with Clarke and find more of her work on her Facebook Page