Debra Thompson, an academic at McGill University, has worked in the United States for 10 years. After growing up in Canada, she thought the US would feel like a homecoming of sorts – after all, this was where her roots were, from where her grandfather’s grandfather, Cornelius Thompson, fled to find freedom in Canada. But often they were the only black family in town. Thompson’s journey is detailed in her new book, The Long Road Home. The star spoke to her about what she found.
This book is very memoir. Why explore ideas of belonging in this way—after all, you’re an academic.
I’ve always viewed it more as a social critique, using my life as a window to larger questions about belonging, race, democracy and inequality. I’m deeply, deeply uncomfortable with how personal this book is. But after being a teacher for decades, I feel like it’s hard to understand social structures and norms and ideas and these lofty concepts. I started presenting the material long before I knew it was going to be a book, and people were really captivated by the stories I told.
Her family has lived in Canada for generations. One might think that this historic rootedness makes a country feel like home. But it didn’t. Why not?
There are two things I tried to do in the book. One was to explain how desperate I was as a younger person to answer that question, “Where are you really from?” with “I’m from here. I’ve been here, my family has been here, we’ve earned our place, how dare you assume we’re not part of the social fabric.” And second, to think more critically about what that means… the time your family spends in the country as a litmus test of one’s belonging to that country. If we truly believe in the equal moral worth of every human being, then it doesn’t matter if you’re from the first generation or the third generation. It’s part of this logic of settler-colonialism that’s really problematic…without acknowledging, of course, that there has always been an Indigenous presence in Canada and the US.
When researching anti-Black racism in Canada, you find that not much is written about it. How has that affected your sense of belonging?
It is difficult. I teach courses on racial politics at McGill. And one of the constant themes of my classes is to say, here’s the evidence we have on this phenomenon in the US, and here’s what we know about Canada. The research is so thin. I think we in Canada tend to assume that structural systemic institutional racism will be exactly the same as…in the US. And that’s not the case. We have different institutions, a different political structure. There are nuances and quirks and quirks in the way anti-Black racism works in this country that really deserve critical, evidence-based, social science examination. But what is so consistently thrown out of the realm of possibility is difficult to research. Canadians fail to understand that our country is racist.
We look south of the border at American slavery and the horrific experience of black people. How has that allowed Canadians to be complacent about our history?
Built into Canada’s political culture and national identity is this inherent need to compare ourselves to the United States. This is mostly reflected in the fact that Canadians are often not Americans. There is a racial logic implied. Because we believe there is “real” racism in the US… that’s where slavery was, that’s where Jim Crow segregation was. And so if we believe that we are not Americans and that America is the real racism, then Canada and Canadians cannot possibly be racist. It is this logic of denial that permeates much of our political and social discourse.
We have the idea that Canada is the end of the Underground Railroad and a haven where people fled to escape the terrible things that are going on in the US
In the book, I talked about what Black Studies researcher Katherine McKittrick calls the absence and presence of Black Canada. While Canada imagines blacks as not from here or as newcomers, the mythology of Canada as that white savior from American slavery also hinges on the existence of a black Canada. My father’s family, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, they all lived and died… in Shrewsbury, ON. This place was her home. But it was also tough: My grandfather ended up working as a train attendant – he was denied a lot of jobs because white people didn’t hire black people. There was a rampant divide in the public and private spheres…all the things we look at in the US and shake our heads and hold on to our pearls. The same social phenomena existed and continue to exist here. And they’re not American transplants: they were born and raised in this country, just like me.
There is an apt quote from your father who said to you, “You are looking for ghosts. They are looking for evidence left behind by people trying to hide, whose lives depended on how well and for how long they could do it.”
There’s a really interesting body of literature on what we call the Black Archives. It’s the idea that in government archives and museums and other ways we’re supposed to be officially remembered, black lives are unlikely to show up in part because blacks often try to avoid the state. They don’t want to… have an encounter with a bureaucrat, the police, or an immigration officer, because these state officials are often agents of racial terror. So we often have to look elsewhere: we have to look for folklore and tall tales, for oral histories and jokes, for the songs we sing. And often that rubs shoulders with what we consider to be valid, reliable evidence in historical inquiry.
You have lived in the US for 10 years in four very different places (Boston; Athens, Ohio; Eugene, Oregon; and Chicago). This allowed you to see the nuances between Canada and the US, but also within the US What you saw?
I moved to the US when Obama was President, entered the labor market shortly after Obama was elected. People said, “We don’t have to hire you, racism is over.” And then we see the rise of the Tea Party, we see Black Lives Matter emerge… and Donald Trump gets elected. And then COVID in 2020. And then of course George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis Police Department and people called it a racist reckoning. It seems more like a pattern to me. I can’t remember if it was Mark Twain who said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” It was a wild decade. One of the things that happened in that decade was, in a way, a real shift in racial politics. It was a very similar pattern to that we’ve seen throughout American history: racial progress then being overshadowed by this incredibly disproportionate backlash, where that progress is then eradicated.
You write that you started this book in a moment of sheer potential. And now it’s a moment of backlash.
More people than ever now know about police defunding and prison abolition. These terms were not in the public lexicon 10 years ago. But if you actually look at police budgets, for example, they’ve gone up everywhere. Black Lives Matter has had some success. But if you look at the companies that have signed the BlackNorth initiatives, how many of them have actually achieved their goals? It’s hard to sustain that kind of pressure and outrage, and those kinds of demands always end up being co-opted, watered down, turned into a marketing campaign and offering people a way to make money instead of doing justice. It’s not just the failure of the demands, it’s the indifference of most of the public to anti-Black racism.
There’s a real anger, especially here in Quebec, at the idea of wake-ism. In the US we see it as a targeted attack on critical race theory. I’m skeptical, but we will look back and it will still be an important moment in the history of our time. We’re just not in the same moment.
When you come back here after these 10 years, you write that you “escaped” here. This seems to be such a clear echo of the Underground Railroad and the flight from America.
When I decided to move back to Canada (early winter 2018), the political climate in the States wasn’t great. Trump would win a second election. (I contend that if COVID hadn’t been hit, he would have won.) I was genuinely concerned about the Supreme Court and increasingly regressive policies being entrenched in American political institutions for the next generation. I just couldn’t imagine raising my children in this environment. But at the same time I call it escape because it wasn’t uncomplicated. I was sad to leave. I was so grateful to have access to the Black Community. And when I moved there, I felt like I was going home. The United States was built by my relatives, my ancestors, and they didn’t even get American citizenship.
But your children were born there and you now have citizenship.
(I thought) I’ll collect something that my ancestors didn’t get, even after being exploited and broken for generations.