- Razing Africville: A Geography of Racism
The name Africville, Jennifer Nelson points out in the introduction to this book, elicits a variety of reactions from Canadians: some pronounce the fate of the community a tragedy; some remember it as a slum; some remember it as home; and some consider it an anomalous instance of Canadian racism now safely consigned to the past. Others haven't heard about it at all. For all of these reasons, the work that Nelson [End Page 589] attempts to do in this book is vitally important. But the book she has produced, Razing Africville, does that work less well than one could hope.
In the late 1960s, the city of Halifax expropriated the land on which a historic Black community had been located for more than one hundred years. It had petitioned the city for decades for sewers, potable water, electricity - basic services that other Haligonians enjoyed. Residents were forcibly removed from their homes, most received inadequate compensation if any, and their homes were bulldozed. Nelson attempts to understand how discourses of race and space were mobilized in the service of the relocation. She begins from the premise that the destruction of Africville was a racist act and strives to analyze the 'regulated, spatialized social relations' underpinning that racism. The book's weakness lies not with its premise or its laudable goal, but with the uneven quality of the analysis.
The book has its origins in Nelson's PhD dissertation, and it bears the traces of its evolution from thesis to book. The first two chapters in particular are composed of extended explications of theoretical terms and concepts, most of which have been in general scholarly usage in the social sciences and humanities for quite some time. While Nelson admits, in the chapter devoted to the spatial theories she represents as central to her study, that she is trained as a sociologist and not a geographer, readers should be able to expect a more critical engagement with her theoretical interlocutors and a genuine contribution to current debates. Instead, Nelson confines herself to explication and description. These theoretical discussions, more importantly, are curiously separate from her discussion of Africville itself in the third, fourth, and fifth chapters of the book. This divide between theory and case study is reproduced in the chapter that focuses most directly on the relocation. Much of the chapter that bears the title of the book is devoted to a descriptive account of the 'razing' of Africville that is heavily dependent on the 1971 Africville Relocation Report commissioned by the Nova Scotia Department of Public Welfare that was prepared by Donald Clairmont and Dennis Magill, and on their subsequent book-length study, Africville: The Life and Death of a Canadian Black Community. Nelson's reliance on the Relocation Report would be less disappointing if the focus of the chapter were on a social geography analysis of Africville's destruction. That is, after all, the analysis Nelson purports to offer in this book, and it would add an important way of understanding what happened that Clairmont and Magill do not offer. Unfortunately, the analysis is confined to the final section of the chapter, and it is both too brief and insufficiently attuned to the spatial dynamics of the social relations in question.
Today, Africville remains a site of contestation in Nova Scotia, and it is this ongoing struggle for meaning and resolution that Nelson focuses on [End Page 590] in the final chapter of her book. In many respects, this is her strongest chapter, where she does her most original research and where she offers an account of the impact the razing of the community continues to have on former residents, on other Black Nova Scotians, and on members of the city council past and present who have been called upon to account for the decisions that were made and appealed to for redress. Here there is some evidence of the book that might have been. The afterword, with its account of recent attacks on Black community institutions in the province...