- The Promised Land: History and Historiography of the Black Experience in Chatham-Kent’s Settlements and Beyond ed. by Boulou Ebanda de B’beri, Nina Reid-Maroney, and Handel Kashope Wright
The Promised Land Project is a multi-year research collaboration bringing together scholars of different levels and across a range of disciplines including history, communications, cultural studies, and education. The Promised Land: History and Historiography of the Black Experience in Chatham-Kent’s Settlements and Beyond, edited by Boulou Ebanda de B’beri, Nina Reid-Maroney, and Handel Kashope Wright, is a product of the project. Organized in three main sections, The Promised Land opens with a trio of essays, each written by one of the editors, laying out the conception, methodology, challenges, and achievements of the Promised Land Project thus far. The overarching message is the need to produce a different Canadian history: a history that challenges the notion of Canada as the promised land itself, that is racially neutral by bringing the experience of black Canadians into the mainstream history, and that results from collaboration across disciplines between academics and communities. Using a cultural studies framework, The Promised Land includes local details and family lore while delving into the geography of the “promised land.”
Part Two of The Promised Land utilizes the framework of the Promised Land Project to present biographical sketches of three notable nineteenth-century black residents in the Chatham-Kent area: William Whipper, Nina Mae Alexander, and Parker Theophilus Smith. All contribute to a [End Page 362] more inclusive Canadian history, but not solely by bringing to light the lives of additional historical black figures. Centring Whipper’s biography on his extensive landholding and community contributions adds depth to local history and provides examples of both black agency and interracial co-operation. A new perspective on young women teaching in small towns in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is told through the diary of Alexander. Meanwhile, Smith’s immigration to Canada, and then his return within a year to the United States, challenges the identification of Canada as the promised land. All three are case studies that illustrate how local history can be used to understand broader historical, political, and social issues. Owing to the nature of the project itself, there does seem to be a sense of a disconnect from one essay to the next as the biographical essays are told through three very different voices.
The third section of The Promised Land broadens the scope of the study by reaching outward. The essays within this section focus on connections between white and black abolitionists in Britain and North America, connecting Delaware, Canada, and Liberia through black abolitionist thought and reimaging Dawn, one of the significant black settlements in the area, through a study of land records.
One shortcoming of The Promised Land is an almost complete disregard for the Elgin Settlement (Buxton). Beyond a few passing references to or mentions of Buxton, no emphasis is placed on an area rich with historical records, oral history, and historiographical materials. It is surprising that a study subtitled The Black Experience in Chatham-Kent’s Settlements and Beyond seems to slight one of the arguably more successful all-black ante-bellum communities established in the Chatham-Kent area. Nonetheless, scholars will appreciate the attempt to open new lines of historical inquiry and methodology and applaud the intention to incorporate the black experience in Canada into the mainstream. The Promised Land will be of note to those interested in African-Canadian history and historiography. It does, however, fall victim to one of the pitfalls of a cross-disciplinary approach in that the presentation of the methodology is somewhat laden with obfuscated terminology and concepts that may make it less accessible. It is, at times, seemingly more focused on research concepts and methodology than on historiography and history. As the epilogue suggests, The Promised Land lays the groundwork for future investigative studies...