Comparative Race Studies: Black and White in Canada and the United States

Eva Gruber


In Thomas King's novel Green Grass, Running Water, Dr. J. Hovaugh, head of a mental hospital in Florida, crosses the border into Canada in search of four old Indians who have escaped from his institution. He is accompanied by his black janitor, Miss Babo Jones, and just as "J. Hovaugh" sounds conspicuously like "Jehovah" (the character thus named bearing obvious delusions of god-like omnipotence), Babo is named after the black slave who leads the revolt on the slave vessel in Herman Melville's novella Benito Cereno.1 When the unlikely couple approaches the Canadian border, Babo first notices that the flagpoles at both border stations are "crooked": the one near the Canadian border station "fell slightly to the left," whereas the American flagpole "leans a bit to the right" (T. King 1993a, 236). This first implicit commentary toward the respective countries' political inclinations—Canada the more liberal, the United States the more conservative of the two2—is followed by the description of the actual border crossing, that is, the encounter with the Canadian border guard, who, ignoring Babo, asks Hovaugh:

"Are you bringing anything to Canada that you plan to sell or leave as a

gift?" . . . "Nothing," said Dr. Hovaugh.

"What about her?" said the guard.

"She's with me."

"Nonetheless you'll have to register her," said the guard.

"I see," said Dr. Hovaugh.

"All personal property has to be registered."

"Yes," said Dr. Hovaugh. "Of course."

"It's for your protection as well as ours," said the guard.

Babo looked back at the American border station and then at the Canadian border station. "Where did you say we were?" she said.

"Welcome to Canada," said the guard, and she handed Dr. Hovaugh her clipboard. "Sign here," she said, "and here."

"Thank you," said Dr. Hovaugh.

"Have a nice day," said the guard. (T. King 1993a, 236-37)

This exchange, ripe with irony, jeopardizes the previously established "leanings" symbolized by the flagpoles. Along with Babo, a single mother of four who works for Hovaugh under slave-like conditions "six out of seven" (25) days of the week and is abused as "Aunt Jemima" (54) by one of the American officers conducting the inquiry into the Indians' disappearance, readers will expect things to be different for black people in Canada. Babo's disbelieving question "Where did you say we were?" indicates that although she might be used to discrimination in a US American context, she assumed that surely Canadians would not consider her sellable "personal property," completely ignoring her say in the matter and only addressing her white boss (read: master). But it is indeed Hovaugh who gets to "register" her and sign the papers; she herself is considered without rights and likely—as would befit a slave—illiterate. The guard, sending them on their way with "Have a nice day," shows the characteristic Canadian politeness and displays what Cecil Foster refers to as Canada's "benign racism, racism with a smile on its face" (C. Foster 1996, 14), in contrast to its more open form in the United States. Yet nonetheless, what is conveyed in this exchange is that legally and socially for someone like Babo being black in Canada amounts to the same as being black in the United States.

This implication counters usual Canadian self-conceptualizations via contrasting itself to the United States both in a historical and in a contemporary dimension. When comparing both nations, we see a past in which the thirteen colonies and later the United States (and particularly the southern United States) relied on slave labor to a far greater extent than Canada ever did. In fact, Canada for an extended period of time constituted the final destination for runaway slaves trying to escape through the so-called Underground Railroad. As such, Canada was the synonym for "freedom" and was even referred to as "heaven" in the coded language of the spirituals (see the title of Cecil Foster's analysis of racism in Canada, A Place Called Heaven). More recently, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Canada has built its (still delicate) national identity to a large extent on its trademark multiculturalism, its alleged openness toward those who, often also visibly, constitute the "other" to the two founding nations of the English and the French. Notably, it did so long before the United States, in the wake of the Barack Obama campaign and subsequent presidency, discovered its alleged "post-raciality."3

So why does King—albeit humorously—question Canada's historical and contemporary stance on race, and blackness in particular, and the way it is frequently contrasted with that of the United States? Perhaps, King seems to suggest, we ought to look a little more closely at the respective self-conceptualizations of both countries and the racial histories and policies these are based on. To do so in a comparative sociocultural perspective and, in a second step, with a literary focus is the objective of this chapter, which will conclude with an analysis of Lawrence Hill's border-spanning novel Any Known Blood.

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