Audubon: On Birds and Slaves

The great blue heron twisted its neck down to reach the water, even as its beady eye stared straight at me. The look was not friendly. Its thin scissor-like beak was long enough to spear my gut.

I stared back at the bird, captured on the page of an elephant-sized book by John James Audubon. The book and its author are icons of the conservation movement. Walking through the art gallery, I browsed some twenty prints from the magnificent Birds of America.

Audubon is a staple of conservation chats around the campfire. He is the founder of modern ornithology and pioneered the methods still used for studying birds, such as banding and annual bird counts. Birds are an early indicator of wildlife and ecological health. Audubon and slavery. These two words rarely appear together in most conservation talks, websites and books. As a Black woman playing with birding, I am always looking for evidence that we too have a history in the outdoors. The search led to Audubon.

He fancied himself as the rock star of outdoor living. Audubon boasts of his tight pants, silk shirts and his curls flowing in the wind as he charged away on his horse. He, and women, loved his muscles of steel. Men admired his sharp-shooting and hunting skills. Some probably liked his muscled chest too.

Audubon was a gifted painter, writer and fabulist. He created and massaged his image as an American man of the backwoods. On publicity tours he wore buckskin pants, loose, and fur-trimmed leather jackets. The truth was twisted and spun, much like his birds, they to fit the page, his to enhance fame.

Let’s start with his birth in 1785. Audubon spent a lot of time insisting that he was white and American-born. He could never quite keep the story straight, or perhaps, others noticed his slight tan, even in the winter. Audubon was born in Haiti on his white father’s sugar plantation. The race and status of his mother is still debatable. The conflicting claims about her serves only to highlight the fact that it was not a black and white case.

The Haitian Revolution spun Audubon into the USA. He arrived with enough money to start his own business at Mill Grove. There, he owned nine enslaved people, buying and selling them as needed. In his autobiography Audubon called them his servants. They did the housework, farmed the vegetable garden, ran the mill and the shop, dug the fish pond, and rowed the boats ashore. The slave labour gave Audubon the freedom and the money to pursue his love of birds.

On his treks in the USA Audubon passed through many plantations. He noticed the birds and the plants, but not the enslaved people, except on one occasion. On a birding expedition Audubon slid into a fugitive man hunting in the Louisiana swamps. Guns cocked, the stand-off ended with the men sharing dinner in the bayou.

Over the small fire, the enslaved man told his story. He, his wife, and three children were sold to separate owners. The man feigned sickness for a few days, biding his time. He escaped. He tracked down his splintered family, and one by one reunited them in the swamp. Always, they were on guard for slave catchers. When food was low, they visited the plantations at night, knowing that the enslaved people there would feed them and keep their secret. The story then takes an improbably turn. Audubon says he persuaded the runaway family to return with him to their original owner. He persuaded the owner to rebuy the family and to promise never to sell them again.

The story is significant, as it highlights how enslaved people resisted the shackles. For some it was to flee into the woods, living a precarious life. For others, it was aiding the runaway, a symbol that freedom was indeed possible. The story also shows that slavery was such a common and accepted institution that it never occurred to Audubon to free the enslaved family.

The bird man visited Canada in 1833, as he wanted to paint every bird in North America. He succeed in capturing some 450 of them. It is an astonishing achievement. He insisted on paining life-sized images of the birds, hence the massive size of the deluxe folio edition of his books. His paintings are dynamic, showing the birds in movement, whether flying, hunting or swimming. There is an unsettling urgency to his prints. It feels as if he was rushing to capture creatures on the verge of extinction. If he could fix them in oil, colour, shadow and light, they would live.

Audubon knew the world was changing rapidly. The woods he hiked as a youth were replaced by roads and cities in his dotage. He noted that the government policy of destroying the buffalo was intended to decimate the Indigenous people. He saw their disappearance as the sad but inevitable price of civilization. Audubon died in 1851.

In 2011 Sotheby’s sold an original Audubon deluxe folio for $12 million. The man’s legacy increases with each year, there are many parks, school and centres named after him. Mill Grove, his original home is now a national historic site. I plan on visiting it one day. I want to see where the nine enslaved people work. Will there be a monument to mark their role in supporting Audubon’s talent, and the continuing wealth of those who own his original books and paintings?

Audubon white-washed himself throughout his life. The conservation movement does the same by ignoring the racial context in which he lived. Slavery built America. Conservation and environmental groups are still seen as white institutions with white agenda. A first step in changing this perception is putting race back into the conversations around the campfires.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

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Race in the Graveyard

Neither the dead nor the living paid much attention to me as I wandered around the cemetery. It would have been hard for the corpses to do as they were, well, dead. I strolled along the meandering paths looking for the graves of the famous Black residents.

The spring sunshine warmed my face, even as the air tried to freeze it. Like a clueless dinner guest, winter was determined to hang on until the very end. I wrapped the scarf more snugly around my neck and donned my hood. I had to find the graves.

Homes for the dead are unique outdoors spaces that reflect the basic values and beliefs of a society.  In multi-racial countries the fault lines of race tend to follow the dead to the grave. Sometimes it is shrouded in religious garments such as Jews only in Jewish cemeteries, Catholics in Catholics boneyards and so on. Yet, lift the denominational death mask and race stares back, cold, unblinking, and as enduring as the bones.

The Toronto Necropolis cemetery is a brisk fifteen minute walk from my downtown apartment. When it opened in 1850, it was on the outskirts of the city. The cemetery lies on a high ridge overlooking a steep valley. A century ago the Don River gurgled in the wide crevice on its way to Lake Ontario. Today the acoustics is provided by cars, buzzing like angry wasps, as they race along the highway. The poor river is entombed in a concrete straightjacket as its drips down to the lake.

The Necropolis was a non-denominational burial ground, meaning that anyone could sleep in peace there. Make that anyone who was rich. Race and religion was not an issue, but money was, and still is, essential to be allowed to rot in the hallowed grounds. The gravestones are a who-was-who of life in Toronto. Mayors, doctors, politicians and journalists who argued among themselves in life are now quiet together in death.

The cemetery was designed as a pastoral park, filled with winding paths and elegant trees. The graves are loosely arranged. Like flowers in an English garden, there is order but not rigidity. I found the first grave on my second loop through the park. It was a red granite obelisk pointing to the sky. The Egyptian symbol of the sun’s rays, hence of life, was a fitting tribute for Thornton and Lucie Blackburn.

Both were escaped slaves. Their flight to Canada in 1833, caused the first race riot in Detroit and a legal ruckus between Canada and the USA. Canada ruled that slaves could not be returned to their former owners, thus the country became the terminus for the Underground Railroad. The Blackburns thrived in Toronto, starting the first taxi company in the city. Thornton risked everything to go back to the USA to rescue his mother and brother from slavery. The size of the obelisk, some six feet tall, is a good indicator of the Blackburns wealth and status in the city.

Boneyards are outdoor places of culture, history and memory. In life, it is essential that we are individuals, first to ourselves and then to the rest of the world. It is no different in death. Gravestones are etched with a name, birthday and death-day. Some point to the place of the dead in the family. They were once mother, husband, beloved child.

The fresh graves had heaped soil spilling from the plot. Without a marker the unnamed corpse was anonymous. Such was the fate of most enslaved people. In life, they were recorded in the plantation ledger, as a sexed and aged property among the other assets like the cows and the pigs. In death they were interred in unmarked graves at the bitter edges of the cotton, sugar or rice plantations.  Most of these slave graveyards are now lost, reclaimed by overgrown vegetation or concrete parking lots. They are buried by a present determined to forget that it forged the shackles and cracked the whips.

The gravestone was simple for William Peyton Hubbard. He was the first Black politician elected in Canada. In a twenty-year career he served as the acting mayor of Toronto. This is remarkable as in those long ago days, politicians were elected annually. Every year he had to campaign to earn his votes! Hubbard was born in Toronto in 1840; his parents were fugitive slaves from the USA.

Anderson Ruffian Abbot was the first Black Canadian to become a doctor. He came from a wealthy family which owned about 50 houses in Toronto in the 1870s. Anderson imperiled his life by joining the union army in the USA Civil War. He was one of the doctors who tried to save President Lincoln after the assassin’s bullet munched his flesh.

Abbot, the Blackburns and the Hubbards disrupt the expected story of Black life in Toronto. They showed what was possible when free. They were among the wealthy elite in Toronto. And they never forgot were the came from. Passionate activists in the abolition movement, they endangered their comfortable lives by returning to the USA to rescue other family members from the whip.

Departing the lifeless, I headed back to the entrance of the cemetery. The elaborate gates – huge, arched and covered with gingerbread trim – were impressive. They were a not so subtle indicator that in entering the gates, we were leaving one world behind and entering another.

Black History Walks in Toronto

Black History Walks in Toronto

The next time you are in Toronto, give me a call. We can spend an afternoon chatting and walking as we explore the Black history of the city.

Together we will trace the Toronto footsteps of abolitionists Harriet Tubman, Josiah Henson, and others. As we explore homes, churches, and cemeteries that played key roles in the Underground Railroad, we’ll discuss why and how many Black leaders—including former slaves—migrated to Toronto and built the foundations of a strong Black community.

On the walk, there will be stops for drinks and we will end it with a tasty snack at a Caribbean café.

I already lead walks for two outdoor clubs and a Meet Up group. This walk is done through Airbnb. It is part of their new programme called Airbnb Experience. The idea behind it to get an insider’s view of the city and to share in the activities that make city life so vibrant. As being outside and Black history are my passions, it made sense to combine both.

All prospective Experience hosts are screened and trained by Airbnb. I am in the first group of those launching the initiative in Toronto. Others are offering food and wine tours, mural painting, silk screening and a jazz safari.

The Experience is a chance for me to earn some extra cash. Studying for a PhD, even on a full scholarship, is expensive. Many PhD students graduate with their head stuffed with knowledge and their bank accounts stuffed with debts. I don’t want to be one of those.

So the next time you are in Toronto, check out my Black History walking tour.

Black History Walks in Toronto

Dreaming of Cycling Around Lake Ontario

This winter, I am dreaming of cycling. A long summer trip, from one end of Lake Ontario to the other. And when that is done, there are four other Great Lakes to do.

Why not? The giant blue beads of water shimmer in my imagination. Straddling two nations, the lakes bisect two realities.

The southern lands, loved by the sun. Fields of rice, tobacco and cotton swaying in the wind. Crops picked by hands blacken by god, calloused by the shackles, blistered by the whips.

The northern earth, littered with snow. Too cold for whip-fed crops to grow.

Town and villages along the lake twinkled in the night. How to reach the northern lights, hiking without torchlights?

Blue body, the in-between border. Cross over, and find a new order. Cross under and drink the abyss. The taste of that first crossing filling the mouth.

I dream of cycling around the lakes. It’s adventure and a tick on my bucket-list.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Hiking in the Hills of Jamaica

“I want to go hiking up in the hills,” I said.

“Oh my. What do you want to do that for?” said my cousin.

“Because it’s there. Because I like hills. Because the Maroons used the trails to escape slavery.”

“That’s work my girl. You’re on vacation. Why not just relax yourself by the beach? Watch the waves. Swim a little. Relax.”

“I am relax, but the hills are calling me.”

“So you want to walk in the hot, hot sun, just to get to the top of the hill? And then you walk back down again? My girl I won’t be doing that with you. No mam, I walk enough already. I’m not going to hot up myself and sweat up myself. That’s not fun.”

“It is for me. Who can come with me?”

“You best book a tourist trip. I’ll ask Mr. Thomas to check out the details.”

“I don’t want to do it that way. When I go hiking in Canada I am the only Black person in the group. I’m in Jamaica, I want to hike with a Jamaican group.”

“The only one I can think of is those English people them. After forty years in England they come back to Jamaica a bit different. Some say mad. They are the ones you see walking up and down in the hot sun for exercise. You know what they say about mad dogs and English men. Add the women too in Jamaica.”

“Come with me just for a bit. We won’t go far.”

“I’ll come only if we take a taxi drive. You can feast your eyes and your clothes won’t get sweaty. Better yet, let’s just go to the beach. That’s how we Jamaicans relax.”

Sailing on a Half Moon