When Charmaine Nelson got a call last spring from Harvard University’s Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality department nominating her for the 2017-2018 William Lyon Mackenzie King Chair for Canadian Studies, she was pleasantly surprised. She was thrilled when she found out she would actually be appointed. “I’m super excited,” Dr. Nelson says. “It’s a tremendous honour, and I also see it as having a lot of responsibility.”
Dr. Nelson, the only Black tenured professor of art history in Canada, will be taking a year off from her job at McGill University to further her research on Canadian fugitive slave advertisements and teach at Harvard. These ads are meticulous physical descriptions of enslaved people written by their owners, which were used during auctions, sales, or as notices of runaway slaves.
“The ads are so factual, and it’s really sad because they are the most detailed description of enslaved people that we have,” Dr. Nelson says. “Everything we know about these people comes from their owners. It’s very disturbing.”
Dr. Nelson says her work on the Canadian fugitive slave archive will focus on a comparative study of ads from Canada (specifically Nova Scotia and Quebec) and Jamaica, as well as visual representations of creole culture and human activity. “My focus is on humanizing people who were dehumanized,” she says.
While researchers in the U.S. and parts of South America and the Caribbean have been studying fugitive slave advertisements since the 1970s, scholars in Canada have barely scratched the surface of its history with slavery, which dates back over 200 years. “I’ve never had a Canadian student enter my class and know that slavery transpired in Canada,” Dr. Nelson says. Most, she adds, only learn about Canada as an abolitionist country that freed slaves. “My class is an elective, but if they didn’t take my course [Visual Culture of Slavery], they’d stumble out into the world not knowing.”
Teaching Canadian slave history to American students, who come with their own understanding of slavery as it occurred in their own country, is both a challenge and an opportunity to educate, Dr. Nelson says. “For a lot of people in the States, no matter how well they know about the Black diaspora, Canada is not on their radar.” While at Harvard, she’ll teach two courses: an introduction to historical Canadian art and a course on Canada’s role in the transatlantic world.
The 50-year-old Mackenzie King chair is open to researchers in any field in the social sciences, humanities and professional studies. Dr. Nelson is the second art historian to hold this post at Harvard, and only the second Black professor (the other being George Elliott Clarke, the award-winning Nova Scotia-born author and a professor at the University of Toronto).
“It means even more to me as an art historian and as someone who conducts research in the often-overlooked areas of Canadian slavery and black Canada,” she says. “This is an important opportunity to bring my unique disciplinary perspective about very important and under-examined topics to a much broader international audience.”