'Black W/Holes: A History of Brief Time,' part 2 of 2

Cover of FUSE Magazine, 1998, courtesy of fusemagazine.org
Cover of FUSE Magazine, 1998, courtesy of fusemagazine.org

What follows is Part 2 of 2 of M. NourbeSe Philip’s essay, “Black W/Holes: A History Of Brief Time,” which combines definitions from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time with an urgent discussion about race relations in Canada and beyond in the late 1990s. This essay was originally published in Toronto’s FUSE Magazine in 1998. After sending Philip my commentary, “Physics of the Impossible,” which speculatively discusses her book-length poem Zong! (Wesleyan University Press, 2008) in relation to Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity, she sent me this essay. Since it only appears in the back issue of FUSE, I am presenting it here with her permission.

Part 1 of 2 can be found here.

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Black W/Holes: A History Of Brief Time (1998)
By M. NourbeSe Philip
Part 2 of 2 

white dwarf: A stable cold star, supported by the exclusion principle repulsion between electrons.

in the brave and oh so new world where africans have no agency—can be bought or sold at will, they turn their eyes to that large undifferentiated space lacking any particularity for them. the singularity to the north called canada, at the end of the north star. where harriet tubman took her people and “never lost a single passenger.” they was going to do some walking, these africans, out of slavery. into freedom. or so they thought. into the space called canada. 

this space called canada is not a white, virgin space. it never was. it is a space that was initially inhabited by brown peoples. and continues to be. the black presence—the african presence—has been here for a very long time—indeed ever since the blackman, matthew da costa, arrived with Samuel de Champlain in 1605. the space that is canada is linked to the black world, the african world as a space of refuge, hope and new beginnings, all too often unrealized.  during the american revolution the crown promises freedom and land in canada to africans who would flee their owners and fight on the side of the loyalists.  they receive their freedom and land; often it is the most barren land and their presence in this space is neither valued or wanted. in 1796 the colonial government of jamaica grows tired of trying to keep control of the maroons and ships them to nova scotia. once again freedom proves to be a mirage for africans—eventually the maroons emigrate to sierra leone. it is a space—this space called canada—enlarged by appetite—salted, east coast cod is sent to the caribbean to feed the bodies of enslaved africans; in return hogsheads of rum are shipped back to the east coast. for free europeans. the appetite for cheap labour: african caribbean men join their nova scotian brothers in the mines of sydney. in ontario african caribbean women enter the space we call canada as cheap domestic labour. doing work white women will not do.

mass: The quantity of matter in a body; its inertia, or resistance to acceleration.

Canada remains the place to which people flee. Good guys fleeing bad guys; bad guys fleeing good guys; white draft dodgers fleeing their abbreviated futures in the jungles of Viet Nam; some Black draft dodgers; wealthy businessmen and women who can buy Canadian passports. You name it, there’s always a good reason to head for Canada.  These people never go to Vancouver, or Toronto, or Sudbury. At least as represented in the movies.  Sometimes—very sometimes—they go to Montreal which is French and, therefore, not really Canada after all. It is that undifferentiated mass—the same mass that Africans set out for a long long time ago—that is the space of Canada they head for. It is a space of becoming. All things to all people. Canadians on the other hand almost always never head for the United States, preferring instead LA or San Francisco, or New York or Chicago. Unless you're Black of course, and you’re going Stateside. Which is a very different country.

weight: the force exerted on a body by a gravitational field. It is proportional to, but not the same as, its mass.

I am at a resort in the Hockley Valley—the land around it has been reshaped with the golfer in mind. There is an abundance of open space carefully mowed and shaped into an eighteen—hole golf course. Here white men get to drive around in little, white buggies (often followed by their women, also in little white buggies); they jump out, hit little, white balls around the green expanse, then jump back into their little, white buggies and drive off. The sense of expansive entitlement is palpable.  

It is a very white space. Tiger Woods notwithstanding.

The buffet style meals continue this theme of largesse and plenitude bringing out the gluttonous, all-you-can-eat side in me. 

It is the same approach of that quintessential marauder, the European, to the world. Eat all you can. It is the same approach the multinationals, supported by the “clubbers-of-eight” to the world today. The world and its resources have become a smorgasbord, a buffet, at which they are each expected to consume all that they can, go back for seconds, thirds and fourths, and hang the consequences.

The flash-point of the 1992 Oka crisis lay in an attempt by white Canadians to expand a golf course. Into an area that had spiritual significance for the First Nations people in Quebec. So that white men with their gulf clubs could run around in little, white carts, hitting little, white balls. Frances Cress Welsing, the African American psychologist, has argued that there is symbolic social and racial significance in the kinds of balls used in sports  It is no coincidence, she suggests, that golf—a game involving little, white balls played over a vast expanse of land, is traditionally the elite sport favoured by rich, white men, and from which Black men have also traditionally been excluded.

So powerful is the sense of white space, I hesitate to walk on the green, walk instead on the paved roads linking these eighteen holes. My black and female body vibrates with the question: am I allowed?  Not so my companion who is white and male. He too, although not a golfer, shares in this aura of entitlement. The space is his to occupy. Which is a microcosm of how our peoples inhabit this space that is canada. One with a sense of entitlement—even greater than that of the First Nations people; the other with a sense of being allowed in on sufferance.  

strong force: The strongest of the four fundamental forces, with the shortest range of all.  It holds the quarks together within protons and neutrons, and holds the protons and neutrons together to form atoms.

sing to me of africville where african nova scotians build a community. In the implacable face of white supremacy. then sing me the africville blues that tell of city fathers attempting to e/race the african presence. in this white space white space called canada. so that they can build a park! not a golf course. but a park with a water fountain. what is the negative space called canada around which those early african canadians shaped themselves? into africville. into resistance. and into memory.

Listen to the sound of the river. I did. The Credit River. I sit, close my eyes and listen to the sound of the water flowing by. And within the sound of water I hear the sounds of the languages of the First Peoples. The liquid, mellifluous sounds of their languages. I listen and hear how the very sound of the space around us shapes us fundamentally—from the ground up so to speak, so that even the tongue must remain faithful to the language of the land.

space-time: The four-dimensional space whose points are events.

You cannot talk about space as it relates to Black people—to African people—without talking about movement or moving through space. And once you talk about moving through space as it relates to Africans, then you must confront the forces that prohibit or restrict that moving.

What happens when “you fucking people are all over the place!”? As in Caribana. Where hundreds of thousands of black bodies take over the streets of toronto. This collectivity of black bodies, that is truly all over the a specially allocated place, is always seen as a potential source of trouble. A threat. To the city fathers, and were it not for the 200+ million dollars Caribana brings into the city, it would have been stopped a long time ago.

Just as immigration has become the ritual purification ceremony for white Canada, so the yearly abasement of Caribana organizers before the city fathers, begging for money and permission to move, has become an important provincial aspect of that ritual. The white fathers control the space through which these black bodies will move and will to move: virtually every year the police flex their collective muscle and threaten to withhold permits and licences. The white fathers reaffirm their supremacy by portraying the african organizers as being unable to manage money. Proof being the debt the organizers have incurred. No mention is ever made of the monies the province annually pours into European-based arts such as the opera, the ballet, the symphony, the AGO and the ROM. None of which generates the financial returns which Caribana does. No mention is ever made of the many financial fiascos of governments, both provincial and federal, such as the Sky Dome and Pearson International Airport for which taxpayers have had to pay. No mention is made of the $200+ million that Caribana brings into the province's coffers. But within this space allowed to African people, to black bodies, there must be the ritual scourging of those who will not be allowed to be all over the place. And ritual obeisance to those who are, indeed, all over the place.

photon: A quantum of light

the moving of african peoples within a white supremacist society that from a space of longing. a longing to be free in that most basic of senses—freedom of movement.  which is exactly what africans do not and have not had ever since the european moved their bodies from africa to the new world. and then told them that they could not move. or run. they could only die and even that was forcibly prevented at times. today, despite michael jordan flying through the air to do his slam dunk, or oprah travelling in the stratosphere of the wealthy, or cosby, or michael jackson. the black body moving through space—the physical space—is still a threat. to be controlled. by those whose job it is to control the space. chief among whom are the police who harass african people, particularly african men, to a degree that the very concept of freedom of movement as it applies to black people is ludicrous.

wherever it takes place—notting hill, new york, montreal, miami—the route of this festival is, indeed, a route of memory, moving through the lower case historical space that is the african canadian community here in canada, as well as the upper case Historical space that is the trajectory from slavery to freedom. it is a route of memory that traverses and confronts the space that is canada which is essentially founded on white supremacist principles. the dynamics of this space functions so as to e/race the black presence—the african presence in this country, while enriching itself at the expense of those very black bodies. how else to explain the refusal of hotels in the city of toronto, some of the largest financial beneficiaries of the presence of thousands of black bodies in this space, to make any financial contribution to the staging this festival in the form of sponsorships? the phototype for this present e/racing of the african presence is the earlier e/racing of the first nations presence. the white space we call canada is, indeed, a palimpsest scored by multiple e/racings.

how, in the space we call canada, do we explain that at the last juno awards ceremonies, black musicians were given their awards at an earlier, non-televised ceremony? how, in the space we call canada, do we explain that the cbc, the supposed voice of the nation, does not have a single black television show? are we to conclude that in this so-called vast country of ours, there are no black screen writers, with stories to tell? or black actors needing work?

nucleus: The central part of an atom, consisting only of protons and neutrons, held together by the strong force.

The engine driving the popular music industry in the world today is African music.  Given that it has the largest number of African peoples in Canada today, Toronto naturally becomes a happening city for black music. This was the argument  Milestones Communications used to base its application to the CRTC for a licence for a Black music radio station. For the second time the CRTC refused to award a licence for a Black-owned radio station. The last remaining FM spot went to the CBC. The previous one to a country and western station—CISS FM.

The issue was never truly about black music. Had that been the case Milestones Communications would have got its licence. To licence a black-owned radio station which opens up the possibility for the coverage issues of importance to the African Canadian community and to the world Afrosporic community is to hand the African Canadian communities a resource with enormous and unpredictable potential. To withhold the license is to ensure that African Canadian people will not have the cultural space necessary for them to flourish as a people. In this space we call Canada. 

black hole: A region of space-time from which nothing, not even light, can escape, because gravity is so strong.

White society perceives the black body as dangerously transgressive. The black body is not only cypher, but metonym for danger, crime and subversion. To have thousands of these black bodies in the heartland of white Toronto is not exotica. For many, and particularly the police, it is nothing but a riot waiting to happen. Despite its aura of celebration, Caribana is symbolic of the discomfort the black presence creates in the falsely white space of Canada. In 1994, for instance, when the first Kiddies Carnival (for children) was scheduled to be held in the Oakwood/Eglinton area—a predominantly Black area—many of the area’s Italian residents, ably supported by their Members of Parliament, vehemently opposed the event. Community meetings held to discuss the issue degenerated into shouting matches, and the newspapers quoted Italians as telling African organizers to hold their parade elsewhere. Where else? If not Oakwood and Eglinton. 

neutron star: A cold star supported by the exclusion principle repulsion between neutrons.

I attend a funeral of an elder of the African Canadian community in Toronto. There isn't enough space for us in the funeral home. People spill out onto the sidewalk and again there is a sense of there never being enough room for us—not enough space. After such a long presence in this city, in this country, there are no Black-owned funeral homes, so that even in mourning our passing there remains the sense of being cramped and stifled.

Meantime the media allow us all the space we want, provided we show ourselves to be criminals and murderers, always looking for handouts, starving in africa, dying in africa, killing in africa. There is very little space for any other representation.

exclusion principle: Two identical spin-1/2 particles cannot have (within the limits set by the uncertainty principle) both the same position and the same velocity.

Where else should Africans and Black people free up? If not at Oakwood and Eglinton.  Where else if not in the heart—centre is perhaps more apt—of the city?  After 20 years of moving and dancing down (and sometimes up) University Avenue past the symbols and statues of a now defunct empire, past the US embassy—symbol of a very present empire,

past the law courts that play a disproportionately large role in African life, past the hospitals where many Africans work, often in the lowest jobs, Caribana has grown too large for the city. Or so they tell us. In 1994.  Its organizers move it to the Lakeshore.  Africans will have more space to free up, is the argument. Sitting on the grassy areas along the Lakeshore, watching the lake shimmer in the summer sunlight, it is easy to imagine that one is indeed in the Caribbean. The resemblance to the islands is uncanny—a sort of simulated re-representation of the Caribbean with its coastal communities and villages. The water, albeit fresh water, reminds you of the salt waters those first Africans crossed. Both separating and connecting us to Africa.

There is a shadow side: participants and spectators alike have literally become littoral if not litter/al-marginal.

naked singularity: A space-time singularity not surrounded by a black hole.

Within the confines of the city Caribana cannot/could not be ignored. The wide open spaces of the Lakeshore work to dilute and dissipate the energy generated by the gathering of so many black bodies. This dilution and diffusion is one of the unique effects of Canadian spaciality. It might be one of the ways the negative space that is Canada helps to shape its inhabitants. The beauty of the scenic surroundings works to undercut the tension generated by black bodies. The parade nature of the festival increases along with greater police control. Complete with signs commanding the music to “stop here.” A sort of public coitus interruptus. Barricades restrain people. It is more of a challenge to participate, to move from spectator to performer, as happened on University Avenue—an important aspect of carnival. Helicopters patrol the event in a way they were unable to on University: at the end of the day the Lakeshore has a feel of South Central, LA, with circling helicopters and spotlights. Not to mention the garbage cleaners after the last band literally and ritually cleansing the white space of the stain of blackness. And heaven forbid there should be a disturbance of any sort, then people—African people—are boxed in between the expressway and the lake. 

electric charge: A property of a particle by which it may repel (or attract) other particles that have a charge of similar (or opposite) sign.

the space that is canada—a space of refuge over which hangs the north star—to which those early africans fleeing. from the united states. leaving the past. moving into the imperfect present. believing it a racism-free space. the space we call canada: a respite—a hiatus—a pause—a caesura between the space of violence of the pilgrim fathers. and mothers all. and the space as yet unformed. the african—fleeing a space where black was not cypher or postmodern hieroglyph. but a thing. fleeing a space where even the so-called savage native could own an african slave. provided they—the native that is—were civilised enough. as in the five civilized tribes. this space that is. canada. a negative space.  around which we? i? the african. the black. shapes herself—ourselves. a space of unrelenting, unforgiving whiteness. a tabula rasa which was never blank.

nuclear fusion: The process in which two nuclei collide and coalesce to form a single, heavier nucleus.

Note: All definitions appear in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.