Black History Month: An Interview with Sylvia D. Hamilton

Friday, February 26, 2016

Sylvia Hamilton has deep roots in Nova Scotia. She was born in Beechville, a community founded by free Black refugees from the War of 1812. She attended a segregated school as a child, and when she began attending a non-segregated high school, she noticed that the depictions of Black people in and outside of the classroom did not reflect her life experience. Ms. Hamilton is an award-winning filmmaker, writer and educator who has spent much of her career documenting Black experiences in Nova Scotia and Canada and working to combat racism and injustice. Ms. Hamilton has also worked with the Museum as a member of the Museum’s content advisory committee. Her most recent work is a book of poetry called And I Alone Escaped to Tell You, about the early Black settlers of Nova Scotia. Ms. Hamilton was kind enough to participate in our Black History Month blog series and talk to me about her sense of place, and the role human rights and racial inclusion play in her creative work.[1]

Sylvia D. Hamilton stands behind a black movie camera on a tripod. She is looking directly at the photographer, wearing glasses, and her long hair is woven into locks.
Sylvia D. Hamilton working behind the camera. Photo: Nick Pearce.


Why is Black History Month, which is a nationally recognized observance, especially important in Nova Scotia?

Nova Scotia is home to the earliest population of African-descended people in Canada. Ours is a long and rich history that is not well known. We have been marking Black History Month, or in Nova Scotia we say “African Heritage Month,” since the 1980s, before it was recognized at the national level. It is not widely known that the term “African,” to describe African-descended people in Nova Scotia, is historic. It was widely used in the 1800s; for example, the African United Baptist Association, an umbrella church organization, was established in 1854, before Canada’s Confederation. 

One of the historical pieces that I address in my work is the existence of slavery in Canada, a fact not often recognized, since most think of Canada as the “home” to those fleeing slavery. This is indeed true; at the same time, however, our country was also a place where people were enslaved. First Nations people were enslaved at the earliest period of European colonization; African people were imported and enslaved in French and English Canada. Their enslavement pre-dated the freedom movement of the Underground Railroad. The Abolition Act of 1833 that abolished slavery in the British colonies applied to Canada. It came into effect one year later in 1834, in order to give the “property owners,” those who held “slaves,” time to adjust to their losses, and to be thereby compensated. Enslaved African people received nothing; their “'compensation” was considered their freedom. Latter day anti-Black racism, legal segregation and racial exclusion are direct legacies of slavery. There are always new audiences who are unaware of this history and that's why we need to continually teach it in February and throughout the year.

My creative work is preoccupied with three primary interlocking themes: history, both oral and written, memory, and location/space/place. I have taken to heart what writer James Baldwin said about history: “If history were past, history wouldn't matter. History is present... You and I are history. We carry our history. We act our history.” My films and my writing are my way of acting our history.

Can you talk a little bit about how racial inclusion and human rights figure into your filmmaking and your writing?

We share a present, we share a collective human past, regardless of how we individually arrived here at this moment.  We are all on this planet together. As humans we share common desires: to be accepted, to be respected and to be encouraged to be all that we can be. When there are blocks and barriers, intentional or otherwise, to our achieving these fundamental human goals, we all share the responsibility to develop strategies to remove them. Why? It is in our collective interest to do so. Sometimes, a specific experience can help us to understand how and why we are interconnected and therefore why we should fight injustice wherever and whenever it is present.

In my films such as Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia, the young students speak about their hopes and desires, and about their struggles against racism in the educational system. In The Little Black School House, students, teachers and historians address the little known history of segregated schools – by law – in Canada. After making such work I came away with a great sense of the courage and determination of African Canadians, and their heartfelt desire for self-determination, an aspiration shared by all people regardless of background.

People of African descent in Canada have resisted discrimination and racism from the first moment we arrived in this land of the Indigenous Peoples. Yet, for the most part, our stories have been absent from the majestic view of Canada we show to ourselves and to the world, a view filled with inherent contradictions and one that hides other truths about our country.  These truths show the persistence of racism, discrimination and exclusion. My work – films, writing, teaching and presentations – talks back to the silences and absences in the historical record. It is a way to uncover and document the stories of resistance and defiance against efforts to deny dignity and equality. And, most important, these are stories of resilience and hope. The advocacy work for human rights that began many years ago in Nova Scotia’s Black community laid important groundwork for the rest of Canada.


[1] All information from “Sylvia Hamilton” in the Canadian Encyclopedia, accessed February 11, 2016 and “Sylvia Hamilton traces her roots in new poetry collection” on The Next Chapter accessed February 11, 2016.