On a Saturday morning in April 2018, Tayana Jacques, a Black woman, and Brian Mann, her white boyfriend, were walking together in Montreal’s trendy Plateau-Mont-Royal neighbourhood when police stopped and questioned them over what the two officers called “making excessive noise.” Jacques and Mann were later fined $444 each. The charges were particularly suspicious since this was not a Saturday-night encounter—not a time when people would have been carousing drunkenly home from a nightclub. In fact, the couple had been on their way to get coffee. According to media reports, Jacques says she was restrained and handcuffed after she turned to walk away from the confrontation. She was also questioned without cause about drug use while Mann, who protested, was allegedly kicked in the knee, punched in the face, and pepper-sprayed. By the end of the encounter, two more police cruisers had arrived.
Mann and Jacques have said in media interviews that they were violently mistreated by Montreal police not because of what they were doing but because of who they were: a white man and a Black woman in an obviously romantic relationship. (The Montreal Police Service has declined to comment on the case.) The couple’s story may seem unimportant—an outlier in an otherwise racially harmonious society—but the apparent overreach of the Montreal Police Service, particularly within our current context of global Black Lives Matter protests, is cause for grave concern.
Following the incident, Fo Niemi, executive director of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRAAR), issued a statement saying the alleged police mistreatment of Jacques and Mann is part of a pattern of police misbehaviour, especially involving Black citizens. (The City of Montreal is now facing a class-action lawsuit for racial profiling brought by the Black Coalition of Quebec on behalf of people who were unjustly arrested by police.) Last October, a report commissioned by the Montreal Police Service confirmed that its officers are far more likely to stop Black, Indigenous, or Arab people than they are white people. This past July, the police service introduced a policy meant to reduce the risk of profiling; among other provisions, the new policy requires officers to complete paperwork clearly stating their reasons for conducting street checks.
But Jacques and Mann’s violent encounter caught my attention because their experience points to an unsettling reality that extends beyond police discrimination: Canadians have a bigger problem with race, and specifically with cross-racial couples, than many would like to admit. As a professor of art history specializing in transatlantic slavery, I find our society’s unspoken discomfort painfully ironic. I study a period when the nonconsensual sexual pairing of white men and Black women, and the sight of their mixed-race children, was entrenched across the Americas; when Black women were routinely dehumanized; and when consensual cross-racial couples—like Jacques and Mann—were considered threatening to colonial hierarchies. That history has been all but erased from our national memory. And it’s had a chronic, undeniable influence on how we perceive cross-racial relationships today.
Relationships between people of different races, ethnic origins, religions, languages, and birthplaces are still relatively rare. In the 2011 national household census, 360,045 couples, or about 5 percent of all unions, identified as being mixed. When the figure was first released, in 2014, media coverage framed it as a sign of social progress: the percentage was double that of twenty years prior. Yet, for a nation that claims to celebrate its racial diversity and inclusiveness, living together in a multicultural society seems not to have resulted in the deepest levels of profound social connection signalled by intimate unions.
There is extensive research on the nature of historical cross-racial relationships, and the profound imbalances of power on which they were built, for transatlantic slavery in American, Caribbean, and South American regions. Though the study of Canadian slavery lags far behind, the fragmented histories of enslaved Black women allow us to connect Canadian slavery to its more southern practices. And it’s become clear that, in Canada as elsewhere in the Americas, such cross-racial relationships were a cornerstone of the race, sex, and gender hierarchies organized to most effectively exploit and control the sexual and maternal labour of Black women.
What I share here is not a comprehensive history of cross-racial sexual relations in Canadian slavery but fragments that shed light on the violent interactions between enslaved Black women and their white male and female slave-owners. Research on enslaved populations is deeply challenging in terms of the archival sources with which scholars must grapple. In a world where the enslaved were routinely refused the leisure time, literacy, and cultural capital to produce traces of their own lives, we can mainly glimpse their experiences by sifting through documents from white slave-owners and other colonialists. Such sources also exist in Canadian archives, but due to the profound erasure of Canadian slavery from national curricula and popular media alike, most Canadians have zero knowledge that these painful transatlantic histories are also theirs.
For over a century, Canada has manufactured a false identity as a racially benevolent land, historically free from slavery and its attendant racism. Within this false narrative, the transatlantic slave trade didn’t infiltrate what is now Canada, and escaped enslaved people supposedly fled north only to seek and gain their freedom. But European settlers owned and traded humans, including Black and Indigenous people, in the regions that became Canada from the mid- to late seventeenth century; the practice was formally abolished in the British colonies only in 1834. Slavery took root from Ontario eastward, including in Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland.
Race was and always has been a fiction created to categorize human beings and facilitate the exploitation of some and the enrichment of others. As Africans became the focus of European slave traders and owners, the category of slave became more and more conflated with Blackness. And, at a fundamental level, slavery was designed to tear Black families apart. From the moment slave traders forced people onto slave ships in Africa and throughout every moment of sale and exchange in the Americas and elsewhere, white people rarely acknowledged or prioritized the preservation of African and African American family and kinship bonds. The threat of family separation was commonly used by slave-owners as a tactic to demand obedience.
African names were among the first things to go once captives landed in the Americas. New first names were imposed along with the family name of the slave-owner (or any they saw fit to bestow). The objectification of the enslaved was also sustained by the notation of only first names in a host of documents in which they were listed as property, such as wills, estate inventories, and fugitive slave advertising. Slave-sale advertising did not list even first names but routinely only the age, sex, build, skill set, and character of the enslaved. For obvious reasons, white slave-owners customarily claimed that the enslaved people they wished to sell were obedient. This claim was, of course, not always true, but it served to put the minds of potential buyers at ease. The near uniformity of these practices of renaming across the Americas demonstrates the pervasiveness of the white slave-owners’ belief that it was an effective way to sever the enslaved from their ancestry.
The enslaved were routinely reminded that they were not considered human. Those who were enslaved were slaves for life and became a transferable currency that could be bought and sold, auctioned, bartered, wagered, seized to repay debts, listed in estate inventories, or passed down in wills as property. Black families suffered terribly under this burden. In a despairingly common example of family separation, when William Brown and Thomas Gilmore, the co-founders of the Quebec Gazette, wrote their mentor and former employer William Dunlap in Philadelphia, in 1768, to secure reliable labour for their printing office in Quebec City, they asked him to send them a “Negro boy.” That they did not request a “Negro boy and his mother” or a “Negro boy and his family” demonstrates their complete disregard for the youth’s welfare.
The matrilineal order of slavery meant that any child born to an enslaved woman was immediately a slave, owned by their mother’s owner. This was true whether the father was enslaved or free, Black or of any other race. Slave-owners capitalized on this convention by practising breeding: forcibly pairing enslaved men and women, actively manipulating their sexuality, and overruling their personal intimate choices to produce more enslaved property. Breeding was a calculated, public, and well-documented enterprise in tropical plantation regimes like Jamaica, where planters were known to keep lists tracking the fertility of their enslaved women.
White male slave-owners understood sexual access to enslaved women as their legal right, which unsurprisingly led to the explosion of a mixed-race slave population. A famous case is that of American president Thomas Jefferson, who fathered several enslaved mixed-race children with Sally Hemings, a woman he owned. Similarly, the horrors of sexual violence against Black enslaved women in urban Canadian settlements, like Quebec City and Halifax, would have occurred behind the closed doors and drawn curtains of the homes of good white citizens, away from prying eyes. But, while the actual sexual acts were often concealed, the resulting mixed-race children were impossible to hide.
In contrast to our current and more inclusive use of terms like “person of colour” or “biracial,” children born to one Black and one white parent were listed with demeaning racial names, like “mulatto” and “mulatto Negro,” in slave advertisements—including announcements of auctions, notices for fugitive slaves, and sale ads, which were routinely printed in colonial Canadian newspapers, like the Halifax Gazette, Montreal Gazette, and Quebec Gazette. The term mulatto appears to be an adaptation from the Spanish word for mule (mula)—the offspring of a donkey and a horse—underscoring the strategic debasement of people of African descent.
Unsurprisingly, although the biracial children of enslaved Black women and free white men were common, the pairing of enslaved Black men and free white women was seen as threatening to white male power. Throughout the history of slavery, white men strategically and violently separated white women from Black men. Historical records show that, on plantations in Barbados, in the seventeenth century, Irish indentured servants were initially made to labour alongside enslaved Africans in the sugar cane fields—that is, until the elite class of English male planters noticed that mixed-race children were soon being born of consensual relationships between Irish women and African men. The need to secure the white female body as a vessel for the birth of free white children (as opposed to free mixed-race ones) compelled white men to block Irish women from field labour. As enslaved Black people were increasingly separated from white indentured servants, it became rare for mixed-race children to be born of consensual cross-racial relationships.
For many white people, the rise of the free mixed-race population was not merely a threat to their social power and a check on their economic might: it literally signalled the demise of the so-called purity of the white race. Although lynching happened throughout the period of slavery, such white vigilantism in America rose precipitously after slavery was abolished. Perpetrators often specifically attempted to justify the extrajudicial murders as a means to protect white women from Black men. Ironically, despite the embedded sexual exploitation of enslaved Black women by white men within transatlantic slavery’s 400-year history, the same narrative has never been used to protect Black women from white men. In fact, the documents available to us today reflect relentless efforts to do exactly the opposite.
In my current research, I examine eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fugitive or runaway slave advertisements from Canada and Jamaica. Such notices were printed across the Americas (and in Europe) and can be found wherever slave-owners had access to printing presses. This archive of advertisements is a lifeline for scholars of transatlantic slavery, for whom a constant lament is the absence of first-hand accounts of the lives and experiences of the enslaved.
The fervour that slave-owners displayed in trying to recapture escaping enslaved people meant that such ads were full of details that animated and individualized the fugitives. So, although the ads were composed by slave-owners hunting people they believed to be mentally diminished, their contents are inadvertent testaments to the intelligence, sophisticated reasoning, bravery, and forethought of a population that sought to secure its freedom in terrifying situations. Significantly, ads published in colonial newspapers help demonstrate that enslaved people often fled from Canada, by boat or on foot, southward, into the US, in search of freedom. Among these brave people were enslaved women fleeing violent and coercive sexual relationships with white men.
Slave-owners routinely printed details of the enslaved person’s given name and physical appearance, including their height, build, mannerisms, clothing, and hairstyles. And slave-owners didn’t refrain from printing information that exposed their abuse. When an enslaved Black girl named Thursday fled from her white slave-owner, John Rock of Halifax, for example, the fugitive notice that he placed in the Nova-Scotia Gazette and Weekly Chronicle on September 1, 1772, claimed that she had a “Lump above her Right Eye.”
In another particularly gut-wrenching example, an eighteen-year-old woman disparagingly described as a “NEGRO WENCH, named BETT” ran away from the merchants James Johnston and John Purss—traders in West Indian goods—on a March evening in 1787. Bett’s daring winter escape—one of only six such escapes among the fifty-one Quebec fugitive notices—was perilous for another reason: as the ad placed the following day announced, Bett was “big with child, and within a few days of her time” when she escaped into the winter night. The circumstances of Bett’s escape raise the question of whether Bett’s unborn child was mixed-race and whether either of her owners, the white Johnston or Purss, was the father.
Only one Quebec fugitive notice appears to describe a Black family. The notice, placed in Montreal, describes Lydia as a “Negro Woman . . . partly of the mulatto colour” and Robin simply as a “Negro,” both fleeing their owner, James Frazer, in 1798, with a child around four years old named Jane, likely Lydia’s daughter. But Frazer’s description of Jane as “mulatto,” a word that typically meant a person of Black and white parentage (and one who would have been understood to be lighter in complexion than both Lydia or Robin), brings into question whether the Black Robin or the white Frazer had fathered Jane. Robin could have been acting as Jane’s surrogate father in a situation where Lydia had been the victim of Frazer’s unwanted sexual attention, acts that had resulted in a mixed-race child. Sadly, this fugitive notice might memorialize a white Canadian slave-owner’s hunt for his own mixed-race enslaved daughter. While many Canadians have likely heard of men like Thomas Jefferson and their mixed-race children born of enslaved women, few would associate these histories with our own nation. Fewer still consider the role white women played in perpetuating them.
Popular representations of slavery in film often focus on the white male slave-owner as the source of chaos and violence. But white women, too, were sources of fear and terror for enslaved people. There is considerable evidence to indicate that white women were particularly cruel to their enslaved Black female “property.” This cruelty was often a response to the sexual attention that white men directed at enslaved Black women, a socially taboo but common occurrence.
In the colonial outposts of the transatlantic world, where not all slave-owners were wealthy, some white men viewed white women as costly and decorative additions to their lives. My ongoing research on Jamaican slavery led me to Simon Taylor, whose life and sexual mores were in many ways typical of white male residents of the Caribbean. One of the richest Jamaican planters of his time, and by some estimates one of the wealthiest Britons of the period, Taylor—who died in 1813, in his seventies—at one point owned three cattle ranches and six sugar estates, on which he kept several Black female concubines—the term many used for enslaved and free women of African descent with whom planters like Taylor sometimes had long-term sexual relationships—and his mixed-race children. Although fashioning himself as a bachelor, the truth was that Taylor preferred the company of mixed-race women of African descent, and like other white men of the day, he strategically chose not to marry a white woman. The dictates of “polite” society demanded that white women and their free white offspring be treated with a certain reverence, cordiality, and public respect, and maintained in costly ways. Not so for enslaved Black women and their mixed-race offspring, whom the white male slave-owner could continue to exploit and hold in bondage.
In a slave society, a white man could extract all manner of domestic, social, and sexual labour from Black women without having to legitimize his relationship through a legal marriage. Indeed, to do so would have been to his grave social detriment, an act that was tantamount to social suicide and frequently met with expulsion from “polite” society. With several “coloured” (mixed-race) “housekeepers” and his children from these relationships ensconced across his various Jamaican plantations, like many white men of the time, Taylor, the supposed bachelor, would be more aptly described as a polygamist.
White women in the transatlantic world, like Maria Nugent, the white wife of major general George Nugent—the lieutenant-governor and commander-in-chief of British-held Jamaica from 1801 to 1806—were raised to consider themselves both above and separate from the Black women in their societies. When Maria visited the plantation of the uberwealthy Taylor during one of her husband’s gubernatorial tours in 1802, she received an immersive education on the gendered politics of racial mixing that characterized Jamaican slave society. Her extensive journal of her almost five years in Jamaica contains a record of her encounter with a slim “mulatto” girl whom Taylor seemed determined to banish from Nugent’s company. She wrote of the experience, “A little mulatto girl was sent into the drawing-room to amuse me. She was a sickly delicate child, with straight light-brown hair, and very black eyes. Mr. T appeared very anxious for me to dismiss her, and in the evening, the housekeeper told me that she was his own daughter, and that he had a numerous family, some almost on every one of his estates.”
It would appear that Nugent was not the only white woman from whom Taylor sought to hide his relationships with Black women. His personal correspondence indicates that he actively discouraged his white niece from making a trip from England to Jamaica in 1798, a decision likely based on his unease at having her witness the nature of his relationship with one of his mixed-race “housekeepers,” Grace Donne. Although Taylor’s desire to shield his life from the prying eyes of his white associates and relatives may indicate a level of affection for his Black “housekeepers” and mixed-race children, the very structure of slavery ensured that no such relationship could ever be truly consensual. Furthermore, the violence of slavery means that we have almost no way of knowing what Donne or Taylor’s other “housekeepers” felt about him. We must therefore acknowledge that Taylor’s position as a white male slave-owner endowed him with such disproportionate power over the Black women he took as concubines and the mixed-race children he fathered that he doubtlessly possessed racist conceptions of his Black “families.”
While men like Taylor sought to hide the details of their sexual lives from white women like Nugent, white women must also have been complicit in turning a blind eye. This social pact between white men and white women was a facet of “polite” society. We must consider politeness then not merely as an indication of an elevated economic status but as a means through which whites enshrined certain rules of engagement, practices, and mores that facilitated their claims to racial superiority—and insulated white women from their humiliating domestic usurpation by Black women.
Rather than confront this reality—literally staring them in the face in the form of mixed-race children—white women often felt compelled to feign ignorance of white male sexual desire for Black women. Although white men could privately entertain Black and mixed-race women, and white women could interact with the same, in some slave societies it was seen as scandalous for the three groups of people to gather together. This willful ignorance may be where our current love affair with racial blindness began—not in an inclusive acceptance of such relationships and the mixed-race children that resulted from them but with a deep-seated need to bury the racist social dynamics from which they were born.
In many ways, white women actively contributed both to the sexual dehumanization of Black women and to their sexual pairings with white men. The largely single, independent white women of Barbados, who outnumbered the white men of that Caribbean island, did not gravitate to the colony’s plantations. Instead, they tended to settle in the capital of Bridgetown, where they strategically purchased enslaved Black women in order to rent them to the island’s local and itinerant men—soldiers, sailors, merchants, and travellers—under euphemisms such as “housekeepers” and “washerwomen.” Put bluntly, these white female slave-owners acted as pimps, prostituting vulnerable enslaved Black women and often selling the mixed-race children born of the nonconsensual contact for profit. Such practices were also employed by Canadian slave-owners, especially in places like Montreal and Quebec City, where British garrisons were installed in the eighteenth century. There is further evidence that British soldiers temporarily stationed in such settlements purchased enslaved women for the duration of their assignments, selling them before being dispatched to a new post.
We would be remiss (and delusional) if we believed that these men’s desire for enslaved women was about only a concern for a certain type of domestic labour. In the Montreal garrison, most soldiers and sailors were unmarried or too poor to relocate their wives or kin. Enslaved women and prostitutes became key outlets for their sexual activities.
The sexual abuse of enslaved women was compounded by other injustices. One particularly pervasive tactic of corporal punishment was head-shaving. In the 1930s, when James Brittian was interviewed for an American project that sought to document the experiences of formerly enslaved people and their descendants in the US, he recalled how the hair of his enslaved African-born grandmother, “fine as silk and hung down below her waist,” inspired the wrath of her white female slave-owner, who had her whipped, cut her hair off, and ordered that his grandmother henceforth wear it shaved to the scalp. In another documented case, the white Texas plantation mistress and wife of Judge Maddox seized upon his absence to crop the hair of a newly purchased enslaved woman, a “pretty mulatto girl” with “long black straight hair.” Apparently, the more that the bodies of enslaved women approximated the supposedly exceptional traits of white female beauty, the more threatening they became. It is not difficult to see how that resentment continues to manifest toward cross-racial couples and the future they represent.
I grew up in suburban Ontario, in the 1970s, in a predominantly white neighbourhood, and a pair of white sisters became two of my closest childhood friends. We were literally raised side-by-side, and we kept in touch over a period of two decades. In my twenties, the older sister revealed her father’s disapproval of the younger sister’s boyfriend, a Black man. Although, by her own admission, there was no cause for his objection besides race, she insisted that her father’s position was not racist. It is hard to see how it wasn’t. A white person who is uncomfortable with cross-racial relationships is often, whether consciously or not, opposed to the biological sexual contact between Black and white people. When that contact is heterosexual, the threat is exacerbated by the potential reproductive outcome of a mixed-race child. The bodies of mixed-race children, even away from proximity to their Black and white parents, are often identifiable as products of racial mixing: an anxiety-producing confrontation for some white people who still believe in their own racial purity and superiority.
In contemporary Canadian and American culture, it’s a fairly recent phenomenon to see actors portraying loving couples comprising Black women and white men—and, sometimes, their mixed-race children. In two current commercials, for Tide laundry detergent and a brand of ovulation test, television audiences witness the elusive pairing in loving partnerships: in the first scenario as an overwhelmed couple prepares to do laundry for an upcoming vacation, and in the second as a couple tests a new device that tracks fertility. Boldly, the mixed-race children—and the possibility of them—are also featured in both commercials: in the first as two kids who have yet to pack, never mind do their laundry, and in the second as the couple’s desired child. Though both scenarios may seem common, less than a decade ago, portraying them could have prompted violent backlash.
A 2013 Cheerios ad featuring a Black father, a white mother, and their mixed-race child generated enough negative responses in the US to force the company to shut down the video’s YouTube comments. Tellingly, although the commercial implied that the two adult actors were married, the Black man and white woman never once appeared onscreen together. Apparently, the presence of the mixed-race daughter alone, and the implied cross-racial sex that had produced her, was enough to make some viewers lose their minds. A 2016 Old Navy ad featuring a white man with a Black woman and a child elicited similarly toxic social media complaints, with at least one user asserting that the ad constituted “anti-white propaganda.”
Today, consensual couples like Jacques and Mann provide a blessedly reformed possibility, a model for a future when cross-racial relationships could be seen as normal and based upon mutual love and respect as opposed to racial bias and systemic exploitation. However, more so than others, Black people and white people engaged in such intimate relationships must also guard against internalized racist conceptions of their significant others. Until transatlantic slavery and its many sordid histories are acknowledged and confronted as a part of Canadian history, cross-racial couples, their children, and their families will continue to suffer the violent effects of our deep-seated national amnesia.