In Priceville Ontario there is a cemetery beneath a field of potatoes.

I didn’t know about this cemetery, there is a lot I don’t know about Canadian history and coming across it in Esi Edugyan’s book Out of the Sun after the 2021 revelations of unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools felt painfully familiar. Because this cemetery is where the people of a Black settlement buried their dead before the town became white and the graveyard became farmland, headstones piled and used by townspeople for various things including home plate in a baseball diamond.

After the Revolutionary War in the US, one of many wars that the colonists who became American would fight to ensure their right to own and profit from the unfree labour of Black people, the Black people who were loyal to the British followed the promise of freedom into the British territory that would become Canada and they settled in various places. Despite living in Ontario, I am most familiar with Africville and places in Nova Scotia like North Preston. But they settled in Ontario too, in places like Priceville.

Until the white people moved in. Initially there was intermarriage, but over time it became white and the only Black presence was that cemetery. In the 1930s the land was purchased by Bill Reid and it was plowed over and planted with potatoes. Esi notes that in an interview his daughter remarked that the potatoes from that field were excellent.

Which made me think of the orchard at the residential school outside Brantford Ontario, the Mohawk Institute colloquially known as The Mush Hole and now called the Woodland Cultural Center. There is a story that instead of unmarked graves, the administrators planted trees over the bodies of dead children, fruit trees. The children who attended that prison euphemistically called a school worked in the orchard and the farm, tending and picking crops that they didn’t eat but which were served to staff and guests. I think about the roots of those trees encircling the children with a care they did not receive in this world.

I think about the administrators and teachers, guests and dignitaries eating that fruit, just as the Reid family ate those potatoes. Consuming our dead.

When I say the land is my ancestor, that is a scientific statement.

Last fall the podcast I co-host, Medicine for the Resistance, interviewed Dr. Keolu Fox. He is a genomic researcher and one of the things that he looks at is how the land, the āina, shapes our genome just as our ancestors do. He isn’t talking about adaptation or skill development, but actual change and then how those changes are interpreted.  One of his examples is the so-called thrifty gene used to explain why Pacifika people are often obese. The theory is that because they travelled long distances by ocean their bodies evolved to hoard calories and now that they no longer do this the hoarding becomes obesity. I remember reading something like this in James A Michener’s book Hawaii which described the ancient Tahitians preparing their bodies for starvation before long voyages. But there is no evidence to support that and Fox points out that the evidence shows that they travelled with more than adequately supplied boats. In fact, he says, the thrifty gene should be more properly called the tall dark and handsome gene since Polynesian rugby players have a higher frequency of this mutuation which seems to be linked to muscle density and athletic performance rather than obesity.

Esi’s book looks at various ways in Europe, Canada, the US, and Asia that colonialism has written itself on top of Black histories just as Fox’ research, along with that of Paulette Steeves and Jessica Hernandez who I wrote about last week and many others, looks at the way it has written itself on top of Indigenous histories.  They plow our narratives under and plant their own on top of us, consuming and profiting from our knowledge while pretending we don’t exist.

In her chapter on Europe Esi describes paintings of Black people in Renaissance and Modern Europe, forcing us to see them differently, to look at the Black presence not as background to the white European object of the painting but as the center which reflects something of the European gaze and in that reflection, reveals something about colonial Europe.

She writes about the “binding memory of culture” and the “corrupting influence of imported narratives.” The power of those imported narratives to prop up local heirarchies and distort our own communities and sense of self.

That phrase, the corrupting influence of imported narratives makes me think of the Keolu Fox’ discussion of Just So Stories.  Just So Stories are a collection of stories that Rudyard Kipling told to his daughter to explain why things are the way they are, like why the elephant’s nose is so long or other nonsensical things. But colonialism tells similarly nonsensical stories about us. The narratives that get told about our genetics, the binding memory of culture that is held in the genes. The imported narratives that situate the problems we face in our own inferiority. Prone to alcoholism, prone to obesity, prone to illness and heart disease and diabetes.

The problem is never colonization.

These graves, whether in Priceville or on the grounds of a residential school, were known to us. The descendants of these people, these communities, their relatives and friends knew about them. The Truth and Reconciliation Report included testimony and an entire chapter to these unmarked graves. Funding to search for them was one of the calls to action and yet the Prime Minister and others feigned surprise. Or maybe they were surprised. Maybe they hadn’t read the report they paid for like so many others also unread. And they weren’t always lost.

They had to become lost. Become forgotten. Become plowed over. Those gravestones weren’t always part of somebody’s fence, or rockpile, or baseball diamond. What had once been marked was un-marked.

We do the work of re-marking, of reclaiming and remarking upon these stolen and plowed under histories. We tell new stories that are actually old stories. And the world is made new.

Un-marked graves

bringing our histories into the light