Blacks and First Nations in North America share a common past, says a veteran of the U.S. civil-rights movement. It’s a history of expropriation—expropriation of the lands of aboriginal people and the labour of blacks through slavery, according to Jack O’Dell.
Now a resident of Vancouver, the former associate of U.S. civil-rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson says the commemoration in February of Black History Month should also be an occasion to talk about the indigenous population.
“Slavery and dispossession were two sides of the same coin,” O’Dell told the Georgia Straight in an interview at his Kitsilano home.
It’s where North America’s prosperity came from, the spry 90-year-old asserted. “It didn’t come by accident. It wasn’t given by God. It was robbery,” he said.
Although slavery was much bigger in the United States than in Canada, the narrative about the formation of the two countries is the same, O’Dell said. “You don’t get to the problem until you deal with both: the stealing of the land and the expropriation of slave labour,” he said. “They’re one system, and that system is capitalism.”
It’s a message O’Dell wants to bring forward as a participant in Speaking of Freedom, a Black History Month event this coming Friday.
“That would help the white population to understand their future, not be scared of it,” he said. “But they must stop and see where this wealth came from and all this privilege.”
Speaking of Freedom will feature readings of works by King, anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela, and others, as well as songs.
According to the federal government’s account of black history, the first known slave in Canada was recorded in 1628. Brought from Africa as a young child, he was named Olivier LeJeune.
Slavery was abolished in this country in 1793. Canada was the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to end slavery.
During the War of 1812, the so-called Coloured Corps fought against Americans in a decisive engagement, according to the official history.
After decades of organizing across the U.S., O’Dell and his wife, Jane Power, settled in Vancouver in 1993. A merchant marine in his younger days, the Detroit-born man wanted to live in a seaport town “not so far away” from the U.S., he said.
Although retired, the former civil-rights champion and labour organizer has kept abreast of current social issues. He maintained that “at the root of all of our problems is the system of capitalist relations.”
“There is a ruling circle that has a big monopoly on the wealth and opportunity,” O’Dell said. “And they have worked out the ways and means of remaining in charge of that process and allowing a few of other sectors of the population to gain ascendancy simply as a protective cover for them.”
The promise that anyone who plays by the rules can join the ruling class partly explains the resilience of the capitalist order, he said.
“The culture we grew up in is not based upon class privilege being a problem. It’s seen as a goal,” O’Dell said.
Because the histories of blacks and Native North Americans are inextricably linked, he believes they should be working together.
Recalling the time when Natives in Florida provided protection to blacks escaping from slavery in North and South Carolina, O’Dell said: “We have to be allies in that open way again.”
Speaking of Freedom will be held at Vancouver’s St. Andrew’s–Wesley United Church (1012 Nelson Street) on Friday (February 21). Doors open at 6:45 p.m. A $10 donation at the door will go to a new DTES seniors’ centre.