FINALIST FOR THE HILARY WESTON WRITERS’ TRUST PRIZE FOR NONFICTION
From a leading scholar on the politics of race comes a work of family history, memoir, and insight gained from a unique journey across the continent, on what it is to be Black in North America.
When Debra Thompson moved to the United States in 2010, she felt like she was returning to the land of her ancestors, those who had escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. But her decade-long journey across Canada and the US transformed her relationship to both countries, and to the very idea of home.
In The Long Road Home, Thompson follows the roots of Black identities in North America and the routes taken by those who have crisscrossed the world’s longest undefended border in search of freedom and belonging. She begins in Shrewsbury, Ontario, one of the termini of the Underground Railroad and the place where members of her own family found freedom. More than a century later, Thompson still feels the echoes and intergenerational trauma of North American slavery. She was often the Only One—the only Black person in so many white spaces—in a country that perpetuates the national mythology of multiculturalism.
Then she revisits her four American homes, each of which reveals something peculiar about the relationship between American racism and democracy: Boston, Massachusetts, the birthplace of the American Revolution; Athens, Ohio, where the white working class and the white liberal meet; Chicago, Illinois, the great Black metropolis; and Eugene, Oregon, the western frontier. She then moves across the border and settles in Montreal, a unique city with a long history of transnational Black activism, but one that does not easily accept the unfamiliar and the foreign into the fold.
The Long Road Home is a moving personal story and a vital examination of the nuances of racism in the United States and Canada. Above all, it is about the power of freedom and the dreams that link and inspire Black people across borders from the perspective of one who has deep ties to, critiques of, and hope for both countries.
McGill University political scientist Thompson (The Schematic State) mixes memoir and pointed social critique in this revealing study of "the peculiar nuances of racism in Canada and the United States." Thompson's great-great-grandparents fled the American South (family legend has it they escaped from a Virginia plantation that once belonged to George Washington's relatives) for Shrewsbury, Ontario, one of the last stops on the Underground Railroad, sometime before the Civil War. In 2010, Thompson moved to the U.S., pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship and teaching positions in Cambridge, Mass.; Athens, Ohio; Chicago, Ill.; and Eugene, Ore. She analyzes regional differences in racial dynamics within the U.S., noting that Oregon is home to numerous white supremacist groups, as well as America's first "officially recognized antifascist organization," and draws sharp assessments of Canada's more subtle forms of institutionalized racism, including "the selective enforcement of obscure regulations, deception, bribery, and campaigns of dissuasion" to limit Black immigration. Along the way, Thompson takes stock of Trumpism, Black Lives Matter, and other contemporary political developments; documents the discrimination and "professional sabotage" she faced in the "predominantly white, elitist space" of academia; and lucidly explains such concepts as Indigenous anticolonialism and virtue signaling. The result is a meaningful contribution to the understanding of racism. Photos.