Uncovering the history of Black self-publishing in Canada

Research Prominence

Uncovering the history of Black self-publishing in Canada

Kristin Moriah receives a national fellowship to study Black authors and themes that motivated them to write and publish their own works over the past century.

By Catarina Chagas, Research Outreach and Events Specialist

April 10, 2024


Kristin Moriah

Dr. Kristin Moriah (English and Gender Studies)

Kristin Moriah (English and Gender Studies) is about to dive into yet another voyage to the past. An expert in African American literature and Black Feminist studies, she has just received the Marie Tremaine Fellowship from the Bibliographical Society of Canada.

Offered since 1987 to researchers dedicated to textual studies and publishing history, the fellowship has a focus on the Canadian bibliography. Dr. Moriah’s project will investigate self-publishing by Black writers in the 20th century, with emphasis on Ontarian authors – a topic she has been investigating for the past few years and is eager to understand further. 

"I am excited about being able to dig into these collections, to see what people were writing about, and learn more about their access to publishing," she says.

The Gazette talked to Dr. Moriah about her new fellowship and overarching research goals. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Why did you decide to study Black self-publishing?

This research proposal involves tracing histories of books that were self-published by Black authors in Canada, with a specific focus on Ontario. In the early days of the Canadian publishing industry, it was very difficult for Black writers in Canada to get their books published by major publishers, so a lot of the early, local histories that we have about Black communities in Canada tended to be self-published. The same is true for early forms of Black poetry and literature.

Even when the Canadian publishing industry began to be catalyzed and energized in the 1960s, right around Canada’s Centennial celebrations, that energy tended to still exclude black writers. My project seeks to trace those early books and to think about the themes that link them together, to make a systematic study of the kind of work that was self-published and the journeys of these authors.

How does this project fit into your broader research program?

Thinking about Black Canadian publishing history and Black Canadian print culture is integral to my research and I have long been interested in these topics. My volume on radical Black feminist and activist Mary Ann Shadd Cary is in production right now and slated to come out in 2025. She is a key figure in Canadian Black history, one of the first women journalists in Canada and the first Black woman in North America to publish her own newspaper, The Provincial Freeman. In her time she was known as a radical activist – she actively campaigned to be able to speak on the floor during Black abolitionist meetings. Because she was a woman, that was a controversial move. Whenever she spoke publicly, be in print or in person, she was not afraid to show that she was an independent thinker. She became an icon for Black women writers and activists.

Can you walk us through this project?

I worked in collaboration with the Centre for Black Digital Research in the U.S. and Archives Ontario, and the research was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. We digitized and transcribed the Mary Ann Shadd Cary fonds – letters, articles, and business records that were found after the demolition of her former home in Chatham, Ontario. In September 2023, the Shadd Cary archives were inscribed in the Canada Memory of the World Register, managed by the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. These files are extremely important as they provide insights into her work and thinking around abolitionism, women’s rights, and equality.

How does this research connect to your new study about Black self-publishing in Canada?

One powerful aspect of Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s legacy is that she remains connected to a web of Black feminist writers in Canada, some of whom are self-published. One of the Black self-published books that sparked my interest in this project was a history of Black dance in Southern Ontario written by Ruth Ann Shadd, one of Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s descendants. Many similar threads run through Black bibliographies in Ontario and Black Canadian literature, but they have yet to be traced. The Shadd connection isn’t an anomaly. Genealogies of Black Canadian intellectual traditions can be traced back and forth between self-published authors to institutionally recognized Black writers and historians.

What other forms of archives are you also interested in?

I’m interested in performance, sound, visual and digital culture studies: all these things are linked together with the idea of using interdisciplinary methods to investigate Black material culture.

I study Black musicians’ records and I’m particularly interested in how feminist musicians were very careful about how their sound was recorded and described, especially because, in the early days, Black women who performed in classical music traditions were often excluded from recording practices – just like Black writers who were excluded by the publishing industry. 

In looking at biographies and archives – print and sound –, what goals do you hope your research will achieve and what’s next?

When I consider the overlaps between Black print culture, sound, and performance I am always struck by the way that those three elements can dramatically shift our understanding of Black life in Canada and Black freedom discourses. The arts are a key mechanism for understanding the depth and breadth of the Black experience here and across the diaspora. Black creatives have always been innovative and improvisational in their use of various tools and technologies. Understanding their work helps us to better understand this place, Canada, and our present.

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