Karen Flynn. Moving Beyond Borders: A History of Black Canadian and Caribbean Women in the Diaspora. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. Illustrations. xiii + 301 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4426-0995-2; $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4426-4021-4.
Reviewed by Nassisse Solomon (The University of Western Ontario)
Published on H-Canada (January, 2012)
Commissioned by Stephanie Bangarth
Shifting the Parameters of Black Women's Work
Karen Flynn’s recent monograph Moving Beyond Borders promises to re-conceptualize the study of the nature of Black women’s “work.” As the title suggests, this monograph moves beyond the paradigms of conventional historical analysis by examining the lives of Black women crossing national, geographic, and other spatial boundaries. Flynn aptly identifies the fact that within Canadian historiography, there is no scholarly body of work available on the lives of professional Black women, although some scholarly research has been conducted on the lives of Black women as domestic workers. In this study, the lives of both Caribbean and Canadian-born Black professional women are the central focus. Flynn redefines the parameters of “professional work” by including the practice of nursing as a category. She argues that in spite of initial barriers, the profession of nursing has become an important sector of skilled work for Black women over the past four decades. Through her research, Flynn uncovers the material lived realities of Black women’s lives and redefines the nature of postcolonial research, which to date has tended to focus on Black expressive culture as the primary example of “multilayered diasporic subjectivities” (p. 5).
It is through her use of oral history as a primary resource that Flynn tries to unravel a multilayered essence to what it means to be identified as a “Black nurse” in twentieth-century Canada, the Caribbean, Great Britain, and the United States. In this monograph, her interview subjects and their life experiences dictate the fluidity and the parameters of her analysis. Throughout the entire text, Flynn works hard to dispel the notion of a monolithic definition of “Blackness.” However, the common denominator that links these women’s life and work experiences is their identification as Black across physical geographic and other spatial boundaries. This self-identification is as fluid as their life experiences, but is most often fixed by their positionality in the broader societies from which the women came and the societies in which they have come to live and work at the time of the interviews.
Moving Beyond Borders is based on interviews with thirty-five Black women engaged in nursing throughout the twentieth century, with interviews having been conducted over an extended period of time. Thirteen of the participating women were born in Canada, and twenty-two were born in the various islands of the English-speaking Caribbean, including Guyana. A majority of the women were born in the late 1920s-30s, with the eldest participant being born in 1914; there were also three participants born in the mid-to-late 1940s and 1950s. During their period of migration, most of the women were between the ages of eighteen and nineteen, with the youngest participant being fifteen, and the oldest being twenty-four when they left the Caribbean. Moreover, seventeen of the interviewees were trained in hospital apprenticeship programs in Britain prior to their migration to Canada.
Flynn historically contextualizes the significance of her subjects and their achievements clearly in her introductory chapter. She identifies the fact that Black women were excluded from nurses training in Canada until the 1940s, and that the Department of Citizenship and Immigration placed restrictions on the number of Caribbean migrant nurses allowed to enter Canada. This was also a period in history when, in spite of the increased demand for nurses across the hemisphere and the active lure of recruiting candidates to study abroad, some hospitals in Great Britain were denying Caribbean migrant women employment and training, making the interviewees who began their training in the late 1940s and 1950s pioneers in the field.
By focusing on the field of nursing as an example of a profession that Black women had to break barriers to enter, Flynn’s methodical approach to an understudied subject matter provides insight into the experiences of a group of women through the use a life-course paradigm, which Flynn distinguishes from the work of others who use the same life-course trajectories paradigm. Flynn argues throughout much of the book that many of the patterns that she has identified from interviews are “defined by trajectories which extend across much of the life course, such as family and work, and getting a full-time job, and marrying” (p. 5). Her accomplishment in this book has everything to do with her ability to articulate and convey the voices of women who have previously been relegated to the peripheries of historical studies on Black women’s identity formation and on Black women’s work experiences. This narrative not only asserts the significance of these women’s life experiences, but also posits that they are multidimensional subjects not reducible to mere stories of oppression and hardship, or examples of a monolithic Black experience.
Unlike the traditional use of the concept of “intersectionality” whereby other scholars have argued that in Black women’s lives the concepts of “race, gender, class and sexuality operate as simultaneous and mutually constitutive forms of oppression and identity,” Flynn posits that there are other identity markers at play that help to shape and define how Black women position themselves within societies (p. 4). Flynn argues that it can be ascertained that “family of origin, religion, cultural values, hard work, education, family commitments, activism, and migration” contributed to shaping these women’s identities and subjectivities (p. 5). Consequently, the family, church, and school have important roles in this study. Flynn illustrates that these institutions were important mediums of socialization, which “helped the interviewees for this study navigate the multiple sites they occupied growing up as girls and then later when they were adults” (p. 15). As a prime example of the dialectical forces at play in the narrative, the family is recognized as both a site of resistance to the oppressive broader society and as a site where hegemonic gender ideologies are also taught and perpetuated.
Flynn articulates clearly that at the center of her work is a narrative that underscores Black women’s multiple and contradictory subject positions in their navigation of the transition from childhood to womanhood, raising “questions about migration, education, work, activism and family” (p. 4). Therefore, in addition to being about the life experiences and subjectivities of pioneers in a profession, Moving Beyond Borders is also about how the process of migration facilitates identity formation in a new physical milieu. Flynn identifies early in the introduction that for a majority of the interviewees, migration was the means by which they were able to train as nurses. Hence, for some of the interviewees, migration also facilitated a racialized identity formation process, because living in a White-racist society helped to forge a distinctive West Indian/Black identity.
Subsequently, the migration experiences of these women to Great Britain and Canada also provides insight into how national identities are defined. Flynn argues that “whether forced, as with the transatlantic slave trade, or voluntary as workers, students, members of their family or visitors, migration is an important element in the lives of people of African descent” (p. 10). Her assertion that migration is a mitigating factor in the universal experience of otherness by Blacks is suggestive of the reasoning behind her extended title, A History of Black Canadian and Caribbean Women in the Diaspora, in spite of the fact that some of the women interviewed were Canadian born and bred. Flynn’s rationale for incorporating Canadian-born women is explicit in her assertion that “Caribbean migrants were not the only interviewees to cross borders, or whose identities had been reconfigured as a result of multiple migrations” (p. 216). Furthermore, she asserts that her decision to include Black Canadian-born women’s voices was in light of her desire to avoid the “penchant for subjugating Black Canadian existence” (p. 217). By including the voices of Black Canadian women, Flynn tries to deconstruct monolithic experiences of Black womanhood. Flynn argues that by examining the experiences of two different groups of women (Caribbean migrants and Canadian-born Black women), she is able to highlight the differences in their responses to “the socio-historical specificity of race and racism in constructing their identity,” responses that deconstruct notions of any monolithic concept of Blackness (p. 217).
Nonetheless, while this is a well-researched and well-presented monograph, Flynn’s desire to include the voices of Black Canadian women and her need to encapsulate their voices and experiences under the caption of a history of Black women in the diaspora is problematic and raises serious questions about citizenship and inclusion within a national identity. The very definition of the term “diaspora” is indicative of the dispersion of a group of people from a “homeland” to another geographic locality, and implies homogeneity in the group’s ancestry, language, or culture. The diaspora element of this study then becomes interesting because it raises important questions about who is to be included in this diaspora that she describes. The idea that experiences could be transnational is imperative to her analysis; therefore, to argue that there is a diaspora forces a more selective criterion of which subjects to include and clearly illustrate how the migration process shaped their experiences. Her desire to be inclusive of Black Canadian women with long-rooted history of being in Canada not only raises questions about Canadian identity, but also weakens her focus on the centrality of the migration experience to her analysis. Many scholars have theorized the idea of Blackness and have tried to contextualize its existence within a specific time and place, but Flynn’s effort to connect the experiences of Black nurses under the umbrella of a diaspora does not properly contextualize the long-rooted history of Blacks in Canada and unintentionally feeds the common misperception that Blacks are forever foreign/other to the definition of what it means to be a Canadian. Subsequently, the centrality of the process of migration as a key mitigating factor in the process of identity formation for the interviewees is weakened by the annexation of the experiences of non-migrant women.
Ultimately, all historical writing always demands some form of categorization and compartmentalization to transmit knowledge about a particular period in a specific time and place(s). In her desire to illustrate the fluidity of her subjects and her subject matter, Flynn purposefully transcends geographical boundaries and stretches the traditional parameters of analysis by being more inclusive in her definitions and scales of analysis. However, in her desire to encapsulate the life trajectories/lived experiences of her subjects, Flynn frequently does not contextualize her entire work as being reflective of a particular period or specific place in history. In fact, with the exception of the introductory chapter in which she describes the nurses as pioneers in the early 1940-50s a few other selected segments of interview analysis, and of the concluding chapter in which she discusses in great detail the sociohistorical context of the Black women’s lives, there are too few references to an external social milieu. As a historical monograph, this study would have been strengthened further with more firm and frequent demarcations of the time frames in which the women’s lives and experiences could have been contextualized throughout the entire text.
Overall, Moving Beyond Borders is a noteworthy contribution to the available historiography of Black women in Canadian history. It informs readers about the experiences of a group of women who have yet to be incorporated into mainstream Canadian history, while acknowledging the diversity of what it means to be Black professional women. By giving voice to a group of women engaged in a profession that has played a significant role in the creation of a skilled/middle-class Black workforce in Canada, Flynn is inviting the possibility for more research to be done in this field. Her successes in this monograph can be attributed to her ability to identify a lacuna and conduct the necessary research to create a well-informed presentation of the lived realities of Black professional women. Her argument that Black professional women remain underrepresented in scholarly literature should be taken as a launching point toward the creation of more scholarly works that reflect and speak to the fact that Black women historically have occupied different spaces and vocations, and continue to do so, within the social milieu of Canadian society.
. To be more specific, the women who were not born in Canada are listed as follows: ten were from Jamaica; three from Barbados; four from Trinidad; two from Grenada; and one from Dominica, Antigua, and Guyana respectively.
. For more in-depth discussion on the subject of Black identity within a Canadian context, refer to the following sources in particular: Cecil Foster, Blackness and Modernity: The Colour of Humanity and the Quest for Freedom (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007); and Lawrence Hill, Black Berry Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada (Toronto: Harper Flamingo Canada, 2001).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-canada.
Nassisse Solomon. Review of Flynn, Karen, Moving Beyond Borders: A History of Black Canadian and Caribbean Women in the Diaspora.
H-Canada, H-Net Reviews.
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