Into The Heart Of Political Correctness

January 2008

Seventeen years ago political correctness came to Canada for the first time, when someone (we'll never know who) decided that an exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum, Into the Heart of Africa, was flagrantly, insultingly, viciously racist. That idea spread through a section of the Toronto black community and produced the worst scandal in the history of Canadian museums.

A heavy irony lay beneath this incident. Jeanne Cannizzo, the curator, set out to denounce colonialism and criticize white Canada's attitudes to Africa. But black protesters, looking at images of Africans humiliated by missionaries, saw the reverse. So they did all they could to turn the museum into a symbol of uncaring, unrepentant white power.

Cannizzo built a critical display around 375 African objects (of uneven quality) owned by the ROM, most of them collected by Canadian missionaries. She wanted to show Torontonians of the past as the racists they were. But it was her first exhibition, and she made her points through wall texts. No one had told her that most museum visitors ignore wall texts -- they look at the objects and move on.

This strange and unsettling moment in Canadian cultural history comes to life again with the appearance in paperback of Contested Representations: Revisiting "Into the Heart of Africa" (Broadview Press), by Shelley Ruth Butler, an anthropologist at McGill University.

The ROM show opened in November, 1989, without incident. Newspaper reviewers particularly liked the way it depicted the cultural arrogance of missionaries. No controversy appeared till March 10, 1990, when the Coalition for the Truth about Africa (CFTA) began picketing the museum.

The CFTA, created for this occasion, claimed to represent 16 black groups. Its signs denounced the ROM as the "Racist Ontario Museum," which had (a CFTA statement said) aimed "the bullets of psychic murder" at Africa. The CFTA claimed to bring out 200 demonstrators but in my visits to the museum I never counted more than 20. Some told me they hadn't seen the exhibition because, as they said, they already knew it was racist.

The CFTA issued a pamphlet, The Truth about Africa, which Butler prints as an appendix. It said the first doctors were black Africans, as was Socrates. Also, Zeus, Apollo and Buddha were black African gods.

Butler loves words like ambiguous and ambivalent, which she uses obsessively -- because, I'm guessing, she's not confident enough to come down on one side or the other. Supporting the black protests might undermine academic freedom, but supporting Cannizzo could attract accusations of racism. In the end she's a little more critical of Cannizzo than not.

In fact, Cannizzo was the only real victim. The day after the show closed, someone spray-painted on her house the words, "J. Cannizzo is a racist." She was hired by the University of Toronto to teach the cultures and peoples of Africa but she found herself (Butler says) facing many of the picketers, not all of them registered students, in her classroom. These "students" began yelling at her and one said she was a "fucking white supremacist bitch." She asked the campus security people to drive her home and faxed her resignation. In recent years she has taught at the University of Edinburgh and organized some British exhibitions.

Into the Heart of Africa revealed a certain pusillanimity among museums, their directors and their boards. Museums in Ottawa, Vancouver, Los Angeles and Albuquerque, all of which had booked the exhibition, cancelled it when they heard about the trouble. It died with the end of its Toronto run in August, 1990.

Then the waters closed over the whole incident. No one on the staff of the Royal Ontario Museum has ever attempted to analyze it in public. Nor has anyone at the University of Toronto. It was that university's first (so far last) example of a teacher being banished from her classroom for political reasons. The administration has privately maintained that in letting her resign it did nothing wrong.

On the final effect of the crisis, Butler quotes an anthropologist who was on the ROM staff when it happened: "I think people in Toronto are going to be a lot more aware and a lot more sensitive to Eurocentrism." She called that one right. Today, at the University of Toronto, even a whiff of the possibility of an accusation of alleged racism creates institutional terror and paralysis. Into the Heart of Africa may not be discussed anymore, but it lives on in the institutional subconscious, a demon that can never be exorcised.