Breaking The Ice: The Story of Mary Ann Shadd

Breaking The Ice: The Story of Mary Ann Shadd

Rhodes, Jane

Breaking The Ice: The Story of Mary Ann Shadd, directed by Sylvia Sweeney; produced by Peter Raymont, Lindalee Tracey, and Maria Pimentel. Distributed by First Run/Icarus Films, 1999. 23 minutes, color. $225, video

Reviewed by Jane Rhodes, Ethnic Studies, University of California-San Diego.

This short documentary, made by Canadian filmmaker Sylvia Sweeney, tells the story of Mary Ann Shadd Cary the first African American woman to publish a newspaper in North America and a colorful figure in 191 century African Canadian history. The film is part of a series on unknown Canadian immigrants called “A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada” funded by several Canadian media agencies. This fact bears keeping in mind as one considers the content of the video.

Shadd Cary (1823-1893) was born in Delaware to a family of prominent freeborn abolitionists. She was educated by Quakers and taught Black children across the northeastern United States before crossing the border into Canada in 1851 as part of the growing Black emigrationist movement. She set up a school for the children of fugitive slaves and became an influential figure in the communities established by expatriated African Americans. In March 1854 she began publishing the Provincial Freeman, which became the main voice for Canada’s Black communities and a forum for debate over abolitionist strategies. Eventually, much of Shadd Cary’s immediate family joined her in Canada, and her father Abraham Shadd became one of that nation’s first Black elected officials. In an era in which free Black Americans were haunted by the Fugitive Slave Act, barred from attending school, and limited to the most menial jobs, life in Canada offered the promise of freedom and opportunity. Mary Ann Shadd Cary, however, left Canada after the outbreak of the Civil War, and resettled in Washington, D.C. during Reconstruction.

This documentary focuses on the 10-year period when Shadd Cary lived in Canada, and it uses her life to illustrate the experiences of African Canadians in the 1850s. Translating this story onto film is a difficult task as there are few photographs to illustrate the narrative, and limited documentary sources. Thus, this filmmaker resorts to historical reenactment to create some visual impact. Actors portray Shadd Cary and her associates, while a narrator tells the story. The film does a good job of explaining some of the issues confronting these Black communities established by missionaries and settled by former slaves. The film also does its best to evoke Shadd Cary’s distinctive, and often radical, political voice as she fought against slavery and discrimination, and championed the cause of Black emigration. Perhaps most interesting are the interviews with Shadd Cary’s descendants, who give a contemporary face to the African Canadian presence.

However, the film’s flaws seriously overwhelm its potential. It is riddled with historical inaccuracies such as the claim that the Provincial Freeman folded after Shadd Cary left Canada (it actually ceased publication before her departure). The film fails to provide any significant background on African Canadian history, such as the British abolition of slavery or the origins of Canada’s Black settlements. One narrative strategy is to have a newsboy hold up mock copies of the Provincial Freeman to serve as markers for each episode. However, this confuses the chronology as the newspaper appears during periods that came before the newspaper’s founding-the Provincial Freeman cannot herald events that occurred before it existed.

Perhaps most egregious, however, is the filmmaker’s failure to consult any of the established experts on the topic. There have been numerous scholars in the United States who have written about Shadd Cary, including this author, Carla Peterson, Shirley Yee, Roslyn Terborg-Penn, Jason Silverman, James Oliver Horton, and the dean of Black Canadian history, Robin Winks. Canadian scholars like Michael Wayne and James W. St. G. Walker are also ignored. Instead, the filmmakers rely exclusively on lay historians and family members, producing a folk history that lacks the rigor of a serious historical documentary.

The chosen approach limits the appeal and usefulness of this film, particularly for American audiences. It takes Shadd Cary’s experience out of its broader historical context as part of the cross-border migrations between the United States and Canada and the efforts of 19th century Black Americans to establish and maintain social movements and political institutions. The factual errors and narrow focus do not inspire a recommendation for this film to be used as a teaching tool. Shadd Cary’s story is a crucial component of the 19th century Black experience. Hopefully, other filmmakers will take on the task of bringing it to screen and television.

Copyright Howard University Fall 2000

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