We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Cecil Foster discusses his book They Call Me George: The Untold Story of the Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada.
Read Gordon Alley-Young’s review of Cecil Foster’s book in the Spring 2021 48.1 issue.
What’s it about and why does it matter?
I address the important work by people of African descent to transform the conditions under which they lived in the Americas. Particularly, the book concentrates on the efforts by Black Sleeping Car Porters—mainly men from across the Americas—to fight for civil rights and equity. It is the story of the struggle since the 1950s that transformed Canada, in particular, from the epitomized White Man’s country—or a northern archetypal version of the U.S. Confederate States—to become the current officially multicultural society where people of all races and ethnicities are officially recognized as full citizens.
How does oral history contribute to your book?
I had to rely on interviews of retired sleeping car porters, many of whom are now in their declining ages. It was an attempt to preserve their memories and to tell their stories. I wanted to capture how they felt in the moment of the struggle and how they viewed and organized their resistance to international white supremacy. For their struggle was at a time when for most Black men in North America a job as a sleeping car porter was the only real opportunity for employment. Black men across North America simply went on “the roads” regardless of national borders to make a living and to maintain their communities back home. It was also a time when North American railroads—especially those in Canada, where they are called railways—routinely recruited Black men from the West indies to work as Pullman porters, jobs that for all practical purpose turned them into good housekeepers in antebellum parlors/suites on wheels. The porters relied on Black women to keep the homes and communities safe and thriving while they were gone—often for weeks, often working as many as 18 hours a day traveling across the continent, and getting paid primarily in tips. In their organizations in the work place and in society, generally, they broke down hemispheric barriers to full citizenship for all Black people and at the same time universally for all Peoples of Color, whether this translated into desegregation in employment, housing, education, and politics. The porters imagined and fought for a different future than hemispheric segregated Jim Crowism for the Americas, and for a time with Black people as full citizens, living the good life and occupying the highest offices. It is for this reason that on the day of his swearing in as President of the United States of America, Barack Obama symbolically arrived in Washington in a retrofitted car of a train served by Black Sleeping Car Porters in their traditional uniforms.
In addition to the interviews, I relied heavily on the personal papers of sleeping car porters in various archives, especially those of the Canadian pioneering activist, Stanley Grizzle, in the Canadian Archives in Ottawa. Much of the information came from letters exchanged among these activists and allied politicians. Among them are the letters and speeches of Asa Philip Randolph as the universal president of initially the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids. This was a common struggle in North America.
I am very pleased with the cooperation I received from these porters, and with the reception They Call me George has received from their families, including so many of them in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean—from people who claim the book as the story of their fathers, uncles, brothers, lovers, fellow community activists, and of the women who loved and allied with them in the early days of the common movement in Blackness for Civil Rights and political independence in the Americas. With an international television series in the works, the story of the times and the Black men and women as inspired by They Call Me George will become more fully recognized and celebrated across North America, particularly in Black homes and neighborhoods.
What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?
The oral tradition is personal and cultural. It allowed me to easily mix the abstract theorizing with the very real lived experiences. To this end, theory and praxis are on the same methodological footing, and I am not always sure if theory explains praxis or if praxis is the grounding for theory. But out of this mixing is a conversation on several levels, one of which is the production of a kind of historicism—as social evolution—that allows for the preservation of memories and the hopes for a better future as a continuum on its own. This way it is a narrative without the limitations of forcing specific agents and times into a particular national arc. Indeed, this approach allows for the very decentering of history as officially a modernist nationalist project. In so doing, it provides the means to excavate narratives and peoples that are usually excluded from the “official” historical narratives. Very appealing to me is that this methodology fairly well captures the transnationalism that is at the heart of the Black experiences both universally and in the particular.
Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?
It would be akin to hearing stories of how the Black experience came into being and is still becoming something more concrete and desirable. For me this is no different from common practices in Black communities, with, in an ancestral spirt and out of the need to know themselves, younger generations asking their grandparent and parents what life was like in this past—what contributed to the creation of the current social and familial conditions. From these stories the current generation can devise strategies for the present and also plan for the future—strategies and plans that would be handed off to each subsequent generation to be modified in their times, perhaps idealistically until the day that all Black people are truly and fully citizens. Hopefully, They Called Me George helps to fill in some gaps in the story of this social evolution into full human dignity.
What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?
That in some of the toughest and most dehumanizing times, Black people universally did not stop dreaming and fighting for a better world—not only immediately for themselves and their kids and their future generations, but for everybody in all times. They truly believed that to be fully human was to live in social fraternity in the traditional sense so long associated with a common citizenship that we think of as a passport to social justice for all. It is why in the first place they formed, given the times, the appropriately named Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids. Fraternity mattered. And carried along by this idealism, they helped to change the world in their time while inspiring future generations to continue as agents of social change in subsequent times, until the symbolic train journey of freedom for all peoples—but primarily Black people and their legacy of historical enslavement and neo-enslavement through segregation—arrive at the final destination that is freedom and justice.