By Janice Canaday
The past is both comfortable and uncomfortable for all of us. What more can I tell you about the past that does not come from documents, songs, historical narratives? There is no song, no narrative that can unwrite the way that my family’s humanity was stripped from them, while also fighting back against that. Learning about our past requires us to look within and sit with the discomfort of our past. It also requires that you acknowledge my humanity as much as I acknowledge yours.
Education has always been key in the minds of the oppressor and the oppressed in shaping our stories, which in turn shape our history. The Bray School, and my family’s connections to it, are part of that ongoing story. Being colonized with education was part of the Bray School; my family’s African heritage was stripped from me through slavery. Our African traditions, education, and language systems were colonized by the very institutions that said they offered education to those who were uneducated. My ancestors were never uneducated. They just understood the power of education differently than the Associates of Dr. Bray.
Growing up in this town, it’s hard when you don’t see yourself in history. It’s equally hard when you don’t see something positive in history. How the past had been shared with me didn’t empower me. The work of retelling the Bray School, as with all Black voices in history, has to be more than a list or records that reflect violence.
How is humanity shared? How do you show the ways in which Black people challenged their world? I often wonder how the children felt in attending the Bray School: were these children seen as people at the school? How did they change the world around them because of what they experienced at school? Were they empowered in school? Did it come from somewhere else?
The story of the Bray school students is still bound to the present. Those children lived in the 18th century, but they still live in us now. To walk around and constantly be told ‘I’m intimidating’ or ‘I don’t like your body language’ is a continued reflection of the lack of feelings for me and my ancestors. My humanity is questioned in the same way it was for Bray School students. Colonization is still part of our story. This reality is so ingrained in our past that it bleeds into the present, especially for Black folks. I live with the same questions that my ancestors did at the Bray School; I look for power within the abuse of my humanity that happens to me on a daily basis.
The possibilities, both positive and negative, that lived in the Bray School students live in their descendants now. If you don’t share what the Bray School students valued about their opportunity to learn something outside of the walls in which they were enslaved, what is the point? By centering the children, we illuminate these children as people and not just as facts and figures. This also forces us to realize as people that the devaluation the students experienced is still happening with Black people, myself included.
The interpretation of the Williamsburg Bray School matters. It needs to be full and allow people to live in their fullness, rather than fragments of documents that merely show people as items on a list. I descend from these students. How they are spoken about matters, because it is a reflection of how I see my world and myself.
Interpreting historic spaces at Colonial Williamsburg has enabled me to learn more about my past, as well as who hasn’t been talked about in history (and is still not talked about). History has opened my world to ideas and possibilities I didn’t know existed as a child. When I think about coming from public school to where I am now, there was a lack of empowerment in history that motivated me to move into the history field and build self esteem. No one else will do it for you, so I did it for myself.
If we do this right – telling a truthful story about the Bray School that puts back the pieces which were removed from the story in the first place – it will draw communities. It will also show that humanity has always been part of my story, but institutions like the Bray School pushed against the humanity of my family from the beginning. If my ancestors had never stood against this, I would never have come to be.
That is a powerful story.
That is a story worth telling.
Janice Canaday was born and raised in Williamsburg, where she also raised six children. Educated in the local public school system, Ms. Canaday has made education a centerpiece of her own life, especially as it pertains to Williamsburg’s 18th– and 19th-century African American community. A long-time employee of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Ms. Canaday currently serves as a supervisor for the Peyton Randolph House. She has also been a Museum Educator, Interpreter and Trainer and has worked with the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute. An award-winning baker and entrepreneur, Ms. Canaday also serves on the Racial Reconciliation Committee with Historic Bruton Parish Church. She is also a member of Historic First Baptist Church of Williamsburg where she is a Trustee and serves on the History Committee.