By Neil Armstrong
The Recent launch of Dr. Karen Flynn’s book, Moving Beyond Borders: A History of Black Canadian and Caribbean Women in the Diaspora, was a celebration of the lives of 35 post-war-era Caribbean and Black Canadian women who worked as nurses in Canada.
In attendance were four of the women featured in the book: Lillie Johnson, Daphne Bailey, Betty Reynolds Clarke and Sheila Raymond who were beaming with excitement at the publication of a chronicle of their lived experiences.
Dr. Kathleen McPherson who advised Flynn during the time that she was working on her Ph. D. dissertation described her as a remarkably productive person.
She noted that Flynn, an assistant professor in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies and the Department of African American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, recently gained tenure, which was a significant achievement.
She described Dr. Flynn as a vigorous person who asks difficult and challenging questions. She said the book is a major contribution to the field of women and work, and the history of women and work.
McPherson said the book is also an important book in the scholarship on women and migration and is a study of the beginning of diversity in Canada’s work force.
Dr. Siobhan Nelson, dean of the faculty of nursing at the University of Toronto, also underscored the importance of Flynn’s book to research on women’s lives. Delighted with the fact that the book is finally being launched in Toronto, Flynn said it is an important narrative about these women and their activism which took multiple forms.
She described the challenges faced by these women as nurses in the 1940s as the “fear of black hands on white bodies.” Moving beyond Borders is the first book-length history of Black health care workers in Canada, delving into the experiences of these post-war-era nurses who were born in Canada or who immigrated from the Caribbean either through Britain or directly.
Dr. Flynn examines the shaping of these women’s stories from their childhood through to their roles as professionals and community activists. She interweaves oral histories with archival sources to show how these women’s lives were shaped by their experiences of migration, professional training, and family life.
An objective of the book was to reflect on the interplay of race, gender, socio-economic status, religion, age, migration, education, and other factors in shaping and reshaping the interviewees’ subjectivity formation.
Flynn notes that the majority of the interviewees share the distinction of being the first group of nurses to integrate British and Canadian nursing.
She said these women entered an occupation that, although deeply feminized, also possessed a history of exclusionary practices against women of colour.
“I tell this story, then, not from the vantage point of Black women on the bottom, or even from the margins, but from those who were sometimes in the middle, or at the apex, despite the unequal power relationships that inhered in the medical field overall, writes Flynn in the conclusion of the book.
She noted that these women built on a legacy that has long been established by Black women in the Diaspora. “Most striking is that some of these women continued involvement in community and religious organisations despite their age and accompanying illnesses,” she notes.
Dr. Flynn said these interviews attest to the value of oral history as a methodology. “These women provided insights into their lives that could not be gleaned from other sources.
They have left behind a solid legacy reflected in their individual lives, the inroads they made working as nurses in various geographical locations, the children they raised, and the community activism in which they have engaged,” she writes.
The importance of this book to academic learning and to the study of the lives of Black women is encapsulated in this statement from Dr. Flynn: “The narratives of these thirty-five women serve as a reminder of the omissions, silences, and gaps visible in the absence of Black Canada in studies on the African Diaspora, women’s studies, nursing history and Canadian history generally.”
The book is published by University of Toronto Press.