Family Secrets: Crossing the Colour Line


249 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 1-896219-82-9
DDC 971'.00496'00922




Reviewed by Nanette Morton

Nanette Morton teaches English at McMaster University in Hamilton.


In 1975, Catherine Slaney’s family learned that the papers of their
ancestor Dr. Anderson Abbott had been deposited in the Toronto Reference
Library. Slaney had known that Abbott was a doctor who had served with
distinction during the U.S. Civil War. She hadn’t known that he was
black. When pressed, Slaney’s uncle reluctantly acknowledged the
family secret, information that had been kept even from his own sister,
Slaney’s mother. The revelation sent Slaney on a quest to unearth both
Anderson Abbott’s distinguished career and the reasons why some of his
descendants chose to cross the colour line and “pass” for white.
Connecting with her black relatives and a lost history, Slaney “had to
reconfigure [her] identity so that it not only accurately reflected
[her] ancestry, but also the values with which [she] had been raised.”

Slaney’s efforts to reconcile her grandparent’s decision to
“pass” with her pride in her recuperation of her “rightful
inheritance” are as interesting as the struggles of the illustrious
Dr. Abbott himself. Although the book will be primarily valued as a
history of Ontario’s 19th-century black community, it will also be of
interest to those wrestling with modern concepts of identity. This book
makes it evident that our identities are social constructions
inextricably linked to the past. As such, the book can be read in
conjunction with other works, such as Adrienne Shadd’s Talking about
Identity: Encounters in Race, Ethnicity and Language.


Slaney, Catherine., “Family Secrets: Crossing the Colour Line,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 21, 2024,