Ever since reading Lawrence Hill’s epic novel, The Book of Negroes (2007), I’ve been intrigued by how Canadian novelists of colour depict the slave culture in the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Hill’s novel chronicles the life of the fictional character Aminata – stolen from her village in Africa and sold into slavery in the U.S. South…eventually sailing to a free colony in Birchtown, Nova Scotia…ending up as an abolitionist in England.
In the summer of 2015, Sam and I visited the newly-opened Black Loyalist Heritage Centre, a state-of-the-art museum near Shelburne, Nova Scotia.
We were pleased that Hill’s novel (and subsequent TV mini-series) made many more Canadians aware of a significant part of our history. We were pleased that the Heritage Centre helps people trace their roots, perhaps finding their own ancestors’ names in the Book of Negroes. This actual record book lists black Loyalists who had in some way aided the British during the American Revolution, and thus were eligible to be settled in Nova Scotia.
We were sad to hear and see how difficult life actually was for blacks in Nova Scotia, demonstrated by the Pit House on the heritage centre grounds.
Now this summer and fall, I’ve been intrigued by Canadian and other novelists of colour telling stories of the fraught relationships between 18th and 19th century slaves in the U.S. and “enlightened owners.”
Here are several recent novels I recommend:
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (HarperCollins, 2018). Beginning in 1830, this fast-paced novel follows 11-year-old “Wash” from the Faith Plantation in Barbados. After the plantation owner’s brother “Titch” borrows him, Wash travels to a Hudson’s Bay trading post, to Birchtown, Nova Scotia, and finally to England and beyond. Wash loses his protector in the Arctic, then finds him again, driven to discover why Titch had chosen (and then seemingly abandoned) him. Here we glimpse the life of a strange and complex member of a slave-holding family. Is Titch the “enlightened slave owner” Wash first believes he is? Is there such a thing?
Up from Freedom by Wayne Grady (Penguin Random House, 2018). Young Virgil Moody, from a slave-holding family in the U.S. south, decides he will never own slaves. But when he leaves the plantation, he takes with him a woman whom he believes cannot survive life there. Eventually he comes to think of her as his wife and her son as his son. Several surprises later, events occur which cause him to consider whether he’s turned into a person he was trying to avoid becoming!
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Knopf, 2016). Written in the form of short stories, this novel tells the saga of two half-sisters in Ghana- Effia and Esi – and their descendants. Effia marries the British governor in charge of the infamous Cape Coast Castle, at the center of the slave trade. Meanwhile, Esi is taken captive by slave traders and kept in the dungeon at the Castle, awaiting a ship to America. The author, who is Ghanaian-American, uses the short story to great effect to tell of the life of seven generations of their descendants, choosing to include two stories for each generation. The stories are stunning. Often I wanted to hear more.
Questions for Reflection:
- In what ways do you connect with the struggles of slaves, runaway slaves, freed slaves and “enlightened” owners from the 18th and 19th centuries?
- How – if at all – does reading of their struggles unsettle or nourish your spirit?
Next week: TBA
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