February has evolved into Black History Month. We can trace its origins back to 1926 when a man called Dr. Carter G. Woodson originated a Negro History Week to celebrate the anniversaries of the births of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and celebrate the accomplishments of black Americans who never made it to the inside of a history book, or if so, not in any positive way. It is observed in the U. S., Canada and the U.K. The U.S. Government recognized Black History Month in 1976,the Canadian government in 1995 and the British government in 1987.
I live in Nova Scotia and there are two “firsts” that we can claim. The first all-black town was established in Nova Scotia in 1783 near Shelburne, called Birchtown, and was populated by Loyalist Blacks feeling the American War of Independence. The settlers were recorded in The Book of Negroes which was featured in a very good (fiction) book by Lawrence Hill a few years ago. It’s well worth reading. Also related is Chasing Freedom by Gloria Ann Wesley which is a historical fiction novel about Birchtown.
Rosa Parks was a black woman who refused to sit in the back of a public transport bus in 1955 and it was a catalyst for the civil rights movement but before Rosa Parks, there was Viola Desmond who lived in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. She was a respected businesswoman but in 1946, she challenged the rule at a local cinema and refused to leave the section reserved for whites. She was arrested and charged with a minor tax violation and the publicity kicked off a similar civil rights movement in Canada. In 2015, Nova Scotia inaugurated an annual holiday in February. Each year Nova Scotia Heritage Day will be named in honour of a well known Nova Scotian. The first year, the day was dedicated to Viola Desmond and the new harbour ferry in Halifax is also named for her.
I’ve seen a number of websites and news articles in the past few days that are publishing lists of books by black authors so I thought I’d post a few links and suggestions here.
In addition to The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, I’d recommend any of his other novels. I’ve also read Any Known Blood by LH.
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan is another really good book by a Canadian author. It won the Scotiabank Giller prize and a number of other awards as well.
Fifteen Dogs and The Hidden Keys by Andre Alexis are definitely worth a look in . Fifteen Dog also won the Giller Prize. The Hidden Keys is his new book.
Another French Canadian novel also translated to English is the now-classic How to Make Love to a Negro by Dany Laferrière.
The Underground Railroad was a network of people that helped black slaves escape to Canada in the 19th century before slavery was abolished. I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land by Karolyn Smardz Frost is about the Underground Railroad and won a Governor’s General award for non-fiction in 2007. Of course there’s the current best seller, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is quite good. It might be “hyped” but apparently is worth the publicity. It’s on my TBR list.
We may think of Canada as the place that the American slaves ran to for freedom but Canada was a nation that only abolished slavery in 1834 with the rest of the British Empire. Canada’s Forgotten Slaves: Two Hundred Years of Bondage by Marcel Trudel traces the history of slavery in Canada from the mid 17th century French colonies up to the abolishment.
Helen Oyeyemi is a black British author. Her books are listed here. I read Boy, Snow, Bird last year and it was pretty good. Another black British author I really like is Zadie Smith. I’m reading her newest book Swing Time at the moment. I’ve really liked almost all of her books though her first book, White Teeth and her third, On Beauty are my favourites. I think Swing Time is very good, too though I’m only halfway through at the moment.
Here’s a list for this year by the Guardian newspaper in the UK, and one from last year.
A Tumblr List from Penguin Randomhouse for a book a day, and another list from Penguin Randomhouse here.
A list of kids’ books collated by PBS