Black History Month: Keeping roots alive through YA

As we celebrate Black History Month, literary journalist, teacher and author Donna Bailey Nurse has written a two part blog series about the importance of literature that speaks to young black people. We're pleased to present part two! You can read part one here.

donna-bailey-nurse-two-headshot-three.jpgOne of my favourite novels is Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden. It's the story of two Cree men who become snipers in the First World War. That novel demonstrated to me the way language keeps a culture alive. It described how aboriginal children in the residential schools were forbidden to speak their language. As I wrote in an article about the book: "If you cannot speak your own language -- you cannot tell your own stories. And if you cannot tell your own stories -- if you only know other people's stories -- inevitably you lose sight of who you are."

In this blog, I want to talk about three stories that -- together -- give black Canadian youth a sense of where they come from. One is set in contemporary Africa, one is set in the Caribbean and one is set in Nova Scotia at the end of the 18th century.

badoe-between-sisters-110.jpgBetween Sisters is a practically perfect novel by Adwoa Badoe about a young Ghanaian girl who is worried about her future. Sixteen-year old Gloria Bampo is an excellent dressmaker and a talented singer. Unfortunately, these gifts do not help her pass her major exams. Gloria is functionally illiterate.

She has a small job selling oranges from a basket she balances atop her head. But by no means does she want to end up as a vendor at the smelly market. Nor does she want to work as a nanny for uppity relatives. But she has few options. Her father is out of work and her mother is ailing. "Not'ing wonders God," her excessively religious Daa says, but Gloria has no idea what to do.

She eventually lands work caring for the toddler of a kind woman doctor. Dr. Christine becomes like a sister and even helps Gloria with reading. Still, she is often left on her own to fend off duplicitous acquaintances and lecherous men. Like Yejide Kilanko in Daughters Who Walk This Path, Badoe demonstrates the ways in which good and evil lie side by side.

The story unfolds against a soundtrack of contemporary African music. Through the brief mention of prominent leaders, we note the continent's political evolution. Africa, generally depicted as a land of despair, here offers joy and promise as well.

Mordecai-Blue-Mountain-Trouble-110.jpgBadoe's convincing use of language translates into a distinct way of seeing. This is true, as well, of Martin Mordecai's delightful, superbly crafted Blue Mountain Trouble in which the mists of the Jamaican hills, the swirling clouds and even the earth itself possess animating spirits.

In the novel, 11-year-old twins Pollyread and Jackson encounter a duppy (ghost) goat which emerges out of the fog. "They could only see a huge head, with a billowing beard and horns like they had never before seen, on goat or any other creature." The appearance of the goat coincides with their mother's sudden sickness and the return of Jammy, a notorious Rastafarian that bullies the village. Jammy enrages the twins' father by squatting on their land, though the twins soon learn that the wicked man has mysterious ties to their family.

My heart leapt at Mordecai's beautiful, complex representation of Jamaica and Jamaicans, a perspective rarely found in North American media. Through the eyes of his fully rounded characters we observe a close-knit, generous community characterized by hard labour, proximity to the land, religious faith and the promise of education.

It is a world not unlike that of Between Sisters. Like Badoe, Mordecai does not shy away from the issue of sexuality and children. Indeed, the twins' young friend is very pregnant; the identity of the father is unknown. While, the future looks limitless for clever Polly, Jackson performs poorly on tests and is concerned for his future. Once again, literacy holds a prominent place in the plot.

chasing-freedom-wesley-110.jpgThe final novel, Chasing Freedom by Gloria Ann Wesley, is set in Nova Scotia near the end of the 18th century. As it opens, 15-year-old Sarah Redmond has been living in Birchtown for more than a year. She arrived from South Carolina with her grandmother, aunt and uncle. They were among the former slaves listed as black loyalists in the famous Book of Negroes and look forward to a happy life in Canada.

But the British kept none of their promises. The family spent the first winter literally living in a hole in the ground, in circumstances so bitter they wished to return to slavery.

Sarah thinks constantly of the past: The good, which includes the colorful, verdant landscape; but also the bad; the unspeakable brutality. She recalls how an escaped slave secretly returned to school the slaves; and how, when the overseer discovered Sarah's mother could read, he chopped off her thumbs. Life in Nova Scotia is better, Sarah thinks, but not much. Nevertheless, her grandmother teaches her to lean on wisdom and faith.

Set in different times and places, all three of these exceptional stories, are preoccupied with struggle, literacy and faith: They tell us where we have been and exactly how to move forward.

Keep on reading.


Donna Bailey Nurse is the author of Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing and What's A Black Critic To Do?

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