Monday January 11, 2016

Sylvia Hamilton traces her roots in new poetry collection

In her new poetry collection, Sylvia Hamilton explores the lives of early black Nova Scotians.

In her new poetry collection, Sylvia Hamilton explores the lives of early black Nova Scotians. (Gaspereau Press)

Listen 16:08

Filmmaker Sylvia Hamilton was born in Beechville, Nova Scotia, a community founded by black refugees from the War of 1812. In her beautiful new poetry collection, And I Alone Escaped to Tell You, Hamilton explores the day-to-day life of early black settlers in Nova Scotia, telling stories that are often overlooked in Canadian history.

Hamilton spoke to The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers from CBC's Halifax studio.

ON WHERE HER CHARACTERS COME FROM

The people, especially in the early pages, came to me out of history. There are African people who were enslaved in Nova Scotia and there were people who were part of the black loyalist migration after the American Revolutionary War. Then there were people who came to Nova Scotia after the War of 1812. They were known as the black refugees and, indeed, my ancestors.

I've been doing research about African people in Canada and particularly Nova Scotia for a really long time. [I started in the] 1970s, first going into the Nova Scotia archives and finding letters, finding documents that really connected me to that past. I began reading what was in the record, but also what was not in the record. Some of the people who I wrote about or made films about were actually real people. These voices really became urgent and wanted to speak — it really seemed poetry was the way. Some of the characters, particularly women, I was very much struck by their resilience, their forward thinking, their sense of agency. They really wanted to control their own bodies, control their own families, and they did everything they could to thrive.

ON TRACING HER FAMILY ANCESTRY

The Hamiltons came as part of the black refugee migration after the War of 1812. They had been enslaved on plantations in St. Simons Island in Georgia and had escaped when Britain offered freedom to any enslaved person who would fight with the British. So they got themselves off that plantation somehow and made their way behind British lines and after the end of that war, made their way to New York and arrived in Nova Scotia on these tall transport ships.

ON WORKING AGAINST RACISM

Will there be a time where we in this country, in this world, will not have to be faced with bigotry, denial, injustice? I don't know. All I can do is hope. All I can do is the best I can to work to make this place better, to encourage, to talk to other people about it, to try to resist those kinds of things that are based in injustice. So will there be a time? I don't have a crystal ball. But here's one thing I know: if we don't work against it, there won't ever be a time. We have to actively resist all of this. It's not only my problem, it's all of ours. We all have to own this stuff and deal with it.

It's not that this consumes my life or the lives of people of African descent. We have fun, we laugh, we dance, we do whatever, but we also know that there are other things we have to deal with, that other folks will not.

Sylvia Hamilton's comments have been edited and condensed.

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