21 books that shed light on the untold stories of Black Canadians
Black Life: Untold Stories is streaming now on CBC Gem
This fall, CBC Docs is launching Black Life: Untold Stories, an eight-part docu-series about the Black experience in Canada. Black Life dives deep into some of the little-known history of Black Canadians and how they've helped shape the country over the past 400 years.
The series is available on CBC Gem and airs weekly on CBC TV starting Oct. 25.
Black Life references and features many books by acclaimed Black Canadian authors — from poetry to nonfiction and novels.
CBC Books has put together a list of some of the books that were featured on the show, whose authors worked on the series or were used as research. Check them out.
Angry Queer Somali Boy is a memoir by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali, a young man who left Somalia, spent time in the Netherlands and ended up homeless in Canada. Canada was the promised land, but when he didn't fit in and life was more difficult than he expected, Ali turned to drugs and partying before finding his way.
Angry Queer Somali Boy is Ali's first book and combines his personal story with the history of and commentary on the places he's called home: Somalia, Europe and Canada.
In I've Been Meaning to Tell You, David Chariandy contemplates how to talk to his young daughter about the politics and history of race by sharing their family's story and his personal experience as the son of Black and South Asian immigrants from Trinidad. Chariandy navigates sensitive and complex issues, acknowledging a painful past while also describing a hopeful future.
David Chariandy is an award-winning author and University educator based in Vancouver. His debut novel Soucouyant won the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award (GOLD) for Literary Fiction and was a finalist for Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction in 2007. His novel Brother won the 2017 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, the 2018 Toronto Book Award and the 2018 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. It was also longlisted for the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize and was on Canada Reads 2019. The book was adapted into a feature film that debut at TIFF in 2022 and won thirteen Canadian Screen Awards including Best Motion Picture.
In 'Membering, Austin Clarke documents his life growing up in Barbados and his experience living in Canada to attend school and become a journalist. Clarke writes about living during a time when a new generation of Black writers were emerging and his experience interviewing Malcolm X and writers Chinua Achebe and LeRoi Jones.
Clarke was a Toronto-based novelist, essayist and short story writer originally from Barbados. He is the author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning The Polished Hoe. He died on June 26, 2016, at the age of 81.
Whylah Falls is a book-length narrative poem that serves as a snapshot of the Black community in Nova Scotia in the early 20th century. George Elliott Clarke uses his engaging and exuberant voice to detail the passion and struggles of the often overlooked history of Black Nova Scotians.
George Elliott Clarke was Canada's parliamentary poet laureate and was the fourth poet laureate of Toronto (2012-2015). A member of the Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada, his recognitions include the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Fellows Prize, the Governor General's Literary Award and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award. Clarke currently teaches African-Canadian literature at the University of Toronto. His other books include George and Rue and The Motorcyclist. Whylah Falls was a contender in the inaugural edition of Canada Reads, in 2002. It was defended by Nalo Hopkinson.
In The Skin We're In, journalist and activist Desmond Cole looks at what it's like to live in Canada as a Black person. The Skin We're In looks at one year, 2017, and chronicles Coles's personal journalism, activism and experiences alongside stories that made the headlines across the country, including refugees crossing the Canada-U.S. border in the middle of winter and the death of Somali-Canadian Abdirahman Abdi at the hands of the Ottawa police.
Cole is a journalist, radio host and activist based in Toronto. His writing has appeared in the Toronto Star, Toronto Life, Now Magazine and the Walrus. The Skin We're In won the 2020 Toronto Book Award.
Poet Afua Cooper and photographer Wilfried Raussert collaborated on Black Matters, which explores the everyday experience of what it's like to be Black in Canada. Each of Raussert's photographs has a companion poem written by Cooper.
The Hanging of Angélique tells the story of Marie-Joseph Angélique, an enslaved woman convicted of starting a fire that destroyed a large part of Montréal in the 1700s. The work challenges the idea of a slavery-free Canada by way of documenting cases of legally and culturally endorsed slavery in the country.
Cooper is the poet laureate of Halifax. She's also a historian and teacher. She is the author of five books of poetry and two novels, including The Hanging of Angélique.
Raussert is a Canadian photographer, artist and academic who currently teaches in Germany. He has authored or edited more than 20 scholarly books.
Emancipation Day by Natasha Henry-Dixon
In Emancipation Day Natasha Henry-Dixon provides a thoroughly researched account of the history of Canadian slavery. Her emphasis is on how Black Canadians coped after the Slavery Abolition Act was in effect. Using archival research, Henry-Dixon is able to capture the celebrations of Emancipation Day for more than 100 years in a number of Black communities across Canada. While showcasing moments of Black joy, like parades, weddings and barbecues, she also provides the messy aftereffects of slavery and racism. This title highlights the fact that despite emancipation from slavery, Black Canadians are not emancipated from anti-Black racism.
Natasha Henry-Dixon is an assistant professor of African Canadian History at York University. She is also a curriculum consultant specializing in the development of learning materials that focus on the African diasporic experience.
Pourin' Down Rain by Cheryl Foggo
In Pourin' Down Rain Cheryl Foggo recounts her life growing up as a Black girl in Calgary with her family, documenting the long legacy that Black people imprinted on the province of Alberta. She wrote the book with the understanding that the Black experience in Alberta had for years been obfuscated by the dominant settler narrative — stories that erased Indigenous Nations, Black people and other people of colour in favour of tales of "open land."
- Poet Bertrand Bickersteth reveals why Cheryl Foggo's Prairie memoir is the "most influential on his identity as a Black Albertan writer"
Cheryl Foggo is an award-winning storyteller based in Calgary who uses various forms of narrative – journalism, books, film, television and theatre – to tell the stories of Alberta's Black pioneers.
At the beginning of the 20th century, being a train porter in Canada was a job reserved for Black men only. Cecil Foster documents this underreported piece of Canadian history in the nonfiction book They Call Me George. The tiring, thankless and low-paying job — that consisted of hauling luggage, folding down beds, shining shoes and serving passengers— forced these men to be separated from their families as they travelled the country.
They Call Me George documents how one man, Stanley Grizzle, went from being a porter to leading a movement and eventually receiving the Order of Canada.
Cecil Foster is a Canadian novelist, essayist, journalist and scholar.
In Half-Blood Blues, Hiero is a talented young Black German jazz musician who disappears during the Second World War. Half-Blood Blues, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2011 and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize that same year, explores race, history, love, loss, music and the sacrifices we make to pursue our passion.
Esi Edugyan is the author of the novels The Second Life of Samuel Tyne and Half-Blood Blues, the latter of which won the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize and was defended on Canada Reads by Donovan Bailey in 2014. She delivered the CBC Massey Lectures and adapted the series into the book Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling. Raised in Calgary, Edugyan now lives in Victoria. Her novel Washington Black won the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize and was a finalist for the 2018 Man Booker Prize and the 2018 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. The book was championed by Mark Tewskbury on Canada Reads 2022 and is currently being adapted into a TV series by Sterling K. Brown.
This collection of writing and photographs explore issues facing the Black community in Canada. In light of the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in this country, Until We Are Free addresses how developments in Canadian Black activism, alliances with Indigenous groups and the savvy use of social media have served to challenge systemic racism, state violence and question myths of "Canadian politeness and niceness."
Until We Are Free was edited by Rodney Diverlus, Sandy Hudson and Syrus Marcus Ware.
Sylvia Hamilton's poetry collection Tender mixes historical, imagined and personal experiences to paint a moving portrait of her home province, Black resilience and the power of documenting one's story.
- Sylvia Hamilton's latest poetry collection Tender imagines the overlooked lives of Black Nova Scotians
Sylvia Hamilton dedicates herself to recalling and reclaiming forgotten lives, especially the lives of Black people in Nova Scotia. Through her films and poetry, including her poetry collection And I Alone Escaped to Tell You, Hamilton chronicles the history of Black Canadians in Nova Scotia.
The Book of Negroes, which also won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the 2008 Commonwealth Writers' Prize, was inspired by the Black Americans who were resettled in Nova Scotia. The Book of Negroes is a portrayal of the brutal realities of the slave trade told through one woman's life. The novel won Canada Reads in 2009 and was adapted into a six-part miniseries, which can be streamed on CBC Gem.
- 'I had absolutely no idea that it would take off': Lawrence Hill reflects on 15 years of The Book of Negroes
Lawrence Hill is the Ontario author of novels such as The Book of Negroes, The Illegal, Some Great Thing and Any Known Blood and the memoir Black Berry, Sweet Juice. He also delivered the 2013 Massey Lectures, Blood: The Stuff of Life. In 2022, Hill published his first children's book titled Beatrice and Croc Harry.
Hill is the only author to have won Canada Reads twice. In 2009, The Book of Negroes was crowned champion after it was successfully defended by filmmaker Avi Lewis and Olympian Clara Hughes led his fourth novel, The Illegal, to victory in 2016.
The Jerome family have an historic record in Canadian sports with the grandfather being the country's first Black Olympian and siblings Harry and Valerie also competing and setting world records in the 1960s. In the book Races, Valerie Jerome details those heroic moments for her family and the nation, that came alongside the racism they simultaneously had to face.
Valerie Jerome is the granddaughter of Canada's first Black Olympian John "Army" Howard and a Canadian Olympian herself. She has previously represented the Green Party of British Columbia and her work in conservation garnered her a 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada Medal and a City of Vancouver Heritage Award.
Robyn Maynard's Policing Black Lives traces the underreported modern and historical realities of anti-Blackness within a Canadian context. Maynard examines the fact that slavery occurred in Canada for more than 200 years and that enslaved Indigenous and Black individuals were responsible for developing infrastructure for white Canadian settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries — and how that legacy has defined institutionalized racism today.
Maynard is a Montreal-based Black feminist author, activist and educator.
Rollie Pemberton is best known by his stage name, Cadence Weapon. The Edmonton-born rapper won the 2021 Polaris Prize for his album Parallel World. His memoir, Bedroom Rapper, intertwines his own personal journey in the music industry with an in-depth exploration of the history of hip-hop.
Rollie Pemberton is an Alberta rapper, poet, journalist and on-air personality. He won the 2021 Polaris Music Prize for his album Parallel World. His writing has been published in Pitchfork, The Guardian, Wired and Hazlitt. Currently based in Toronto, Pemberton was a former poet laureate for Edmonton.
Zong! is a fragmented and evocative retelling of the forced drowning of some 150 enslaved Africans in November 1781 on the slave ship Zong. This atrocity was committed so the ship's owners could collect money for insurance. Exploring the intersection of law and poetry, Zong! excavates the legal text of Gregson v. Gilbert, the only public record of this brutality, to tell the story that cannot be told, yet must be.
Philip is a renowned writer and scholar born in Tobago and currently living in Toronto. She has won numerous awards, including the 2021 Canada Council for the Arts' lifetime achievement award, the Molson Prize, and the 2020 PEN/Nabokov Award for International Literature, which recognizes a writer's entire body of work.
Gutter Child is about a young girl growing up in a world divided: the Mainland, where people of privilege live, and the Gutter, a police state where the most vulnerable reside. A social experiment results in 100 babies born in the Gutter being raised in the Mainland. One of those babies is Elimina Dubois. But when Elimina's Mainland mother dies, she is sent to an academy with rules and a way of life Elimina doesn't understand.
Jael Richardson is the founder and the artistic director of the Festival for Literary Diversity (FOLD) and the books columnist for q on CBC Radio. She is also the author of the nonfiction book The Stone Thrower, which was also adapted into a picture book of the same name. Gutter Child is her first work of fiction.
Mairuth Sarsfield's novel tells the story of a young widow trying to raise three daughters and earn a decent living on her own. Set in Montreal in the mid-1940s, No Crystal Stair is a compelling story of ambition, love and a tightly-knit Black community that must contend with the subtle racism of Canadian society.
Writers and academics Rinaldo Walcott and Idil Abdillahi are the authors of BlackLife, a nonfiction book that examines the modern reality of Black Canadians through the Western cultural lens of culture, history, literature, music and public policy.
BlackLife posits that violence is at the core of the nation state and how the destruction of Black life and culture has been seen as acceptable collateral damage. The book maintains that a rethink by artists, activists and scholars alike is needed to enable a new reality for Black Canadians.
Walcott is a professor at the University of Toronto, where he is the director of women and gender studies and teaches at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
Abdillahi is a professor of social work at Ryerson University.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.