Books

25 books about being Black in Canada

Read these works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry about the experience of Black Canadians.
Jericho Brown is an American poet and author. (Copper Canyon Press, Stephanie Mitchell)

Jericho Brown is an American poet, author and the winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. His award-winning collection, The Tradition addresses contemporary issues from sexual identity to mass shootings and the police killing of unarmed Black men. 

On June 7, 2020, he was interviewed by Writers & Company host Eleanor Wachtel. 

The winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry talks to Eleanor Wachtel about the legacy of racial injustice and his award-winning collection, The Tradition. 53:54

After reading Brown's book The Tradition — which looks at the Black American experience —check out these 25 books by Canadian authors that highlight what it means to be Black in Canada. 

Land to Light On by Dionne Brand

Dionne Brand is a Canadian poet, author and academic. (McClelland & Stewart)

Dionne Brand's 1997 poetry collection Land to Light On won the Governor General's Literary Award for poetry. Land to Light On looks at the experience of being an outsider to a new land — and the complicated feeling of being uncomfortable with others and with themselves in this climate. It explores living in Canada against the backdrop of Black suffering in the Americas and questions our past and possible future for answers.

Brand is an award-winning poet and novelist. In 2017, she was named to the Order of Canada. Her latest books include the novel Theory and the poetry collection The Blue Clerkwhich was a finalist for the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry.

Kaie Kellough is an award-winning Canadian poet and novelist. As of this week, he's also one of the winners of the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize. Kellough joined Tom Power over Zoom from his home in Montreal to talk about his winning collection of poetry, Magnetic Equator, and what it means to write about a home you've been separated from. 8:08

Magnetic Equator by Kaie Kellough

Magnetic Equator is Kaie Kellough's third poetry collection. (McClelland & Stewart, Melissa-Anne Cobbler)

Kaie Kellough plays with geography and self-determination in Magnetic Equator, his third poetry collection. Drifting between South and North America, Kellough digs into the ancestral belonging, exploring The Canadian Prairie, Georgetown, the Amazon rainforest and in the Atlantic Ocean. It looks at the nature of language and dialect in the works of Caribbean and Canadian writers, seeking origin, identity and understanding.

Magnetic Equator won the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize.

Kellough is a Montreal-based writer, poet and artist. He is also the author of the novel Accordéon and the short story collection Dominoes at the Crossroads.

Afua Cooper is James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University. 0:50

Blank by M. NourbeSe Philip 

M. NourbeSe Philip is a Canadian poet, novelist, playwright, essayist and short story writer. (BookThug/The Canadian Encyclopedia)

Blank is a collection of writer and author M. NourbeSe Philip's previously out-of-print essays and new works. The book explores questions of race, cultural appropriation, America under the Trump administration and how we define multiculturalism in Canada.

Philip is a Canadian poet, novelist, essayist and short story writer who was born in Tobago. She is the author of numerous works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Earlier in 2020, she won the PEN/Nabokov Award for International Literature.

The Hanging Of Angelique by Afua Cooper 

Afua Cooper is a professor and author. (HarperCollins/Afua Cooper)

The Hanging Of Angelique tells the story of Marie-Joseph Angélique, a slave 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. 

Afua Cooper is a Jamaican-born Canadian historian, author and academic.

At the beginning of the 20th century, being a train porter in Canada was the exclusive domain of black men who laboured long hours for miserable pay. Cecil Foster is a journalist and academic whose book, They Call Me George; The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada, chronicles the story of the "Pullmen" of the Canadian rail lines, and their fight for social justice. 26:06

They Call Me George by Cecil Foster

Cecil Foster is a Canadian novelist, essayist, journalist and scholar. (Sharon Beckford-Foster/Michael Vrana & Biblioasis)

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.

Foster is a Canadian novelist, essayist, journalist and scholar.

In this piece from 2000, CBC reporter Sandra Batson covers immigration of black communities to the Prairies and the struggles they encountered in Canada. 9:29

North of the Color Line by Sarah-Jane Mathieu 

Sarah-Jane Mathieu is an academic and writer. (University of North Carolina Press)

North of the Color Line highlights the underreported history of life in Canada for the estimated 5,000 Black people, both African Americans and West Indians, who immigrated to Canada after the end of Reconstruction in the United States. Mathieu examines factors such as social, political, labour and immigration through the lens of the experiences of black railway workers and their union, the Order of Sleeping Car Porters.

Sarah-Jane Mathieu is assistant professor of history at the University of Minnesota and a Faculty Fellow at Harvard University's Warren Center for Studies in American History. 

How does gender drive identity? And what do we mean by gender anyway? We live in an age of something far more fluid than the standard male/female dichotomy. It's not surprising many people are feeling confused. From The Stratford Festival, a discussion featuring "Radical Reverend" Cheri DiNovo, writer Rinaldo Walcott, artist Syrus Markus Ware, and trans activists and educators Kim Katrin and Tiq Milan. 53:58

Queer Returns by Rinaldo Walcott 

Rinaldo Walcott is a Canadian academic and writer. (Rinaldo Walcott/Insomniac Press)

Rinaldo Walcott takes a look at categories of "queer and Black" and "Black queer" through the lens of multiculturalism and Canadian identity in Queer Returns. The essay collection reflects on how capitalism, colonialism and sexual identity intersect and shape culture, politics and Black expression. 

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.

The state of Minnesota filed a human rights complaint today against the Minneapolis Police Department in the death of George Floyd. Floyd’s death - at the hands of police - has renewed calls in the U.S. and here in Canada to abolish the system. That’s an idea Robyn Maynard has explored. She is the author of “Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present”. She’s also a Vanier scholar at the University of Toronto. 11:14

Policing Black Lives by Robyn Maynard 

Robyn Maynard is the Montreal-based author of Policing Black Lives. (Stacy Lee Photography/Fernwood Publishing)

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 author and activist. Policing Black Lives is her debut nonfiction book.

A young Austin Clarke speaks with the CBC's Anna Cameron. 7:21

'Membering by Austin Clarke

Austin Clarke was a Barbadian novelist, essayist and short story writer based in Toronto. (Dundurn Press)

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. 

Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali has been through a lot since he was born almost 35 years ago in Mogadishu, Somalia. A ruinous civil war; migrating to the Netherlands and then to Canada, a Muslim in a strange land; a fractured family; discovering he was gay; homelessness, alcoholism and addiction. You might say that anyone who's lived through all that should write a memoir. That's what he did. It's called Angry Queer Somali Boy: A Complicated Memoir, and it was widely acclaimed as one of the best Canadian books of 2019. 27:06

Sonnet's Shakespeare by Sonnet L'Abbé

Sonnet's Shakespeare is a poetry collection by Sonnet L'Abbé. (Paul Marck, McClelland & Stewart)

In Sonnet's ShakespeareSonnet L'Abbé takes the work of William Shakespeare and inserts herself ⁠— a mixed race South Asian and Black Canadian poet. The end result is 154 sonnets that L'Abbé has dismantled letter by letter and rearranged to analyze Shakespeare's influential voice — and how we can make space for others.

L'Abbé is a poet and author based in British Columbia. She won the bpNichol Chapbook Award in 2017 for Anima Canadensis.

The novelist Tessa McWatt on her award-winning memoir Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging 21:03

Angry Queer Somali Boy by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali

Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali's first book, Angry Queer Somali Boy, is a memoir he wrote while living in a homeless shelter in downtown Toronto. (Ahmed Ahmed)

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 combines Ali's personal story with the history of and commentary on the places he's called home: Somalia, Europe and Canada. It's his first book.

The Skin We're In, a new book by award-winning journalist, activist and author Desmond Cole, is a look at racism in Canada and its lasting impact. It's a story of confrontation, sometimes in public meetings and sometimes using the written word, but also one of listening and bearing witness. The former Toronto Star columnist has written before about racial profiling by police in that city and its effect on his life. In this book, he digs more deeply into the topic and challenges Canada to make some significant changes. Watch Adrian Harewood's interview with Desmond Cole on the program Our Ottawa. 15:41

Shame on Me by Tessa McWatt

Tessa McWatt is a Guyanese-born Canadian writer based in London. (Christine Mofardin, Random House Canada)

Tessa McWatt was born in Guyana and came to Canada when she was three years old. She grew up in Toronto and spent years living in Montreal, Paris, Ottawa and London. Her heritage is Scottish, English, French, Portuguese, Indian, Amerindian, African and Chinese. Shame on Me is a memoir about identity, race and belonging by someone who spent a lot of time trying to find an answer to the question, "Who are you?" and who has endured decades of racism and bigotry while trying to figure out who she is and where she belongs. 

McWatt is the author of several works of fiction. Her novels include Dragons CryVital Signs and Higher Ed. She is also the co-editor of the anthology Luminous Ink: Writers on Writing in Canada. Shame on Me is her first work of nonfiction.

Diverlus is the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto. He spoke with CBC News about the Toronto Pride Parade protest and the state of racism in North America. 22:31

The Skin We're In by Desmond Cole

The Skin We're In by Desmond Cole was released in January 2020. (Doubleday Canada, Martin Trainor/CBC)

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 is his first book.

African-Canadian writers will be gathering tonight to share tales of the Black Canadian experience. It's all part of the launch of an anthology called Black Writers Matter. Reshmi Nair speaks to the editor Whitney French. 6:31

Until We Are Free, edited by Rodney Diverlus, Sandy Hudson and Syrus Marcus Ware

Until We Are Free is a collection of writing that reflects on the Black Lives Matter movement in Canada. (Submitted by University of Regina Press)

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.

In this special Canada Reads 2019 edition of the CBC Books video series, the author of Brother talks about how he defines love and understanding in his fiction. 3:11

Black Writers Matter, edited by Whitney French

Black Writers Matter is an anthology edited by Whitney French. (University of Regina Press, Whitney French)

Black Writers Matter is an anthology of Black Canadian writing from new and established writers that aims to reflect the "everydayness" of living in Canada while being Black. The essays in Black Writers Matterfrom authors such as Rowan McCandless, Philip Dwight Morgan, Makeda Silvera and Chelene Knight, tackle historical and contemporary issues around race, gender, sexuality, ancestry and Canadian identity.

Black Writers Matter was curated by Whitney French. French is a writer, storyteller and educator. She was named a Black Canadian writer to watch in 2019 by CBC Books.

George Elliott Clarke, Parliamentary Poet Laureate, discusses U2 using two of his poems in their upcoming tour 8:07

BlackLife by Rinaldo Walcott & Idil Abdillahi

Blacklife is a nonfiction book by Rinaldo Walcott and Idil Abdillahi. (Submitted by ARP Press)

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.

I've Been Meaning to Tell You by David Chariandy 

I've Been Meaning to Tell You is David Chariandy's latest book. (McClelland & Stewart, Joy van Tiedemann)

In I've Been Meaning to Tell YouDavid 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.

Chariandy is an award-winning Vancouver-based author. His novel Brother, the story of two brothers growing up in a troubled housing complex in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, was a contender for Canada Reads 2019. Brother won the 2017 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the 2018 Toronto Book Award.

As protests continue across the United States, Canada is grappling with its own problems of anti-Black racism, including on university campuses. Students of colour can face particular challenges. Eternity Martis knows that first-hand. She recently published a memoir about her time as one of the few Black students at Western University. Martis is the senior editor at Xtra and the author of “They Said this Would Be Fun: Race, Campus Life and Growing Up.” 10:06

Execution Poems by George Elliott Clarke

George Elliott Clarke is a Canadian poet and author. (Gaspereau Press, City of Toronto)

George Elliott Clarke's collection, Execution Poems, won the Governor General's Literary Award for poetry in 2001. Clarke's book looks at the life of his late cousins who were executed for the murder of a taxi driver in Fredericton. The unflinching collection examines themes of redemption, violence, racism and poverty in Canadian society.

Clarke is a Canadian poet and writer. He was Canada's parliamentary poet laureate and was the fourth poet laureate of Toronto (2012-2015). The author of more than 15 books, Clarke also holds eight honorary doctorates, plus appointments to the Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada.

Author Lawrence Hill shares his thoughts on racism in Canada and the U.S. after George Floyd’s death and what needs to be done to end the cycle of racial injustice. 2:40

How She Read by Chantal Gibson

Chantal Gibson is the author of How She Read. (Caitlin Press, Chantal Gibson)

Chantal Gibson's How She Read is a collection of genre-blurring poems about the representation of Black women in Canada. The Vancouver-based Gibson has East Coast roots and she brings a holistic, decolonized approach to challenging imperialist ideas by way of a close look at Canadian literature, history, art, media and pop culture.

How She Read was a finalist for the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize.

Gibson is an artist, poet and educator who currently teaches at Simon Fraser University. CBC Books named Gibson a Black Canadian writer to watch in 2019How She Read is her first poetry collection.

Téa Mutonji talks to Shelagh Rogers about her Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize nominated novel, Shut Up You're Pretty. 17:00

They Said This Would Be Fun by Eternity Martis

They Said This Would Be Fun is a book by Eternity Martis. (McClelland & Stewart, eternitymartis.com)

Eternity Martis was smart, bookish and excited to go to university. But once she got to campus, life wasn't what she imagined. She was often the only student of colour in classes, at parties and in dorms, and had to face racial slurs, students in blackface at parties and more on a regular basis. They Said This Would Be Fun is a memoir about the difficulty of navigating through white spaces as a student of colour and asks us to confront the systemic issues that define the college experience for racialized and marginalized students.

Martis is a Toronto-based journalist, author and senior editor at Xtra. Her work focuses on issues of race and gender and has been featured in Vice, Salon, Hazlitt, TVO.org, The Walrus, Huffington Post and CBC. They Said This Would Be Fun is her first book.

Any Known Blood by Lawrence Hill 

Any Known Blood is a novel by Lawrence Hill. (HarperCollins, Lisa Sakulensky)

Written 10 years before his celebrated novel The Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill's Any Known Blood follows five generations of an African-Canadian-American family, from the slave trade of 19th-century Virginia to the predominantly white suburbs of Oakville, Ont.  

Hill is the bestselling author of The Book of Negroes, which won CBC's Canada Reads in 2009 and was adapted into a six-part miniseries for CBC-TV. His most recent novel, The Illegalwon Canada Reads in 2016 and was defended by Olympian Clara Hughes.

Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady

Wayne Grady is a Canadian writer, editor and translator. (CBC/Penguin Random House )

Emancipation Day is Wayne Grady's 2013 novel about a young man from Windsor, Ont., who is so light-skinned he can pass as white. He travels to St. John's during the Second World War to play trombone in the Navy Band and falls in love and marries. He and his young wife eventually return to Windsor and the secrets and lies of their relationship play out against a backdrop of race and identity. Emancipation Day was on the longlist for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize. 

Grady was 47 when he discovered that his father was Black. He had been passing as white since before Grady was born. This experience inspired Grady to write Emancipation Day, which went on to win the Amazon.ca First Novel Award in 2013. 

Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta

Frying Plantain is a short story collection by Zalika Reid-Benta. (House of Anansi Press)

Frying Plantain follows Kara Davis through elementary school to her high school graduation, as she comes of age while being perennially caught between her Canadian nationality and Jamaican heritage. Over a series of 12 stories, Davis visits her great aunt in Jamaica, endures a cruel prank by close friends and deals with her stubborn grandparents. 

Frying Plantain was longlisted for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Zalika Reid-Benta is a graduate of Columbia's MFA program and was named a writer to watch by George Elliott ClarkeFrying Plantain is Reid-Benta's first book. CBC Books named Reid-Benta a writer to watch in 2019

Things Are Good Now by Djamila Ibrahim 

Djamila Ibrahim is the author of the short story collection Things Are Good Now. (Dana Jensen, House of Anansi)

This 2018 debut collection of short stories by Ontario author by Djamila Ibrahim looks at the outsider experience from various angles. Set in East Africa, the Middle East, Canada and the U.S., Things Are Good Now examines themes of displacement, hardship and disillusionment. 

Ibrahim is an Ethiopian-born writer who moved to Canada in 1990. Things Are Good Now is her debut short story collection.

Shut Up You're Pretty by Téa Mutonji

Shut Up You're Pretty is a book by Téa Mutonji. (Arsenal Pulp Press, Sandro Pehar)

Shut Up You're Pretty is a short fiction collection that tells stories of young women coming of age in the 21st century. Mutonji's characters include a young woman who shaves her head in an abortion clinic waiting room, a mother and daughter who bond over fish and a teenager seeking happiness with her pack of cigarettes.

CBC Books named Mutonji a writer to watch in 2019Shut Up You're Pretty is her first book. She lives in Scarborough, Ont. Shut Up You're Pretty was on the 2019 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize shortlist

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now