The Next Chapter

Donna Bailey Nurse recommends books that reflect on being Black in North America

The Next Chapter columnist talks about The Black Book by Toni Morrison, Steal Away Home by Karolyn Smardz Frost and the works of Esi Edugyan.
Donna Bailey Nurse is a book critic and columnist. (Mallory Drumm)

Donna Bailey Nurse is an Ontario literary journalist and a columnist for The Next Chapter

American George Floyd's death at the hands of police has triggered a historic moment a moment of acknowledging and confronting police brutality and the deep roots of systemic racism in America and in Canada.

In light of current world events surrounding race and the Black experience in Canada and the U.S., Bailey shared with Shelagh Rogers her thoughts on books and authors that best reflect on the North American experience for those of Black heritage.

The Black Book by Toni Morrison, et al

Toni Morrison was an American novelist, essayist, book editor, and college professor. (Random House, Patrick Kovarik/AFP/GettyImages)

"It's a scrapbook documenting hundreds of years of African American history. It was originally published in 1974. It's a collaboration of Morrison and a group of editors at book publisher Random House, which is where she was working at the time.

It's a scrapbook documenting hundreds of years of African American history.

"It contains all kinds of things: posters of slave auctions, news clippings of lynchings, letters from Black soldiers, documents from Black slave owners, patents belonging to Black inventors and tons of photos of Black families.

"It's a wonderful book. It had such an impact on me."

Toni Morrison, a giant of American literature and culture, died last Monday. In 1989, she spoke with Michael Enright on As It Happens, and they discussed what was then a growing movement among black Americans to refer to themselves as African-American.

Steal Away Home by Karolyn Smardz Frost

Karolyn Smardz Frost is the author of Steal Away Home: One Woman's Epic Flight to Freedom — And Her Long Road Back to the South. (Timothy Hudson/HarperCollins Canada)

"This is by Canadian historian Karolyn Smardz Frost. It's the true story of a woman named Cecelia Jane Reynolds, who escaped slavery in Louisville Kentucky and came to Canada.

"But then, after the Civil War, she goes home. The book is set in Toronto in the 1840s. The reason that it was so important to me is that it revealed to me the large number of Black businesses that were operating in and around the St. Lawrence neighborhood, where I've lived.

It's the true story of a woman named Cecelia Jane Reynolds, who escaped slavery in Louisville Kentucky and she comes to Canada.

"The thing that touches me about this book is that the St. Lawrence neighborhood in Toronto of today is essentially a Black and brown neighbourhood. It has always been a historically Black neighbourhood."

Esi Edugyan

(Courtesy of HarperCollins Canada)

"Esi Edugyan is so able to tackle the complexity of the Black Canadian experience. Race in Canada is so complicated by the proximity and intimacy of relationships between Blacks and whites. I feel like only fiction can fully address that complexity. Edugyan is perspicacious in her ability to dramatize the Black Canadian experience.

"In Washington Black, she really gets at the racial complexity of the relationship between the main character and his white mentor. I can't speak for all Black Canadians, but so many feel like a fraying rope in a tug of war between Black culture and white culture.

Esi Edugyan is so able to tackle the complexity of the Black Canadian experience.

"Edugyan can use any any setting at all to explore that experience, including Nazi Germany as she does in Half-Blood Blues. We can do that. In the world right now, we're talking about how deadly this place can be for Black people. That issue is being brilliantly examined in books like The Skin We're In by Desmond Cole and Policing Black Lives by Robyn Maynard. 

"When it comes to race, Canada is racially sly. Because of a lack of straightforwardness with regards to racism it's really difficult to determine what's going on."

Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan on growing up black in Alberta

8 years ago
Duration 1:27
Esi Edugyan, the Canadian novelist, and author of the award-winning book Half Blood Blues, shares her thoughts on Black History Month.

Donna Bailey Nurse's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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