10 books to read about Black experiences in Canada this Emancipation Day | Arts & Culture | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST
Esi Edugyan, El Jones and Desmond Cole are three of the ten authors The Coast has highlighted for our Emancipation Day reading list.

10 books to read about Black experiences in Canada this Emancipation Day

From the award-winning fictional account of two enslaved sisters to a book based on court transcripts that took over a decade to research, here’s your mid-summer reading list.

This Tuesday marks the third-annual Emancipation Day in Nova Scotia, an anniversary of the historic end to slavery across the British Empire. So-called Canada has a 200-year history of slavery—and Halifax itself hosted slaver’s ships in its harbour. Yet, public knowledge of this chapter of the past—and its effects on the systemic racism of today—is slim. As Charmaine Nelson, founder of The Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery (located at NSCAD) told The Coast in 2021: “We have a 200-year history of slavery in this country and it’s not being taught at any level of curriculum: Not in grade school, not in high school, not in college and not in university…We are so far behind it’s ridiculous.”

Listening and learning remains a good place to start. Here, a mix of revered classics and those soon to join their ranks provide both a local and national lens on race, slavery and Black experiences in Canada. Find them at a Halifax library branch or independent bookstore near you:

click to enlarge 10 books to read about Black experiences in Canada this Emancipation Day
Sharon Robart-Johnson's June and Diana is a historical fiction.

Jude and Diana by Sharon Robart-Johnson

While the only evidence we have of Jude’s life is the account of the trial of her murderers—white slave owners who were acquitted—author Sharon Robart-Johnson delivers a deeply researched and unflinching look at what the enslaved woman’s life in late 1700s Nova Scotia was like. A split narrative between two sisters—the titular Jude and Diana—sees Robart-Johnson not only giving voice to the voiceless but recognizing the human dignity her subjects were so often stripped of. - MM

The Hanging of Angélique by Afua Cooper

Former Halifax Poet Laureate Afua Cooper’s The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal (Race in the Atlantic World, 1700–1900 Ser.) took 15 years of research to write. Diving into the story of an enslaved woman blamed for starting a fire that burned large swaths of 1734 Montreal, the book also acts as a primer on Canada’s overlooked 200-year legacy of slavery. As Cooper’s website puts it: “Afua Cooper draws on extensive trial records that offer, in Angélique’s own words, a detailed portrait of her life and a sense of what slavery was like in Canada at the time. Predating other first-person accounts by more than forty years, these records constitute what is arguably the oldest slave narrative in the New World.” - MM

click to enlarge Beatrice Chancy
George Elliott Clarke's Beatrice Chancy takes place in the Annapolis Valley.

Beatrice Chancy by George Elliott Clarke

Many poems by the Order of Canada-appointed George Elliott Clarke deal with slavery, but his complex, devastating book Beatrice Chancy is a categorization-defying standout. Taking a well-known murder story from 16th century Rome (where it went on to serve as inspiration for countless numbers of great European authors and was even an opera) and transplanting it to slavery-era Nova Scotia, Clarke tells the story of a thwarted love, monstrous abuse and the desire to end human suffering. Clarke’s fiery prose meets its match in a story that feels fallen from the epics into his beloved Africadia (the term he coined for African Nova Scotian lands, culture and people). - MM

Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

Lawrence Hill’s smash-hit Book of Negroes was inspired by a historical document of the same name that lists names and descriptions of 3,000 Black Loyalists who found freedom in Nova Scotia. Considered by many to be the Roots of its generation, the book traces slavery’s path across continents and eras, noting its unmeasurable human cost. - MM

click to enlarge 10 books to read about Black experiences in Canada this Emancipation Day
I Am Still Your Negro is published by University of Alberta Press.

I Am Still Your Negro by Valerie Mason-John

A nod to the late American essayist James Baldwin and his unfinished manuscript Remember This House, poet Valerie Mason-John’s I Am Still Your Negro “unsettles readers” with prose that ventures from the African diaspora’s origins to Trump’s America to Black Queer identity and resistance. Described in the literary magazine Prairie Fire as an “uncompromising account of the historic and ongoing trauma of the slave trade, gender disparity, homocentric norms and our longstanding disregard for the environment,” the book is the latest in a long line of works from Mason-John, who was born in the UK but now lives in Vancouver. - MB

click to enlarge 10 books to read about Black experiences in Canada this Emancipation Day
Abolitionist Intimacies author El Jones is a Halifax-based poet, activist and professor.

Abolitionist Intimacies by El Jones

A perennial “Best Activist” winner in The Coast’s reader-selected Best of Halifax Awards, poet and professor El Jones has long been on the frontlines of community advocacy in Halifax. She has spoken out against racism in the Maritimes, fought against Canada’s failure of Abdoul Abdi and shed light on the prison conditions inside Central Nova. In Abolitionist Intimacies—recently named a Nova Scotia Book Award-winner for non-fiction—Jones takes a Black feminist lens to Canada’s history of prisons, the prison abolition movement and how the principles of “care and collectivity” are central to the struggle for “justice and liberation.”

“When we know we can’t get justice from the state, how do we keep going? How do we heal, knowing that there will never be accountability?” Jones asks in an interview with Herizons. “I don’t know if there’s justice, certainly not for everybody. But we get moments. We get to take those moments and, beyond that, it’s work. And good work yields more work. If you’re doing the work, then you get to do more work and that’s your reward. All we can do is just be there for each other. Keep walking, keep making choices, keep fighting, and keep failing because we do that constantly.” - MB

click to enlarge 10 books to read about Black experiences in Canada this Emancipation Day
Robyn Maynard's Policing Black Lives looks at 400 years of Black experience.

Policing Black Lives by Robin Maynard

Described as a “call-to-action,” Robin Maynard’s Policing Black Lives connects Canada’s legacy of slavery across nearly 400 years of state violence, over-incarceration, racial profiling, low graduation rates, deportation and family separation. It was named one of the “best books of 2018” by The Walrus, shortlisted for an Atlantic Book Award and won the 2017 Errol Morris Book Prize.

“I realized that, as Black people in Canada, we didn't know our own history—the disproportionate rates of Black people behind bars, killed by police or in child welfare agencies,” the Montreal-based Maynard told CBC Books in 2017. “It was very important to talk specifically about what has happened in Canada.” - MB

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Esi Edugyan is one of Canada’s foremost literary talents today: Her novels Washington Black and Half-Blood Blues have both been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and the former is now a Hulu original series filmed in Nova Scotia. Washington Black—Edugyan’s third novel—follows the life of George Washington “Wash” Black, an 11-year-old escaped slave from Barbados whose travels take him from Virginia to Shelburne, NS and across the Atlantic Ocean to London, Amsterdam and Morocco.

“What I really wanted to explore was his life post-slavery,” Edugyan told NPR in 2018. “And to show how by being physically free, we think of that as being the end of slavery—well, he's not in chains, he's gotten away, he's physically free. But I really think that there had to be huge psychological ramifications to having been a slave—even while you're free in body, that obviously you're carrying with you a great trauma, and probably a great sense of bewilderment about your place in the world.” - MB

10 books to read about Black experiences in Canada this Emancipation Day
Desmond Cole's The Skin We're In spans police carding, border crossings and classroom-based racism in Canada in 2017.

The Skin We’re In by Desmond Cole

In The Skin We’re In, Toronto-based journalist Desmond Cole turns his razor-sharp focus to a single year: 2017. Within those twelve months, Cole chronicles the struggle against anti-Black racism within Canada—from efforts to end the controversial practice of police carding to the plight of Black refugees crossing the US-Canada border in the midst of winter in search of shelter. He also ventures into classrooms: Cole writes of a six-year-old girl who police handcuff while she’s in school, and points to the gap in suspension rates between Black and white students.

“The institution can’t help but see Black behaviour as being different and more threatening than everybody else’s,” Cole told Maclean’s in 2020. “That is the legacy of slavery. That is why I believe that we Black people will never stop talking about slavery, because the mentality that white people had to adopt to impose slavery in Canada, for example, has never left us.” - MB

click to enlarge 10 books to read about Black experiences in Canada this Emancipation Day
Eternity Martis' They Said This Would Be Fun was named one of Quill and Quire's 2020 Books of the Year.

They Said This Would Be Fun by Eternity Martis

Eternity Martis found that as a Black student at mostly-white Western University, she learned more about “what someone like me brought out in other people than who I was.” From blackface to racial slurs, she chronicles it all in her debut memoir, They Said This Would Be Fun. A blend of personal stories and in-depth reporting, it pulls back the curtains on systemic issues—racism, sexism, intimate partner violence—plaguing students today. The book was named a Globe and Mail and Toronto Star bestseller, and was listed as one of Quill and Quire’s 2020 Books of the Year. - MB

Martin Bauman

Martin Bauman, The Coast's News & Business Reporter, is an award-winning journalist and interviewer, whose work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Calgary Herald, Capital Daily, and Waterloo Region Record, among other places. In 2020, he was named one of five “emergent” nonfiction writers by the RBC Taylor Prize...

Morgan Mullin

Morgan was the Arts & Entertainment Editor at The Coast, where she wrote about everything from what to see and do around Halifax to profiles of the city’s creative class to larger cultural pieces. She started with The Coast in 2016.
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