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Handout

  • Africville
  • Author: Jeffrey Colvin
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Pages: 374

Africville, Jeffrey Colvin’s new novel inspired by the African-Canadian town on the outskirts of Halifax, spans three centuries. From its primary setting on the East Coast it sprawls west to Montreal, south to Mississippi and Alabama, and swings briefly across to Europe. But it is not grand or sweeping in the manner of Washington Black or The Book of Negroes, novels in which Africville also appears, but whose plots retrace the trajectory of the Atlantic slave trade.

Colvin is not macro in approach, but micro. Wherever he roams, his heart (and ours) remains in the community of Woods Bluff, the collection of neighbourhoods that comprise his largely fictional Africville. Colvin intimately maps the town’s geography, traditions, politics and history, including the complicated, multigenerational relationships of its inhabitants.

The search for community is a dominant theme in black Canadian literature. Protagonists frequently feel ostracized by white society and at the same time alienated from their own people. The residents of Africville present a stark contrast to the popular literary type. Although they suffer straitened circumstances and white oppression, they possess the emotional security of knowing who they are and where they’re from. Colvin, who hails from Montgomery, Ala., was amazed to learn how similar the real-life Africville was to the African-American towns he knew growing up in the American South. He applies his southern sense of black community to produce a penetrating portrait of black Canadian life.

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Many Canadian readers will be familiar with the tragedy of Africville: After more than a century of denying municipal services to its citizens, the City of Halifax voted to demolish the town, razing it to the ground by 1970 and relocating its black residents. Colvin reimagines its brave beginnings. The people of Woods Bluff are descended from “a Virginian who came up to Nova Scotia in 1772 as a messenger of the British army"; “a Congolese woman who sailed into Halifax Harbour in 1785″ and the 200 Jamaicans exiled from their island in 1788.

In 1933, Kath Ella Sebolt, our heroine, is a bookish teenager harbouring dreams of attending teacher’s seminary in Toronto. Her best friend, Kiendra, is her polar opposite: restless and troubled. Scenes of the girls gossiping about boys and the church picnic in Kath Ella’s bedroom recall Diana Barry and Anne Shirley of Green Gables. Like Anne, Kath Ella competes for a scholarship she hopes will send her to college. But Kiendra talks her into pulling a foolish prank. When the girls are caught, Kath Ella’s mother is fired from her job and Kath Ella loses the scholarship.

Later, Kiendra throws a brick through the window of a city building and is shot by police. Colvin repeatedly illustrates the deadly overpolicing of black people, particularly when it comes to the protection of white property. Power in the novel is partly measured by whose property is inviolable, and whose is not.

This theme emerges again in the storyline involving Omar Platt, with whom Kath Ella falls in love. Omar, a light-skinned boy from Mississippi, is sent to Halifax to be raised by his great uncle. As a young man, he dies suddenly in a shocking accident. By then, Kath Ella is pregnant with his child. Later, in Montreal, Kath Ella marries a white man who adopts her son. The child, Etienne, is as fair skinned as his father. After Etienne marries, he takes a job in Alabama, where he decides to pass for white.

Curiously, the portions of the novel that unfold in Colvin’s hometown of Montgomery feel less realized than those in Africville, the result perhaps, of his handling of the theme of passing for white. Etienne explains to his wife that he “just wants to live his life” by which he means without the burden of race. And yet, it would be fascinating to observe a black man who is passing for white process life in the racial hotbed of Alabama. It is impossible to think about the place without evoking the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Bull Connor and especially the four black girls murdered during Sunday school by a Klansman’s bomb. In addition, Etienne’s job at a postsecondary institution requires him to boost the enrolment of black students. And yet, we are mostly privy to mundane conversations with friends and co-workers. By excluding Montgomery’s powerful racial context, Colvin endeavours to make nothing out of something.

After Etienne’s death, his son, Warner, learns about the family’s black Canadian heritage, although, by now, Africville has long been demolished.

In just a few generations, blackness has become a distant aspect of the Sebolt family heritage. The family’s assimilation into white society parallels Africville’s disappearance from the land, its black history steadily receding, its descendants moving uneasily into an increasingly white future.

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