One of the greatest tragedies of early modern history was the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, which tore millions of Africans from their homeland to work as free laborers on plantations in the Americas. With February being Black History Month, there is no better time to educate kids about how Africans came to North America and to reflect on their struggles throughout their history on this continent. The abolitionist movement brought an end to slavery throughout Europe in the 1800s and by 1833, Great Britain also ended this inhuman practice.
As a British colony, slavery was outlawed in Canada before the United States and as a consequence became a beacon of freedom for escaped slaves. The debate to end slavery created deep divisions within the United States and contributed heavily to the outbreak of the Civil War. But even after slavery was outlawed throughout North America, a legacy of racial segregation held firm for more than a century, before equal rights for all were instituted.
The following books provide a timeline of the centuries of struggle faced by African-Americans and highlight the importance of remembering the moments of courage that led to freedom.
Viola Desmond Won’t be Budged (Groundwood Books, $18.95)
by Jody Nyasha Warner and Richard Rudnicki – Ages 5-8
Canada had its own form of segregation that lasted into the mid-20th century. But not everyone accepted this practice. In 1946, Viola Desmond went to see a movie in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. After taking her seat, she was told she had to move to the balcony, where black people were forced to sit. When she refused to move, she was taken away by the police and released after spending the night in jail and paying a fine.
Lesser known than Rosa Parks, who accelerated the advancement of the Civil Rights movement when she refused to give up her seat on the bus, Desmond actually took her stance against segregation several years earlier. Desmond is an important character in Canadian history and this lovely picture book gives her the visibility she deserves. It is a wonderful story to share with children to teach them about standing up for what is right.
Elijah of Buxton (Scholastic Canada, $8.99)
by Christopher Paul Curtis – Ages 9-12
Author Christopher Paul Curtis sets his story in the fascinating settlement of Buxton, Ontario, which was founded by the Reverend William King, as a place where freed and escaped slaves could live in safety and freedom in Canada. The title character Elijah is the first free child born in Buxton, and as such, he is viewed as special.
At 11 years old, Elijah is beginning to see and understand the world around him. He has not known the shackles of slavery but through the actions of a mysterious preacher, Elijah ends up on an adventure that takes him to the United States, where he witnesses firsthand the atrocities suffered by slaves. He is a curious and talented child, and his observations of Buxton and those who live there help to transmit how much they cherished their freedom and yet how tenuous it felt. There are several incidents that bring this to life, including the arrival of Americans trying to capture runaway slaves. However, it is only when Elijah goes to the US that he truly understands what his community has lived through. Curtis captures the richness of the culture of the community, writing in the voice of Elijah as he would have spoken at that time, and conveying the art of storytelling. It is a story of hope that celebrates the power of community and the beauty of freedom.
À l’ombre de la grande maison (Éditions Pierre Tisseyre, $13.95)
by Geneviève Mativat – Ages 13-17
The United States had to undergo a painful Civil War before liberation could come for the slave populations in the south. Quebec author Geneviève Mativat delves into this tumultuous period in her Governor General Literary Award-winning novel about a plantation in Missouri at the onset of the Civil War.
The story follows Dany, the daughter of a slave who refuses to speak. When she reaches the age where she must work in the fields, Dany begins to understand the hardships and horrific conditions under which she and the other slaves must work. Her plain looks and strong constitution prove to be beneficial, as she is left to herself and eventually chosen to work inside the master’s house.
She describes how slaves were reminded on a daily basis that they were mere possessions whose only value was in the labour they could provide, and that they were considered less than human. Punishments were swift and harsh, and living with injustice was part of daily life. When whispers of war begin to travel between the slaves, they begin to hope that they will be liberated by the forces from the North. When the cavalcade finally arrives, however, they understand that the reality is far more complex. Other than confiscating the plantations, there is no real plan for the slaves, who are suddenly left to fend for themselves.
Dany, mistaken for a man, is recruited into the Yankee troops with her cousin Theo. They begin a new and uncertain phase in their lives that brings them on a journey of self-discovery as they fight for the freedom of their people. Dany is a strong character, whose quiet and astute demeanor allows her to be a perfect storyteller and to bring to life the realities of life as a slave labourer on a plantation.
Mativat’s detailed research brings an authenticity to characters and places that she has created in her novel. She also includes an exhaustive lexicon and footnotes to explain some of the historical features of that period. She writes in a wonderfully subtle way, providing enough details for the reader to understand the abuse experienced by the slaves without ever falling into gratuitous descriptions of the violence in their lives. The book is compelling and captivating, and is great for those learning French as a second-language thanks to the author’s clear writing.