This spring and summer I got reading about Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia, inspired mostly by reading Lawrence Hill’s Black Berry, Sweet Juice and by the subsequent discussion I had with my sister. Around the same time I also read Steal Away Home by Karolyn Smardz Frost. All of this made me want to know more about Black history in my area.
So for a while I’ve been working on this post here and there as I’ve read the books. But lately I’ve hit a plateau, so when it was announced that One Book Nova Scotia this year is If This Is Freedom by Gloria Ann Wesley, and I already had that one read and written about, I took it as a sign to finish this up and move on.
So here are my thoughts on If This Is Freedom as well as a quick mention of the other books I’ve been reading. By no means am I finished everything I hope to read. But… for now.
If This Is Freedom (2013) tells the story of Sarah Redmond and her family as they struggle to survive in Birchtown, Nova Scotia after arriving there in 1783 with many other Black Loyalists from America. It’s a companion novel to Chasing Freedom (2011), which is about Sarah’s journey from her enslavement on a plantation in South Carolina to New York to wait for a ship that is going to take them to freedom in the British Colonies, after the American Revolutionary War.
When the settlers arrive in Birchtown, they soon discover that all is not as they had been promised by the authorities. Their new home is “barren, cold and isolated — and in a world slow to forget old fears and hate, their Certificates offer them freedom in name only.”
… here on the shores of Birchtown where some were naked or falling dead from hunger, even resorting to eating their dogs and cats, she was going to make sure that she would survive by any means… any means at all.
Sarah signs on as an indentured servant, but when the contract is not honoured by her employers, Sarah makes a decision that, while understandable, ends up setting off a chain of events that make her and her husband’s life very hard for a long time to come. But against all odds, they continue to persevere – because what else can they do? They manage to get by with faith, hope, and a strong sense of community. I’m pretty sure I would have ended up in a miserable, useless heap long before the end of their hardships… poverty, debt, betrayal, discrimination, cold climate, destructive weather, and next to no rights at all. (The Blyes think nothing of demanding Sarah’s baby in exchange for clearing her debts!)
Her lot in life was defined by her skin, too many laws and views and the never-ending struggle to gain their place. This fight – it was like breathing stale air.
In her mind she hated them all and if she could have, she would curse them, even spit on them. The feeling was so strong it surprised her, for it came from a place of darkness not even she had been aware of.
I found this book slow to get going. It wasn’t until I was about a third of the way in that I really started turning the pages. I also found that there was some repetition and too many reminders of how Sarah and Thomas must be feeling. Maybe this is common in YA? Despite these minor issues, for me it was well worth the read. How many novels do we have that are set in Birchtown or written about the Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia?
I love Sarah’s sense of justice and her longing for a place to call home. She fought for what she believed to be right, and she fought as hard as she could for her first home of freedom. But the story of freedom is a long one, and Sarah’s time in Birchtown is only one small part.
“… this is a special place. It’s where freedom allowed me to think, to learn to read, marry and have something for myself…”
Gloria Ann Wesley‘s books are highly relevant and I hope that they are being read in our schools. I’m grateful to her for writing them.
“They made a way for us, kept us alive with nothing but their determination and sweat and blood. This freedom must always be guarded, for those who give it are always looking to take it away. Mind you remember that. They were brave people who didn’t give up and they would want you to know that, so that you can be strong, too.”
In this interview in Atlantic Books Today, Gloria Ann Wesley talks about living with her grandmother in Yarmouth, her love of books at a young age, the encouragement she got from some of her teachers, and the “serendipitous” way in which her first book of poetry was published, To My Someday Child.
I’m happy to be able to tell you that If This Is Freedom made it onto the Reading Nova Scotia: 150 books of Influence that was recently released, along with many other worthy and wonderful books.
Further Reading on the Black Community of Nova Scotia:
Birchtown and the Black Loyalists by Wanda Taylor: This is a non-fiction book for young school-age kids. It explains the basics about the Black Loyalists’ quest for freedom and how they came to live in Nova Scotia, as well as the hardships they faced once they got here. The text is well illustrated, and the book includes factual sidebars, a glossary, as well as a list of recommended reading.
Wanda Taylor is also the author of The Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children: The Hurt, the Hope, and the Healing; another book on my list.
Abigail’s Wish by Gloria Ann Wesley (the author of If This Is Freedom): Beautiful illustrations and a sweet story about a girl living in Birchtown who wishes for a new dress to wear to the celebration of her Aunt’s new baby. “The first children’s picture book to be set in historic Birchtown, Abigail’s Wish is a window into the life of a Black Loyalist family in the early years of the historic colony.”
I grew up in Yarmouth, so this book was especially interesting to me. It’s crazy to think that a small village just a 5 minute drive from where I lived has so much history attached to it that I didn’t know anything about. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.
This book is filled with stories from the past (as far back as slavery), newspaper articles, court cases, Black communities in the area, Black churches and schools, murders and disappearances, births and deaths. The timeline continues all the way to the present to include stories of racism and stories of success. The text is scattered with black and white photos of the people, places, and buildings that contributed to and helped to support the community that is still there today.
Here’s an excerpt from The Yarmouth Light, March 11, 1954 (From the Yarmouth Times files of January 29, 1893)…
YYARMOUTH WOMAN LIVED TO THE AGE OF ONE HUNDRED AND SIX
There passed away peacefully today at her home on Starr’s Road. Hester McKinnon, age 106 years. Hester was the daughter of William and Dinah Berry from whom sprang the entire race of Berry’s who resided on the back road leading to Hebron. William Berry, Hester’s father, was a slave belonging to James Lent Sr who was one of the first settlers in the Tusket Village and who was known as Judge Lent as he administered the rights of Justice in those olden times. Mr. Lent was one of the Loyalists who came here from Shelburne in the previous century and brought with him his slave, William Berry.
Sharon Robart-Johnson is a 13th generation Nova Scotia, born in Yarmouth, and part of her heritage dates back to the early slaves who were brought to the Digby County area in the late 1700s and to the Black Loyalists who arrived in Shelburne in 1783. As of the publication of this book, she and her family live in the (at one time) all-Black community of Greenville, Yarmouth County.
Sharon Robart-Johnson commissioned carver Bruce Jacquard to create a scene that depicts the beating of Jude; an enslaved woman in Yarmouth who was beaten to death in the early 1800s.
Whylah Falls by George Elliott Clarke
Whylah Falls is a novel written in poem form about families, lovers, and murder in the 1930s. Some of the poems I found to be more connected to the story than others. These are the ones that kept me reading. At times I find his work visceral and dark, while at other times I find it beautiful and surprising.
The reason I chose to read it as part of this project is because Whylah Falls is a fictional place based on Weymouth Falls, Nova Scotia; a community formed almost entirely of Black slaves and Black Loyalists in the late 18th century.
Black Loyalists by Ruth Holmes Whitehead
This is the book I’m reading right now, and probably will be for a while. It’s packed with detailed information about the slave trade, Black life in the Southern US in the eighteenth century, the American Revolutionary War, the resulting Black Loyalists making their way to Nova Scotia, and their subsequent life in Nova Scotia.
As well as being shortlisted for three other awards, it was the winner of the 2014 Atlantic Book Award for Scholarly Writing.
Black Loyalists is a book that Lawrence Hill calls, “Insightful, engaging, and steeped in years of research, Black Loyalists is a must read for all who care about the intersection of Canadian, American, British, and African history.”
And Lawrence Hill, of course, is the author of one of my favourite books, The Book of Negroes, which tells the fictional story of one woman’s journey from Africa into slavery, and from there to Nova Scotia, arriving in Birchtown just like Sarah Redmond in Chasing Freedom and If This Is Freedom. It has also been made into a TV Mini-series.
Has anything caught your interest lately and sent you from book to book? Does anyone have any recommendations for me on this subject?