A Vanished Community
Copyright Literary Review of Canada Nov 2006
A journalist turns to fiction to explore life and racial politics in Halifax’s Africville.
HarperCollins 399 pages, softcover
ISBN-10: ooo6393iix ISBN-13: 9780002005647
The period from the mid 19605 to the mid 19705 was one of the most exciting, and in many ways the most fruitful, in the history of Canadian race relations, and its epicentre was Halifax. For almost 200 years the African Nova Scotian population had lived in segregated, impoverished settlements across the province. Among them was Africville, a community of about 80 families perched on the northern edge of Halifax itself. Throughout those 200 years black Nova Scotians sought to improve their conditions, insisting on their rights as British subjects. They did produce many significant victories, but the pace was excruciatingly slow.
The threatened expropriation of Africville by the City of Halifax was arguably the chief catalyst in provoking a confrontation between black and white communities and between African Canadian citizens and their governments. Although this energetic movement did not save Africville, it did generate revolutionary changes in the legal and social position of black people and new opportunities in employment and housing. The revolution is still in progress. In the 19605 local charismatic leadership emerged, most dramatically in the person of B.A. "Rocky" Jones; Stokely Carmichael came to town, followed by other members of the Black Panther Party, linking Nova Scotian aspirations to a global tide of black pride and consciousness; in 1968 an allblack "Family Meeting" inaugurated the Black United Front, dedicated to the uplift of the black community through self-determination.
The foundational events in Stephen lumber’s novel Reparations occur in the period when all this action was taking place. Two boys of different colours, Ray and Ward, become friends, and together they witness the destruction of Ray’s Africville beginning in 1964. In high school the lads drift apart as Ray is shunted into the non-academic stream and Ward becomes a rising star. Ray, of course, is black, and his experience is typical of what has so often happened to black kids in Canada. Almost 40 years later the former friends meet again. Ward is now a judge, after a promising but abbreviated career as a provincial politician. Ray, who has changed his name to Uhuru, has become a lawyer through a special program at Dalhousie University. The case that brings them together involves a bookkeeper of Africville descent who embezzles money from the city and distributes it to other Africville people, as reparations for the loss of their homes and community in the 19605. The bookkeeper admits the theft, but will he be found guilty or is this act justifiable?
Such is the main plot, and it is a clever one, allowing Kimber to offer a sympathetic thumbnail impression of life in Africville and giving him a more developed opportunity to present the case for reparations. He gives a reasonable portrayal of the events of the period, albeit from a certain perspective. Kimber is good on what was done to blacks, but regrettably wanting in terms of what blacks were doing for themselves and, ultimately, for all Canadians through innovative principles that would be incorporated into our emerging human rights culture. In an interview published on his website <www.stephenkimber.com>, Kimber asserts that "there was racism but, again, it was more like the pre-civil rights South. Everyone knew their place and played their understood role in the society; few questioned the rules."
Given this interpretation of history, it is not surprising that there is no character or event in the novel that captures the excitement-or the accomplishments-of the era. On the contrary, both Ray and Ward are, for the most part, self-serving cynics, and the fictional community organization "Black Pride" is a government-created puppet. There is very little idealism here. Ray changes his name to Uhuru "on a drunken whim … [that] included a blonde and a bottle of white wine." In this single phrase, Kimber dismisses the "rediscovery" of Africa by young African Canadians-as reflected in the adoption of Afro hairstyles and dashikis, and in some cases in the rejection of Euro-Christian names-and the inspiration they took from this enriched identity. Kimber has claimed that his book is about "race relations," but he has apparently forgotten that any relationship operates in two directions.
If you know nothing about Halifax history you will learn about corrupt politicians, about vote buying for menial bribes and influential backroom boys who pull the essential strings. You will also gain a basic outline of what Africville was like and how terribly its people were mistreated, before the relocation in the denial of basic services such as potable water and fire protection, afterward in the substandard conditions to which they were consigned in downtown Halifax. There are enough similarities to real events to seduce an innocent reader into believing that the characters, too, are accurately drawn. Those familiar with the Halifax scene will make connections to many of the organizations, events and people portrayed in this novel. They may laugh; some black Haligonians have told me they are angry. One former Africville resident said that lumber’s blacks "all get pushed around and let themselves get pushed around," and that the post-relocation cultural renaissance, sustained by the political actions of the Africville Genealogy Society, has been underplayed. Yet my greater concern is for that majority of readers who are not intimate with Halifax past or present, and who will take away an impression, lodged perhaps forever in their imaginations, of a black revolution that was a fraud, of black leadership that was at best ineffective and of a community of Africville relocatees who are almost as devastated as their former homes.
No doubt the hurt and the damage remain, but Africville lives on; its people have not been defeated or forgotten. There are plays, films, poems, songs, a complete jazz suite, works of art, gallery exhibits, a national historic plaque, academic studies, even a United Nations report, interpreting, celebrating and occasionally exploiting the Africville experience, not to mention constant public pressure from the Africville leadership for reparations. No one knows this better than Stephen Kimber, who has written Africville-related stories for the Halifax press and who contributed a respectable chapter to the 1992 book The Spirit of Africville, published by the Africville Genealogy Society. Kimber is an accomplished writer of non-fiction with five decent books to his credit, and he conducted interviews with Africville people and other members of the African Nova Scotian community in preparation for this project. It is therefore a mystery why he switched to fiction and in effect has tampered with cultural memory. Interestingly, the critics who have reviewed Reparations tend to praise it especially for its historical accuracy (comments on its literary merits, on the other hand, have varied considerably). This suggests that reviewers are taking the book seriously as a learning source. Of course any novelist has a right to create a past that did not actually exist, but readers must be reminded that this is fiction.
James W. St.G. Walker is a professor of history at the University of Waterloo, where he specializes in the history of race relations and human rights. His publications include The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870 (University of Toronto Press, 1992,2nd ed.) and "Race,"Rights and the Law in the Supreme Court of Canada (Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History and Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1997).