We need all the writing we can get about what it means to be black in Nova Scotia, past and present.
Halifax author Gloria Ann Wesley, the first published black Nova Scotia poet, gives powerful voice to this in her historical novels for young adults, Chasing Freedom, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Ann Connor Brimer Award, and its followup, If This is Freedom.
Both explore the experiences of the earliest black settlers, Wesley’s Loyalist forebears.
Set between the mid-1780s and 1792, when many left in hopes of finding a free society in Sierra Leone, Wesley’s new novel takes up the story of former slave Sarah Redmond and her husband, Thomas Cooper, as they struggle to eke out a living in the settlement of Birchtown, near Shelburne.
The “freedom” the settlers find there – their reward for loyalty to the British Crown during the American Revolution – equals further enslavement.
Extreme poverty forces Sarah into working as a servant, indentured to the well-to-do white Loyalists Albert and Esmeralda Blye. Thomas is their sharecropper.
The action-packed story begins when, starving, Sarah steals a loaf of bread to share with her husband. The punishment for this is vengeful and swift, triggering a series of events that further mire the Coopers in poverty and servitude, as Blye imposes contract after contract upon them as repayment of their grinding debt.
Blye’s oppressive “justice” is nothing less than extortion, which makes for some page-turning suspense. As the “debt” mounts capriciously, there’s nothing the Blyes won’t stoop to, exacting what they consider their rightful pound of flesh.
There’s one set of rules for whites and another for blacks in these times, and in this place, where racism is all-pervasive, cruel injustice manifests itself in ways that range from the mundane to the criminal.
Wesley vividly captures the flavour and atmosphere of 18th-century Nova Scotia, its citizens and their hypocrisy. In doing so, she makes a timeless comment on how systemic racism continually re-victimizes the disadvantaged.
At the hub of her family, a small, tightly knit clan of survivors of southern slavery, Sarah holds fiercely to the dream of freedom and a better life, despite their being sold a false bill of goods in the form of barely workable land.
She and her tiny community survive by their wits and by relying on one another. Birchtown is dealt blow after blow, including the effects of a hurricane depicted with all the ferocity of hurricane Juan.
Sarah is plagued by misfortune and grief, not just those inflicted by nature and by a racist world, but by a sexist one too–a perfect storm of oppression that makes her story all more layered and poignant.
At various levels, dominance and oppression define this world where people treat people as chattel or at best as second-class citizens. Thomas, bending under the yoke of his racist master, at times treats Sarah this way too.
For all the freedom Shelburne’s founders promise, it’s a prison of a place with shackles of its own making when whites would destroy the bonds between the Birchtown family that are their consolation, their hope.
The very worst befalls Sarah after she gives birth to a son and the childless Blyes take him as punishment/payment for her second transgression –second only to stealing bread – helping Hannah, another indentured servant whom the Blyes abuse and whom Sarah’s father, Fortune, is sweet on.
The tightly woven plot is based on tremendous suffering, one event after another conspiring against Sarah and Thomas, who’s eventually forced into privateering aboard Blye’s merchant ship, Blind Faith.
In his absence, she gives birth to their second child, a daughter, and must work twice as hard to keep them and her extended family fed.
But as Shelburne’s fortunes wane, the poverty well-known in Birchtown spreads to the white side of the harbour, as does sickness. Eventually, a visitation of small pox forces the Blyes to relent somewhat.
Sarah is finally given a choice, albeit a narrow one, but pivotal in how it affords a hard freedom. She can choose to show them charity or turn her back on their need.
It’s a choice that, in offering the chance to rise above their evil, fully asserts her humanity.
It’s this humanity and the lack of sentimentality that makes the story so effective. We feel Sarah’s dilemma, because it raises the question that never goes away: how do we do unto another, especially another who’s harmed and continues to harm us?
We turn the pages needing to know how and if anything is ever made right. We want justice for Sarah because she so deeply deserves it.
She refuses to be a victim, whether of her abusers or of her own hatred. She faces her ordeals not with any romanticized pride or glossy stoicism, but with a righteous, rightful anger, and this makes her dynamic, complex and real.
Wesley shows her characters’ fears and aspirations in ways that bring them to life – even the Blyes, who, once they’re made vulnerable, are also human.
Given her way with characters, it’s unfortunate that sometimes didacticism creeps in where it doesn’t need to, an instructive quality in the telling that occasionally distances us from them, despite how tangible they are.
The events of Sarah’s story, her conflicts and her resilience show us exactly what we need to know and point to the much wider struggle, the collective suffering and endurance of one of Nova Scotia’s founding peoples that they represent.
It’s not necessary for the characters to comment as they sometimes do, and in jarringly modern catchwords and phrases, on issues like “double identity.”
Such flaws make the writing itself second to Wesley’s purpose. Having taught for 34 years in the school system, where her books should be required reading if they aren’t already, she uses history to send a message that never loses its urgency.
It’s aimed here at youth who, like the rest of us, have a responsibility to fight whatever it is in people that allows or enables the mistrust, fear and hatred of others that underlie racism.
If This is Freedom is a powerful epitaph to our province’s black forbears, and to all of us a lasting reminder of this: “They made a way for us,” says Sarah, “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 a brave people who didn’t give up and they would want you to know that, so that you can be strong too.” - Carol Bruneau