New Books on Black History

New and recent books on Black artists, writers, civil rights activists, athletes, heroes, and more. 

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Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires, edited by Andrea Andersson & Julie Crooks

About the book: Mickalene Thomas's vivid paintings, collages, and photographs explode off the wall. Their larger-than-life women stare back and down at the viewer, confronting them head on. Over the course of her prolific career, Thomas has created a body of work that expands notions of beauty, gender, sexuality, and race, offering a complex vision of what it means to be a Black woman.

In Femmes Noires, Thomas moves breezily between pop culture and the long history of Western and African art, inserting images of Black women into iconic paintings. At times she poses them nude; at other times, she draws on elements as diverse as 1970s black-is-beautiful images of women, Edouard Mamet's odalisque figures, the mise-en-scène studio portraiture of James Van Der Zee and Malick Sidibé, and her own collection of personal portraits and staged scenes. Her ability to detect and contain contradictions and to wrestle with stereotypes translates into powerful, self-possessed depictions of Black women that confront and subvert stereotypes.

Femmes Noires is a bold examination of Thomas's work and her artistic practise at an important moment in history. It blends writing from iconic Black writers and essayists (Alice Walker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, and Lorraine O’Grady) with 120 reproductions from Thomas's oeuvre (collages, paintings, film stills, and photographs). Original essays by Andrea Andersson, visual arts curator of the Contemporary Art Center of New Orleans; Julie Crooks, curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario; and writer-art critic Antwaun Sargent complete the book.

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Moving Against the System: The 1968 Congress of Black Writers and the Making of Global Consciousness, by David Austin

About the book: In 1968, as protests shook France and war raged in Vietnam, the giants of Black radical politics descended on Montreal to discuss the unique challenges and struggles facing their brothers and sisters. For the first time since 1968, David Austin brings alive the speeches and debates of the most important international gathering of Black radicals of the era.

Against a backdrop of widespread racism in the West, and colonialism and imperialism in the "Third World," this group of activists, writers, and political figures gathered to discuss the history and struggles of people of African descent and the meaning of Black Power.

With never-before-seen texts from Stokely Carmichael, Walter Rodney, and C.L.R. James, Moving Against the System will prove invaluable to anyone interested in Black radical thought, as well as capturing a crucial moment of the political activity around 1968.

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Nova Scotia's Lost Communities: The Early Settlements That Help Build the Province, by Joan Dawson

About the book: Beaubassin was once a prosperous farming community at the head of the Cumberland Basin; Africville was the vibrant home of Black Nova Scotians who struggled to make a living and found spiritual solace in their church. Both are now gone, one a casualty of long-ago colonial warfare and the other a victim of misguided urban renewal.

In this fascinating book, author Joan Dawson (A History of Halifax in 50 Objects) looks at 37 of Nova Scotia's lost communities: places like Electric City, Indian Gardens, and the Tancook Islands. Some were home to ethnic groups forced to leave. Others, once dependent on factories, mills, or the fishery, died as the economy changed or resources were depleted. But they were all once places where Nova Scotians were born, married, worked, and died, and they deserve to be remembered. Featuring over 60 archival and contemporary photos and illustrations, Nova Scotia's Lost Communities preserves those memories with fascinating insights.

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They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada, by Cecil Foster

About the book: Smartly dressed and smiling, Canada’s Black train porters were a familiar sight to the average passenger—yet their minority status rendered them politically invisible, second-class in the social imagination that determined who was and who was not considered Canadian. Subjected to grueling shifts and unreasonable standards—a passenger missing his stop was a dismissible offense—the so-called Pullmen of the country’s rail lines were denied secure positions and prohibited from bringing their families to Canada, and it was their struggle against the racist Dominion that laid the groundwork for the multicultural nation we know today. Drawing on the experiences of these influential Black Canadians, Cecil Foster’s They Call Me George demonstrates the power of individuals and minority groups in the fight for social justice and shows how a country can change for the better.

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Black Writers Matter, edited by Whitney French

About the book: An anthology of African-Canadian writing, Black Writers Matter offers a cross-section of established writers and newcomers to the literary world who tackle contemporary and pressing issues with beautiful, sometimes raw, prose. As Whitney French says in her introduction, Black Writing Matters “injects new meaning into the word diversity [and] harbours a sacredness and an everydayness that offers Black people dignity.” An “invitation to read, share, and tell stories of Black narratives that are close to the bone,” this collection feels particular to the Black Canadian experience.

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Africville, by Shauntay Grant, illustrated by Eva Campbell

About the book: Finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award, Young People’s Literature—Illustrated Books

When a young girl visits the site of Africville, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the stories she’s heard from her family come to mind. She imagines what the community was once like—the brightly painted houses nestled into the hillside, the field where boys played football, the pond where all the kids went rafting, the bountiful fishing, the huge bonfires. Coming out of her reverie, she visits the present-day park and the sundial where her great- grandmother’s name is carved in stone, and celebrates a summer day at the annual Africville Reunion/Festival.

Africville was a vibrant Black community for more than 150 years. But even though its residents paid municipal taxes, they lived without running water, sewers, paved roads and police, fire-truck and ambulance services. Over time, the city located a slaughterhouse, a hospital for infectious disease, and even the city garbage dump nearby. In the 1960s, city officials decided to demolish the community, moving people out in city dump trucks and relocating them in public housing.

Today, Africville has been replaced by a park, where former residents and their families gather each summer to remember their community.

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The Birdman: A Journey with the Underground Railroad's Most Daring Abolitionist, by Troon Harrison, illustrated by Francois Thisdale

About the book: He walked the plantation fields, freely and with the owners' permission. He was an ornithologist after all, touring the Deep South of the 1850s to study the birds. But Alexander Milton Ross was no ordinary birdman. He was an undercover Abolitionist. And he had news to spread about the Underground Railroad.

Discover the forgotten life and true adventures of Alexander Milton Ross, daring Canadian activist, who risked everything—including his life—to help bring freedom and dignity to the heroic men and women enslaved in the American South.

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Book Cover Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman: Freedom Fighter, by Nadia L. Hohn and Gustavo Mazali

About the book: Harriet Tubman was a brave woman who was born enslaved in Maryland in the 1800s. After risking everything to escape from her slave master and be free, Harriet went on to lead many people to freedom on a journey known today as the Underground Railroad.

This book covers some of the amazing aspects of Tubman's life: She led 13 escapes—all successful and at great personal risk—between 1850 and 1860. This book also covers some of the lesser-known amazing aspects of her life: During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman enlisted African American men to be soldiers. She served as a spy. AND she led a battle under the command of a Union Army colonel!

Beginning readers will learn about the milestones in Harriet Tubman’s life in this Level Two I Can Read biography. This biography includes a timeline and historical illustrations all about the life of this inspiring figure, as well as a rare historical photograph of her. Much mythology and conflicting lore exists about Harriet Tubman. This book was carefully vetted by noted Harriet Tubman expert Dr. Kate Larson.

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Scholastic Canada Biography: Meet Viola Desmond, by Elizabeth MacLeod, illustrated by Mike Deas

About the book: On the night of November 8th 1946, Nova Scotia businesswoman Viola Desmond stood up for her right to be in the “unofficial” whites-only section of a New Glasgow movie theatre . . . and was arrested for it. Supported by the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSCAACP) and the black-owned newspaper The Clarion, Viola took her quest for the right to freedom from discrimination to the courts. While she ultimately did not succeed, she was a beacon to other early civil-rights activists. Her sister Wanda worked hard to promote Viola’s legacy, which has been finally honoured by Viola’s inclusion on the new Canadian $10 bill.

This new picture book biography series features simple text and full-colour, comic-flavoured illustration with speech balloons that help bring the story alive. Historical Pphotos and a timeline support the narrative.

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Black Women Who Dared, by Naomi M. Moyer

About the book: Inspirational stories of ten Black women and women’s collectives from Canadian and American history. Included are leaders and groundbreakers who were anti-slavery activists, business women, health-care activists, civic organizers and educators. Celebrate these remarkable women, some of whom you may be hearing about for the first time, and the profound impacts they've made.

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Displacing Blackness: Planning, Power, and Race in Twentieth-Century Halifax, by Ted Rutland

About the book: Modern urban planning has long promised to improve the quality of human life. But how is human life defined? Displacing Blackness develops a unique critique of urban planning by focusing, not on its subservience to economic or political elites, but on its efforts to improve people’s lives.

While focused on twentieth-century Halifax, Displacing Blackness develops broad insights about the possibilities and limitations of modern planning. Drawing connections between the history of planning and emerging scholarship in Black Studies, Ted Rutland positions anti-blackness at the heart of contemporary city-making. Moving through a series of important planning initiatives, from a social housing project concerned with the moral and physical health of working-class residents to a sustainability-focused regional plan, Displacing Blackness shows how race—specifically blackness—has defined the boundaries of the human being and guided urban planning, with grave consequences for the city’s Black residents.

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Gridiron Underground: Black American Journeys in Canadian Football, by James R. Wallen

About the book: Canada couldn’t guarantee them greatness but offered the freedom and opportunity they needed to achieve it.

In 1951, Bernie Custis, a standout quarterback at Syracuse, had his invitation to the national East-West All-Star game rescinded when the organizers discovered he was Black. In 1978, Warren Moon—the only player to be inducted into both the Canadian and American football halls of fame—went unselected as a quarterback in the NFL draft.

With the NFL insisting that a Black player could not lead a team, generations of promising athletes were denied a chance to compete at the highest levels. But with their minds set on getting the recognition they deserved, many of them found that Canadian teams were ready to welcome them aboard.

Gridiron Underground tells the story of how talented Black American players who were overlooked, ignored, or prevented from playing football in their home country came to Canada, from the 1940s right through to the present day.

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Black Like Who: 20th anniversary edition, by Rinaldo Walcott

About the book: Twenty years ago Rinaldo Walcott's groundbreaking study of black culture in Canada, Black Like Who?, caused such an uproar upon its publication Insomniac Press has produced a special 20th anniversary edition. With its incisive readings of hip-hop, film, literature, social unrest, sports, music and the electronic media, Walcott's book not only assesses the role of Black Canadians in defining Canada, it also argues strenuously against any notion of an essentialist Canadian blackness. As erudite on the issue of American super-critic Henry Louis Gates' blindness to Black Canadian realities as he is on the rap, Walcott's essays are thought-provoking and always controversial in the best sense of the word. They have added and continue to add immeasurably to public debate.

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There's Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous & Black Communities, by Ingrid R. G. Waldron

About the book: In There’s Something In The Water, Ingrid R. G. Waldron examines the legacy of environmental racism and its health impacts in Indigenous and Black communities in Canada, using Nova Scotia as a case study, and the grassroots resistance activities by Indigenous and Black communities against the pollution and poisoning of their communities.

Using settler colonialism as the overarching theory, Waldron unpacks how environmental racism operates as a mechanism of erasure enabled by the intersecting dynamics of white supremacy, power, state-sanctioned racial violence, neoliberalism and racial capitalism in white settler societies. By and large, the environmental justice narrative in Nova Scotia fails to make race explicit, obscuring it within discussions on class, and this type of strategic inadvertence mutes the specificity of Mi’kmaq and African Nova Scotian experiences with racism and environmental hazards in Nova Scotia. By redefining the parameters of critique around the environmental justice narrative and movement in Nova Scotia and Canada, Waldron opens a space for a more critical dialogue on how environmental racism manifests itself within this intersectional context.

Waldron also illustrates the ways in which the effects of environmental racism are compounded by other forms of oppression to further dehumanize and harm communities already dealing with pre-existing vulnerabilities, such as long-standing social and economic inequality. Finally, Waldron documents the long history of struggle, resistance, and mobilizing in Indigenous and Black communities to address environmental racism.

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City in Colour: Rediscovered Stories of Victoria's Multicultural Past, by May Q. Wong

About the book: A timely, intriguing collection of the overlooked stories of Victoria’s pioneers, trailblazers, and community builders who were also diverse people of colour.

Often described as “more English than the English,” the city of Victoria has a much more ethnically diverse background than historical record and current literature reveal. Significant contributions were made by many people of colour with fascinating stories, including:

  • the Kanaka, or Hawaiian Islanders, who constructed Fort Victoria, and members of the Kanaka community such as Maria Mahoi and William Naukana
  • three Metis matriarchs—Amelia Connolly Douglas, Josette Legacé Work, and Isabelle M. Mainville Ross
  • the Victoria Voltigeurs, the earliest police presence in the Colony of Vancouver Island, and who were primarily men of colour
  • Grafton Tyler Brown, now known in the United States as one of the first and best African American artists of the American West
  • Manzo Nagano, Canada’s first recorded immigrant from Japan, and many more

With information about various cultural communities in early Victoria and significant dates, May Wong’s City in Colour is a collection of fascinating stories of unsung characters whose stories are at the heart of Victoria’s history.

February 11, 2019
Books mentioned in this post
Moving Against the System

Moving Against the System

The 1968 Congress of Black Writers and the Making of Global Consciousness
edition:Paperback
More Info
Nova Scotia's Lost Communities

Nova Scotia's Lost Communities

The Early Settlements That Help Build the Province
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
They Call Me George

They Call Me George

The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada
edition:Paperback
More Info
The Birdman

The Birdman

A Journey with the Underground Railroad's Most Daring Abolitionist
edition:Hardcover
More Info
Displacing Blackness

Displacing Blackness

Planning, Power, and Race in Twentieth-Century Halifax
edition:eBook
also available: Hardcover Paperback
More Info
Gridiron Underground

Gridiron Underground

Black American Journeys in Canadian Football
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
Black Like Who

Black Like Who

20th anniversary edition
edition:Paperback
More Info
There’s Something In The Water

There’s Something In The Water

Environmental Racism in Indigenous & Black Communities
edition:Paperback
More Info
City in Colour

City in Colour

Rediscovered Stories of Victoria's Multicultural Past
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
More Info
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