Black History Month began as Negro History Week in the United States in in Canada in 1926 as a way to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of people of African descent. In 1976, it became Black History Month and in 1995, it was officially recognized here in Canada. February is the shortest month and one of the coldest times of the year. The perfect way to celebrate one of these cozy evenings is curled up with a book — not only in February, but all year round. Here are twelve must reads to keep you busy.
1) I and I by Tony Medina, illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson (Lee & Low Books, 2009)
Through Medina’s luscious and descriptive poems and Watson’s gorgeous lifelike illustrations, I and I is a celebration of Marley’s life. The reader gets snapshots of young Robert in the rural hills of Nine Mile in St. Ann parish to the bustling life and crippling poverty of Trenchtown to the concert stage.
Lawrence Hill’s sweeping saga told through the life of Aminata Diallo’s journey through continental Africa, the United States, Canada, and then Europe. Aminata is a woman before her time— literate, poised, strong-willed, and reflective— she restores the dignity of Black woman in the often brutal slave narrative. Also adapted to film.
3) Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged by Jody Nyasha-Warner, illustrated by Richard Rudnicki (Groundwood Books, 2010)
Memorialized on a Canada Post stamp in 2012, and most recently in a HistoricaCanada Heritage minute in February 2016, the story of Viola Desmond determination in standing up for justice will not be forgotten. With Warner’s colloquial narration, the illustrations vibrantly depict Nova Scotia in the 1950s setting the stage for an important moment in Canada’s Civil Rights History.
This book is a staple in postcolonial literature classes (I know it was for me). It gives one the sense of what exactly happened in the conflict between European colonialism and traditional Nigeria.
5) Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis (Scholastics, 2008)
I don’t know how he does it but author Curtis manages to tell about the post-traumatic stress, recapture, and abuse and still get some laughs in. Through the eyes of a sensitive eleven-year old Elijah, the first free-born negro in Buxton, Ontario readers are introduced to one of Canada’s first communities of fugitive slaves and free people.
Mathis follows the individual lives of Hattie’s and the her twelve children as she leaves rural Georgia for life in Philadelphia during the Great Migration. Each of her children’s dilemmas and discoveries parallel Hattie’s own marital journey through loss, disappointment, and acceptance.
7) Sankofa Series by various authors (Rubicon Publishing, 2015)
Aimed at Grade 4 to 8 students, the fifteen-book Sankofa series offers engaging texts, illustrations, and photos about the culture, history, and accomplishments of Black people in Canada and the African diaspora. It is multi-genre so you can read film reviews, interviews, career profiles, poetry, songs, advice columns, and stories all while learning about such topics as music, media, science and technology, and African civilizations. An American version of the series is coming soon.
Although this novel was written in 1937, it is timeless in its portrayal of racism, classism, and shadeism. Hurston’s heroine is Janie Crawford, a woman in search of love and thoughtful and Eatonville, one of Florida’s oldest settlements of post-slavery Blacks. Also adapted to film.
9) A Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004)
In the 1940s to the 1970s, thousands of Jamaicans left their small island home, boarded the Windrush, and sailed to another small island—England. Through the points of view of Jamaican and British characters, Levy a chapter in history replete with discrimination, culture shock, and disappointment, despite these two nations interdependency. Also adapted to film.
After being the first Jamaican-born winner of the Booker Prize, Marlon James star continues to rise. Told through a cast of characters, including authentic thick patois spoken by some, The History of Seven Killings is set in Jamaica during the 1970s the Bob Marley’s assassination attempt and celebrates Jamaican patois in its language. I am still reading this novel of 700 pages.
11) Half of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie (Knopf/Anchor, 2006)
This is a story of two sisters, Olanna and Kainene against the backdrop of ethnic tensions in the Nigerian civil war, also known as The Biafran War. This is also the story of families, religion, traditions, colonial relationships, marriage, and loyalty. A nice read and film adaptation that I need to see.
Through the history of African-American jazz music in Nazi-occupied France and Germany, Esi Edugyan has penned a masterpiece while in her thirties. The narration is clever, her research detailed, her characters realistic enough to cause me to Google them, and the commitment to jazz strong. A book that needs a film.
Nadia L. Hohn is an author and teacher. Her first two books Music and Media in the Sankofa Black Heritage Collection is published by Rubicon Publishing series launch this month. Her first picture book, Malaika’s Costume, will be published by Groundwood Books in March. For more information visit www.nadiahohn.com.