When I first read The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, I was enthralled by his writing and storytelling, moved by the sorrow, hope and strength of the story characters, and appalled by my lack of knowledge about slavery and Black history in Canada. Now a television mini-series, The Book of Negroes may be opening the eyes of viewers who, like me, need to know more about our growth as a nation with and because of people of colour.
Hill’s fictional story refers to the historical Book of Negroes of which three copies exist worldwide – one in England, one in United States, and one in Canada. In 1783, when it was written, thousands of African-American slaves in the United States wanted to see their name inked between its covers. If their names were handwritten into this book they knew Britain would offer them safe passage from New York to Nova Scotia as freed slaves. Interestingly, white Loyalists also escaped to Canada, some with Black slaves of their own.
The courage and resilience of Black people during this period of history is humbling and an inspiration. It is one reason behind declaring February Black History Month in Canada.
Black History Month draws attention to Canada’s need to teach history differently and to nurture children’s awareness and appreciation of Black people long before they learn about slavery or the names of Black leaders in school. Books for children that include positive images of Black people and culture affirm to all of us that Canadian society is only complete when it celebrates its children of colour.
Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Children by Sandra Pinkney is an engaging board book filled with photographs of children’s faces. Each face is compared to the colour of a tasty food children typically enjoy.
Whose Knees are These? and Whose Toes are Those? by Jabari Asim are board books written in playful rhyme about babies’ brown knees and toes.
Peekaboo Morning by Rachel Isadora is a delightful board book featuring a toddler playing peek-a-boo with the people, animals, stars and more that he sees in his world first thing in the morning.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, popular ever since winning the Caldecott Medal in 1963, expresses the heart and wonder of a small Black boy who plays in the snow after a snowstorm. He has so much fun in the snow that he decides to bring snowballs indoors to play with later. The snowballs, however, mysteriously disappear from his coat pockets.
Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o is the story of a young girl who, because of her dark skin, struggles to make friends at school. Sulwe tries clever strategies to change the colour of her skin – all to no avail. Then a mythical adventure with Night and Day changes everything, and Sulwe begins to see her own beauty and a sense of belonging.
Black History Month prompts us not only to select books and stories that include Black children, families, and communities in the illustrations, but to also engage children every month of the year in conversations that hold up the talents, resilience, perspectives, and contributions of people of colour.
Within each new generation, we as parents, grandparents, caregivers, and educators, have unparalleled opportunities to grow awareness, recognition, and gratitude for cultural diversity in our communities and in our world.