Perhaps because our country’s misdeeds were routinely overshadowed by the epic injustice of long-term slavery south of our border, Canadians tend to have a somewhat white-washed vision of our heritage. But according to international renowned author Lawrence Hill, we have no reason to feel superior to our American neighbours.
“When I toured The Book of Negroes, often I met with stupefaction because Canadians just didn’t know about this history,” said Hill, who will be delivering a lecture at Nelson’s Mary Hall, located at the Tenth Street campus of Selkirk College on Friday, Nov. 7.
“Canadians were more likely to know something about Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King or the U.S. Civil War than they were to know about the history of slavery in our own country. I think we battle up against this notion in Canadian that we’re somehow morally superior to the Americans, which is a dangerous way to think because it prevents us from really knowing who we are.”
Hill’s latest book Blood: The Stuff of Life tackles some of these gaps in our historical knowledge head-on, and encourages Canadians to think critically about our past.
“If you truly explore our histories, Canada’s history is just as sordid and painful and full of oppression as American history,” he said.
Recently, Hill drew from the book to deliver a series of lectures across Canada that were broadcast on the CBC. His Nelson lecture will explore the physical, social, cultural and psychological aspects of blood.
“It’s about all the different ways we see our blood,” said Hill. “The way we imagine our blood, I believe, feeds profoundly into the sense of who we are and how we see ourselves.”
The son of American immigrants—a black father and a white mother—Hill comes from multiple generations of ordained ministers of the African Episcopal Church. His mother, originally from a Republican family in Oak Park, Illinois, went on to become a civil rights activist.
Now the author of nine books of fiction and non-fiction, Hill won his first honour for an article published in the Walrus titled “Is Africa’s Pain Black America’s Burden?”, which won a National Magazine Award.
Hill hopes to encourage Canadians to acknowledge their historical culpability.
“Americans don’t shy away from their slave history, but we do in Canada. I think we have a tendency to bury our heads in the sand about who we are and where we’ve been. This is one of the reasons why I wrote The book of Negroes, to shatter that and bring to light another story.”
That 2007 novel was a runaway critical success, winning the Commonwealth Prize for Best Book and landing him a private audience with Queen Elizabeth II. These achievements vaulted the former Globe and Mail journalist into the international spotlight.
The Book of Negroes is based on the life journey of 11-year-old Aminata Diallo, who was abducted from her village in West Africa and enslaved in South Carolina. Years later she forged her way to freedom by serving with the British in the Revolutionary War.
The narrative sweeps her from Halifax to the jungles of Sierre Leone and finally to freedom in England.
Recently it was announced that CBC will develop The Book of Negroes into a six-part miniseries starring Louis Gosset Jr. and Cuba Gooding Jr.
“It was a huge departure,” Hill said of the adaptation process. “Half the reason you write novels is so you don’t have to collaborate with other people. You can sit in your pyjamas and work alone at home. It was rare for me to work in that medium because suddenly I was working in a group of people and not making all the calls. I quite enjoyed it.”
Hill attended the University of British Columbia and last visited Nelson in the 1970s, when he visited as a student. He said he’s thrilled to be bringing his talk to the Kootenays.
Tickets for the reading, put on by the Mir Centre for Peace, are $16 for adults and $13 for students and seniors. Tickets are available at Otter Books, Selkirk’s Castlegar bookstore or by calling 250-365-1281.