Almost from the beginning of its destruction, commencing in 1964, the 150-year-old African–Nova Scotian (Africadian) community of Africville became the go-to site for must-read journalistic interviews, editorial commentary, and sociological study. It became the de rigueur way for Canadians to discuss the ongoing civil rights movement in the United States while deploring an “obvious” example of segregation in a “backward” province. (See, for instance, Guy Henson’s 1962 booklet, The Condition of the Negroes of Halifax City, Nova Scotia, and the 1974 academic masterpiece Africville: The Life and Death of a Canadian Black Community, by Donald Clairmont and Dennis Magill.) Then, within five years of the forcing out of the last-ditch, last-stand, Africville bitter-ender, in 1970, the African American immigrant Frederick Ward published Riverlisp: Black Memories, his 1974 novel infused (allegedly) with the wistful, nostalgic, bluesy voices of former residents, now ensconced in Haligonian public housing that they resented, while yearning tearfully for the seaside space that the once-homeowners had so enjoyed. Yet Riverlisp had more to do with Ward’s recollections of his own childhood in Kansas City, Missouri, than it did with the recollections of ex-Africvillers. Still, the first “Africville novel” set the elegiac mould (mode) for countless poems, songs, documentaries, histories, studies, and novels, including Jeffrey Colvin’s first novel, Africville.
Colvin happens to be, like Ward, African American, and, also like Ward, he presents us with an Africville that is more fanciful than fact based, so that the book’s title is fairly superficial —or superfluous. Here Africville is known as Woods Bluff and influential community members are Jamaican (two facets of Colvin’s imagining that do not align with the historical hamlet at all). Strategically, Colvin warns us — but not until his afterword — that he has fictionalized “many of the characters, place names, and incidents from the village of Africville.” His story, he tells us, serves as a mere “companion” to the plethora of more or less realistic narratives.
So what is Colvin’s Africville — in terms of place, people, and plot? Where does he deign to visit?
Well, this place is — like the historic Africville — a seaside district of the City of Halifax, though considered a warren apart, so that residents pay taxes but never receive public utilities, neither water nor sewer. The citizens should feel beleaguered, and they do.
As Colvin’s tale opens, the Halifax Explosion of December 6, 1917, has just occurred, and Woods Bluff babes are stricken by a malady that’s curable by neither spell nor medicine. Exceptionally, however, the girl who will become the progenitrix of our saga, Kath Ella Sebolt, survives the killing fever, thanks to the black magic of folk-crafted dolls, and, some fifteen years on, becomes the love interest of Omar Platt.
Early in the novel, then, we meet characters who live in Woods Bluff — not yet Africville (in Colvin’s conception) — and who possess surnames utterly alien to the actual hamlet, which may have more to do with signalling a creative writing MFA’s appreciation for W. G. Sebald (or so I speculate). In any event, consistent with the established pattern, Kath Ella’s best friend, Kiendra Penncampbell, also bears a surname that likely never graced an Africville tombstone.
Yet tombstones rather than chapter divisions should mark this novel. As Kath Ella quits herself of her virginity and only later of her naiveté, best friend Kiendra dies. Next, soon after sweating all over a delighted Kath Ella, Omar dies. Avoiding a troublesome future as an unwed mother, Kath Ella removes to Montreal, marries a Québécois, Timothee Peletier (a deliberately errant spelling for “Pelletier”), and gives birth to Omar’s son, Etienne.
Fast-forward a decade or so, and Etienne is a schoolboy at a Quebec boarding school when he learns that his mother, one Kath Ella, has died. Suddenly a young man, Etienne removes to Alabama and finds that he passes nattily for white. Married, with his own son, he wishes to reach out to Timothee’s parents, but he arrives back in Canada only after his grandmother Claire has died, “several hours earlier.” With his father already dead some years before, Etienne himself soon expires, in 1984. His son, Warner, now takes centre stage, so that the last third of the novel narrates his search for roots and belonging, a quest that brings him to Canada and to Africville — or, rather, its spectral afterlife: the photo albums and recollections of the relocation survivors, now pepper-shakered across the city.
It’s his great-aunt Luela who tells Warner of his “Almost Gone”— deceased relatives who live on in memory until the deaths of the last people who knew them well. Mainly interested in his father and patrilineal grandmother and grandfather, Warner looks up the 1968 news stories detailing the demolition. In this sidereal account, Africville is itself one of the “Almost Gone,” but survivors recall and journalists report:
By the end of the following week, however, three houses had been abandoned in New Jamaica. The following Tuesday Luela was awakened at three in the morning by a rumble so loud she thought a battalion of military tanks was invading the bluff. The next morning, eight bulldozers sat in the yard of one of the abandoned houses. Four had huge hydraulic arms and gaping metal jaws that seemed capable of chewing up anything in their way.
It may seem churlish to point out that there was no such neighbourhood as “New Jamaica” in the real Africville; however, it is notable that Colvin’s strongest writing in the novel is his recapitulation of the hamlet’s razing:
The evening Luela returned home to find her house desecrated, she was unable to leave the porch for several minutes. . . . She entered the house hearing noises — the memory of her father George whistling in the back room, of Shirley washing Kath’s hair on the back porch. Having let go of her desire to have a child, Luela felt this house — the Sebolt home — was her legacy.
But despite her efforts — and those of other Woods Bluff people — the homes are knocked down, one by one, the church splintered to smithereens, the Sebolt cemetery itself slated for removal. Warner excavates a history of alienation and dispossession. But not to worry.
In the wake of Lawrence Hill’s 2007 novel, The Book of Negroes, and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident, from 1981, Colvin is likely correct to close his gift-to-morticians novel (Warner’s baby dies as we reach the conclusion, and a new matriarch, Zera, is seen studying a casket for herself) with a “happy” ending that sees nothing essential really change. Some family remains will get buried in the precincts of a vanished community, with or without official permission. This conclusion seems to enact an unsatisfying blend of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, from 1977, and George Boyd’s 1999 Africville play, Consecrated Ground.
Lookit: Jeffrey Colvin can write. Jeffrey Colvin has talent. And Jeffrey Colvin will dazzle future reviewers, I’m sure. But he might have taken a page from one of his own characters and sounded his relationship with himself and his own roots before presuming blithely that he could do so for a recherché but imaginary Africville and its residents, who are almost always discards — cast-offs — before they even have a chance to be blueprints.