New York City writer Jeffrey Colvin’s debut novel is a multi-generational tale based on the eponymous Black community north of Halifax, which was settled by Jamaican prisoners the British expelled in 1788. These exiles were eventually joined by freed slaves from the U.S. and Black refugees. The government of Halifax denied the area utilities and city services, but the region eventually boasted a church and schoolhouse. These serve as communal centres for Colvin’s protagonist, Kath Ella, and her best friend, Kiendra.
A schoolgirl in 1933, Kath Ella becomes fascinated by the story of an 1822 ship that entered the Halifax harbour because Sierra Leone’s government agreed to accept the Jamaicans who had arrived decades earlier. Many of the Africville community’s residents were removed on this ship, with no word about whether they reached Sierra Leone or docked elsewhere. This severing of ancestral ties echoes throughout the story of Kath Ella and her descendants. Her children and grandchildren die off or marry into white families and leave the region. Africville, meanwhile, is ignored, neglected, and finally torn down in the 1960s.
Colvin follows Kath Ella’s descendants at an odd pace. While we spend a large portion of the novel’s first half watching Kath Ella grow up – at one point she witnesses the police violently attack Kiendra – we spend only 45 pages with Etienne, the son she has out of wedlock. Etienne’s biological father, Omar, has parents “who were light enough to pass for white.” The boy is accepted into Kath Ella’s family after she marries Timothée, a white man she meets as a teacher in Montreal. The rest of the novel centres on Warner, Etienne’s son with a white woman, who discovers that his paternal great-grandmother, Zera, has been in jail in Mississippi from the time of Omar’s birth.
Colvin’s plot clearly demarcates the complex nature of Blackness in North America and his characters actively question what it means to pass for white. But the emotional realities of their lives are overlooked. We’re told Zera regrets sending her son to Canada after being sentenced, but inconsistent attention is given to how this regret, accumulated over decades of life in prison, impacts her psyche. Similarly, Kath Ella’s marriage to Timothée takes up all of one paragraph in a 372-page novel, and little is made of the fact that in the 1930s interracial marriage was still very much illegal in the U.S. – a tension that would certainly have filtered up to Canada.
The absence of emotionally vivid prose makes it difficult to locate a felt sense of what the characters must endure, leaving Africville feeling more like a historical timeline than a literary representation of a Black Canadian community that resisted national attempts to deprive it of care and resources for close to two centuries.