Online edition of Shunpiking
Published on Feb 2002
Culture & Life
a black woman’s life in Nova Scotia
By VERNA THOMAS
Nimbus Publishing Ltd., 2002
Reviewed by Janeen Keelan
This book is both the quiet autobiography of Verna Thomas and a shared history of the two communities to which she belongs – the predominantly white Mount Denson, where she was raised Verna States in a large, well-respected family of African, Irish and Native descent; and the predominantly black Preston, where she met and married John Thomas, raised seven children, and remains an active, invaluable community elder.
The story is told in the manner of the oral tradition in which political and private life, regional and family history, and ancient and firsthand knowledge are equal and inseperable. This makes the first part of the book, about Thomas’ childhood, a sometimes difficult read. Here, Mount Denson’s and the States’ family histories are told in a kaleidoscope of unselfconscious memory – a young girl’s muddy interpretation of adult affairs, the microcosmic geography of her sheltered youth, and the melting of events out of chronology and into category.
Relating a trip to Cherry Brook to visit an older sister at 14, Thomas exhibits a rare sense of herself as a subject, and a stirring of racial consciousness:
I was sitting on the steps watching the people coming and going, when for the first time I really took notice of the different shades of black people... Having seen a wild animal and not a single white person in this community reminded me of what I had learnt in school about Africa. A short section in our school text books about this beautiful continent left me with the idea that it consisted only of dark people and wild animals. I wrote a letter back home, telling my mother I was in Africa and asking her to please come and get me.
Thomas is not, of course, in Africa, but here she begins an eloquent, intricate, layered history of daily life in the Preston township, of black settlement in Nova Scotia and of the Anglo-European slave trade that, inevitably, leads us there.
While her account is punctuated by instances of racism both at a personal and an institutional level, Thomas refuses to take the victim’s position. When, as newlyweds, she and her husband were refused a mortgage with the bank of Nova Scotia, they simply withdrew their account. Moir’s candy factory refused to accept a job application from her on the basis of her colour – years later she makes note of this twice in her published work, and includes a picture of the factory. Even as some members of her own community display racism, calling her "high yellow" and "squaw", she holds herself up proud – she is a black woman in Nova Scotia with an unwavering belief in herself, in God, and in her people.
Vera Thomas remembers the Great Depression. She saw the creation of black schools in Nova Scotia and their formal desegregation. She witnessed the fall of Africville and has communed with those who experienced the Halifax explosion. Her life’s journey – what she calls her "journey of discovery" – is laid out in Invisible Shadows not only to share in a tradition in which "stories built the bonds of sentiment that kept black people together", but to bring that tradition of sharing and understanding to all Nova Scotians.
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