View blacks as settlers, not refugees, says Clarke

28th African Heritage Month gets jump start

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George Elliot Clarke’s series brings “romance, rhythm, and rhyme” to high school students throughout the province and to Acadia students Friday, Feb. 3. (Photo: Matthias Brennan)

Poet, playwright and professor George Elliot Clarke tried to reframe the historical narrative about black refugees in Nova Scotia last night.

Clarke expressed some irony in his talk at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. He sees the term "refugee" as a misnomer. He said the word refugee "conjures up the image of people running."

Instead, Clarke promotes thinking of refugees as being settlers, founders and builders.

Between 1812 and 1815, 2,000 African-Americans were brought on British ships to the docks of Nova Scotia, the British Empire's nearest colony. African Americans boarded ships along the Eastern United States' coast, but they weren't acting upon their own agency.

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El Jones is inspired by the experiences of black refugees to Nova Scotia following the War of 1812. She also speaks about current political circumstance. (646 KB clip)

Even after arriving on Nova Scotia shores, Clarke believes the refugees' freedoms weren't obtained. The refugees weren't given reliable land. Instead, they were given plots of land one-tenth the size whites owned.

"In order to survive, you gotta' have land," Clarke rumbled. The little land they were given was swampy, rocky and unforgiving. So, after petitioning for more land, they got more, but it was still infertile.

Last night's presentation on the history of black refugees to Nova Scotia from the War of 1812 helped kick start February as African Heritage Month. Clarke is a Governor General's Literary Award recipient, who first began writing at age 15. Now he teaches English at the University of Toronto

In the midst of Clarke's pacing step, he stopped in his presentation to make his main point.

This new land was pivotal for the black community. Though their land wasn't farmable, it still offered space for churches and building

"The existence of churches was a statement of the refugees' work and a testament of their faith."

"The development in their community reflected their hard work as founders, their sense of ownership allowed them to grasp at a root," said Clarke.

Clarke's passion shows he believes there's a unique African Nova Scotian history that all people need to know about.

The event also got the ball rolling for a series of presentations Clarke is giving throughout Nova Scotia. Clarke spoke to a theatre full of students at Citadel High School this morning. After the event, several students approached Clarke to express their appreciation for writing.

The "Africadian" historian uses impersonations and brings life to storytelling. He was joined by another wordsmith, El Jones. Jones is a university professor at the Nova Scotia Community College and luckily for the ears of her students, she's also a poetry slam champion. It's been five years since Jones found her voice through spoken word.

Clarke will be speaking to students throughout the province about the history of black "refugees" who came to Nova Scotia from the War of 1812.

Event kick-starts African Heritage Month

African Heritage Month is hosted by Halifax Public Libraries, the Black History Month Association and the Black Cultural Society. It used to be only a week long in its first year, 1984. Libraries throughout Halifax are planning on more than 25 programs. February's first day began with the Viola Desmond Canada Post stamp unveiling, and Clarke and Jones' presentation last night.

For the next month, expect drummers to resonate, dancers to reflect, filmers to capture, musicians to speak, and speakers to sing. George Elliot Clarke and El Jones were up front again Thursday night at the North Branch library. Clarke will talk to high school students at Cole Harbour High and university students at Acadia University on Feb. 3.

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