Interview: Racial Conflicts Follow Black Family for Generations

March 1, 2020
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An exclusive Authorlink interview by Diane Slocum

Africaville

Jeffrey Colvin

Amistad

Kath Ella grew up in a black community on a rocky bluff in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in the early 1900s.  It is a tightly-knit community settled by families going back to the 1700s, whose ancestors ranged from American slaves to Jamaican rebels. Kath, somewhat of a rebel herself, breaks away from the community by going to college and marrying a white man. Her son, Etienne, strays even farther from his heritage and it takes his son, Warner, to circle back to his roots.

AUTHORLINK: Where did you first get the idea for this story?

COLVIN: Africaville grew out of a series of short stories I began in the late 1990s. These stories were set in rural Alabama along the route from Selma to Montgomery taken by protesters during the 1965 march for voters’ rights.  Many people are familiar with the leaders of the marches such as Martin Luther King, but I was interested in the lives of the black residents in the rural communities along the route. I wondered how the communities were formed. Had any of the residents participated in the marches? If so why? In not, why not? I have a connection to such communities since my grandmother raised a family in a small all-black rural town in Alabama. During the early 1980s I came home on a leave from the Marine Corps to find that my grandmother had moved away from her former town and that the last houses in the community had been torn down. The short stories I wrote were inspired by stories my grandmother and her former neighbors told about their former community.

These stories became part of a larger narrative in 2001 after I read an article in the New York Times about a black community called Africville (stet) that once existed on the northern edge of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Africville was formed in the late 1700s and existed until the late 1960s when over the objection of residents, the city of Halifax forced residents out of their homes and razed the houses, churches and other structures in the community.

“During my research, I realized that many of the stories told by residents of Africville about their community were similar to stories told by my grandmother…”

During my research, I realized that many of the stories told by residents of Africville about their community were similar to stories told by my grandmother and her former neighbors, stories with interesting characters, stories of successes but also stories about the lack of opportunity due to the community’s strained relationship with the larger white community. I soon realized that a story based loosely on the history of Africville could be the focus of a compelling novel. I decided to use the story of three generations of one family to connect Africville to former communities in the south to tell a larger story about loss, family, and community.

AUTHORLINK: What did you do to research this story and how long did it take you?

COLVIN: In 2001, I began researching Africville captivated by the events that transpired during the protracted fight by the residents to oppose the town’s destruction. I read many articles and books and watched documentary films. I also made several visits to Halifax to speak to former residents and their descendants and to get a feel for the city of Halifax. I also researched the history of blacks in other parts of Canada and general Canadian history. By the mid-2000s I had a general outline of the narrative, so further research was guided by questions that arose as I revised. Some historical details made their way into the novel. Others became the bases for fictional ideas and, of course, much was discarded. At about the fifteen-year mark, I stopped doing research. By then I had been writing short fiction for over a decade, so I felt comfortable believing in the narrative and following the story as it developed, even if it meant straying from historical accuracy. It is, after all, fiction!

AUTHORLINK: How much of the story of Africaville is historic? Did you use actual events, locations or characters? Or were these fictional but developed from historic situations?

COLVIN: Africaville is not a strict retelling of the story of the Nova Scotia community of Africville, but an exploration of the themes of struggle, loss, and family that are part of its legacy. I’ve kept some of the basic details of the geography, names of towns, weather and such, and some local details such as street names. But most other details are fiction. This is also true for the parts of the novel set in Montreal, Vermont and Alabama.

“I am sad that the stories of so many of these once strong black communities have been lost.”

Having grown up in the segregated south where I witnessed the demise of many black communities, I felt a connection to the stories about Africville. I am sad that the stories of so many of these once strong black communities have been lost. I decided to write fiction, but I hope the actual stories of the Canadian community of Africville will continue to be told by those who know the community well.

AUTHORLINK: When you were following Kath Ella’s story, why did you skip important events to move the story ahead about 15 years? Since you were writing about main characters from three generations, did you have to cut much from your original drafts or do other significant revisions?

COLVIN: There were many cuts to the manuscript over the years. Several major subplots were cut or condensed as was the story of a fourth generation. However, the gap in time between when Kath Ella gives birth to her son during her college years, and when she returns to her community with him as a teenager was written early in the writing process. Certainly, many incidents happened to Kath Ella during the period of her life which was skipped, and some of the incidents were dealt with as flashbacks later in the story. More importantly, not all incidents that happen to a character are important to the story. And for my novel, none of the events that happen to Kath Ella during the sixteen-year gap of her story rose to the level of her estrangement from members of her community. Where was she during the period? Why had she been gone so long? Why had she never brought her son to the community into which he had been born? These were important questions that the reader would ask. I thought it would be interesting if the reader learns the answers to these questions at the same time members of the community do.

AUTHORLINK: Why did passing become an important part of your story?

COLVIN: Early in the process of writing this multigenerational story, I knew what forces might move members of the Sebolt family toward cherishing the town where their ancestors lived including its unique history and the continued efforts by its former residents to keep the town’s memory alive. But I struggled with the question of what forces would pull them away from a connection to Africaville. Kath Ella’s estrangement from her community begins when she moves with her son, Etienne to Montreal. Etienne later moves to Vermont and then to Alabama where his son, Warner, grows up. Etienne becomes further estranged from the community through his ability to pass for white. Creating him also allowed me to explore how a decision to pass for white affects a character. What might lead a person to this decision? Under what emotional toil might they struggle after the decision has been made? As a teenager living in Montreal, Etienne struggles to accept his blackness while having his blackness questioned by some of his school mates. He arrives in the United States believing that presenting himself as white could offer more opportunities than presenting himself as black. His struggle after deciding to pass is an internal one that strains his interactions with his wife, his son, his work colleagues, and the residents of the rural Alabama community where he settles.

Etienne’s son Warner learns as an adult that he has a black grandmother who was raised in a community in Halifax. He wants to connect with former residents of Africaville, but they are hesitant to accept him given his father’s previous estrangement from the community. The decisions Etienne and Warner make about whether to pass for white demonstrate the powerful way our identity can complicate our lives. They also reveal that many of the internal and external struggles characters have around their racial identity can exist whether the character is living in what is thought of as the liberal and progressive north, including Canada, or the conservative south.

AUTHORLINK: What do you hope your novel will give people besides an enjoyable story?

“I wrote Africaville feeling a strong connection between the southern rural communities I had been writing about…”

COLVIN: I wrote Africaville feeling a strong connection between the southern rural communities I had been writing about, and the community I came to know in Nova Scotia. I believe many readers can connect to the notion that although we may lose physical connections to our families and the communities we grew up in, powerful emotional connections remain.  I also hope readers appreciate the novel’s exploration of the larger themes of immigration, race, identity and loss.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

COLVIN: I am working on another historical novel also with connections to the American South. As with any new undertaking, you never know how it will pan out. But I am excited about the work so far!

About the author: Jeffrey Colvin graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, Harvard University and has an MFA in fiction from Columbia University. He has appeared in numerous publications including Hot Metal Bridge and Rain Taxi Review. He is an assistant editor at Narrative and was a Paul Cuffee Scholar at the Cuttyhunk Island Writers’ Residency. He lives in New York City.

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This post was written by Diane Slocum

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