Evelyn C. White The Afro News Salt Spring Island
With the blockbuster success of his book Roots (1976) and the subsequent television miniseries, author Alex Haley tapped into a deep longing among the descendants of enslaved blacks to claim ties with our African forebears. It was my understanding of this history that prompted me to burst into tears when I recently accessed my e-mail and found an image of a beaming man in Lesotho holding a copy of my book, Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone: A Photo Narrative of Black Heritage on Salt Spring Island (EGAG).
The book was opened to a page featuring a photo of the man’s daughter Tankiso, age 5, shortly after she’d arrived on Salt Spring last May to begin a new life with her adoptive family. I’m not privy to the circumstances that led to the separation of birth parent and child. But it was clear from the father’s radiant smile that his bond with his daughter now in Canada would endure.
For me, the arrival of the photo from Lesotho marked the culmination of a three-year journey I’d spent documenting the historical and contemporary presence of blacks on Salt Spring. Having toiled a decade on a biography of Alice Walker (best known for her novel The Color Purple), I had not intended to begin another major writing project when I moved to Salt Spring from the San Francisco Bay area. But one day, in 2006, I was standing in my living room when a cosmic voice exhorted me to write a book about the black heritage on Salt Spring.
Over the years, I’ve learned to honour the spiritual guidance that I believe is available to all who heed its call. And so, working with local photographer Joanne Bealy, I began the task of producing the first book to focus exclusively on Salt Spring’s 150-year black heritage and to examine its unique racial history through a 21st century lens. See www.dancingcrowpress.com
The ancestral home of the Coast Salish people, Salt Spring welcomed its first black settlers in 1859. Literate and highly accomplished, the free blacks had fled Northern California after the enactment of a series of racially repressive laws that threatened their hard-won freedom. Interestingly, the disaffected blacks in California were seeking refuge at the same time that B.C. provincial governor James Douglas (himself the son of a black woman born in Barbados) was in need of skilled labourers to support the boom town frenzy after gold was discovered along the Fraser River. A core group of the blacks that had first landed in Victoria later migrated to Salt Spring.
The early blacks on Salt Spring included the community’s first teacher, John Craven Jones. A college graduate trained in Greek and Latin, Jones taught the youth on Salt Spring (without pay) for several years. As one who was educated (K-9) by a coterie of dedicated black teachers, my research on Jones was especially uplifting. And who could look at a 1929 class photo from Salt Spring and not marvel at the ethnic diversity of the students?
The force behind Salt Spring’s first public recreation site, Jim Anderson was another early black pioneer. An archival photo finds him in the company of a black youth in a canoe. Here’s a reflection I was thrilled to include in EGAG: “Most people find it tiresome to have to sweep their back porch but Jim Anderson made a hobby of keeping his beach clean and he was down there every morning [with a broom]. This was [Anderson’s] little park and he delighted in having people … come down for picnics.”
The boy in the photo was a member of the Whims family, also among the black pioneers. Born on Salt Spring, octogenarian Bobby Wood is related, on his maternal side, to the Whims clan. A dapper gentleman with a quiet demeanor, Wood enjoys fishing and the Calgary Stampede.
Long attractive to retirees, Salt Spring is also awash with children. The youthful ranks include many children of African descent such as Calla Ann Amma Adubofour-Poko whose father is Ghanaian. Like Tankiso, Ethiopia-born Selamu and Dexter Patterson were adopted by white families on Salt Spring. “The story of the early African American settlers is deeply moving for us,” said Shauna Klem, who is pictured in EGAG with her sons. “ Everyone has embraced the boys so enthusiastically.”
Given Salt Spring’s status as one of the top artist colonies in North America, it was especially rewarding for me, as an author, to profile black artists on the island. Born in Kenya, Sav Boro is an acclaimed muralist and painter of wildlife and landscapes. The daughter of a Moroccan musician father and a teacher mother of French, Egyptian and Tunisian heritage, Yasmine Amal is a skilled potter who sells her wares at Salt Spring’s renowned Saturday Market.
As the world turns to B.C. because of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, I’m elated to have “answered the call” to create a book that celebrates the compelling black history of Canada. Photographer Joanne Bealy and I will sign and discuss Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone at 7 p.m. on Friday, February 5 at the Rhizome Café, 317 East Broadway in Vancouver. We’ll also do a presentation at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 24 at the central Vancouver Public Library, 350 West Georgia Street. Both events are free and open to the public.