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I am the product of two people who are not the same race and I was born in Canada. I have always enjoyed being able to have two heritages to get into (plus being a very proud Canadian) and have benefited greatly from being able to fit into most cultures but looking so racially ambiguous that many just see what they want to see.

I have been asked if I was (even in part) from India, Jewish, French, Native, Métis, Cree, Italian, Greek, Chinese, Persian, Serbian, Brazilian, Sicilian, Ukrainian, Slovenian, Croatian, Part-Haitian (during my Montreal days), Russian, Maltese, Japanese, Turkish and I had one person (who is now a really good friend) adamantly insist I was Portuguese which I am not and which she refused to believe for some time despite my protests to the contrary. I am actually none of these, really! Luckily for me my “look” has helped me blend into many situations and groups and has been a boon to navigating a bunch of social settings. My friendly personality doesn’t hurt either (although I often wonder if I am so friendly because I have been able to interact with so many different individuals….anyhoo psychological discourse on my affability can be saved for some other time or, like, never!)

I grew up in a very blended neighbourhood in a very cosmopolitan city. I attend public schools and my mother worked for the Federal Minister to Multiculturalism and Citizenship for a long while so my sister and I, as children, were exposed to more diversity than most people might be in a lifetime but I don’t think it was only this that helped shape my views on racial, ethnic and even socio-economic differences. I also credit my parents and their attitude towards these issues. They didn’t shy away from discussing differences and often explained why people found themselves in the situations they were in but made sure we understood that this wasn’t the determining factor of who a person was.

We were fortunate in many ways but even still my sister and I, and to various degrees, had difficulties in accepting our uniqueness. Suffice to say I have always known that some people are treated differently because of their race and it’s always made me sad.

As I’ve gotten older (saying I’m grown up means I am giving in ) I’ve come to realize that it is essential for us to talk about our differences with our kids and help them understand the ways of the world.

That was exactly why I was so thrilled when I opened up my ARC package from Groundwood Books and saw Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged! by Jody Nyasha Warner and illustrated by Richard Rudnicki (ISBN: 9780888997791, Groundwood Books, 2010) staring back at me. I was ecstatic for three main reasons:

  1. The books looked gorgeous and compelling with Viola Desmond’s piercing eyes on the cover
  2. I don’t think there is nearly enough Canadian Children’s’ Books that focus on the experience of African Canadians and I was happy to see a new book on the subject
  3. This book will give parents/educators the window to begin a discussion on race (which is super important in addressing racial attitudes.)


(Cover Image Copyright@2010 Richard Rudnicki)

You see, since I read Nutureshock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman ( 2010) and discovered how many of the modern philosophies on nurturing children are actually backfiring and creating the opposite effect of what they intend to. Really, this is a fascinating book and whether you agree or disagree with the perspectives posited by Bronson and Merryman, rest assured this book will cause you to re-evaluate the way you parent and/or educated kids (and their arguments are so thoroughly researched and thought-out you’ll be hard-pressed not to agree with most if not all of it.)

Perhaps from my own personal experience I was intrigued by research that indicated that despite a large push for assimilation and infusion of races and cultures, many students both white and black still feel less favourably towards people of colour, even if they are part of that visible minority group. Shocking right? I mean we all try so very hard to not appear as if race bothers us in the least and try extremely hard in front of our kids not to show the slightest difference whether we are interacting with a white, black, brown, Asian or any other race/culture/ethnicity which is precisely the problem.

In (very) short: studies have shown that because parents refuse to talk about race, or culture, language or even economic class with their kids, these factors are actually given more credence by kids because they have to formulate their own conclusions about the world around them and kids are smart! They start to make observations about why certain people live or work in certain places, images they see in the media and on the playground and can plainly see what all of us well-meaning adults desperately try to ignore: we are already segregated.

The best way to battle this bias is to have frank, open discussions with children about why some people are in lower income and less desirable areas or jobs and teach history as a way of understanding complex racial relationships. This brings me back to Viola Desmond and this glorious book about her…

Many Canadians haven’t even heard of this woman who took a stand and forced Canadians to recognize that there was a race issue in Canada. Desmond is our Rosa Parks and on a day in 1946 refused to move from her main floor seat in a movie theatre to the balcony where all other black people were forced to sit. She graciously held her ground even after she was forcibly removed from the cinema, jailed, fined and released for what was claimed was the refusal to pay the one cent difference in ticket price between the main floor and balcony.

Desmond was born in Halifax and was a business woman and a well-respected citizen in the local black community in Nova Scotia and made her stand many years before the famous Rosa Parks refused to vacate her seat on that Alabama bus and became a symbol of the civil-rights movement in the US at the time. Desmond was our unsung and little-talked about hero –I am so glad that Warner has brought her story to life!

I love the way this book reads more like an oral story and the story’s simple text makes this an engaging read for many age groups. The colourful illustrations evoke the beauty of Desmond, the passion of a people and the character of the Maritimes in each image. This is a must-have text for all school and community libraries and for anyone interested in learning more about the experiences and stories of the black people who helped shape this nation. At the end of this tale is an in-depth one-page summary of African Canadian History from which I gained so much information and generated so much interest I think I need to have to go and learn more about this part of Canadian history (sadly not much taught in our schools.)

I also love that this is a story of a courageous, smart and beautiful woman who stood up for what she believed was right –a worthy message to the girls of today!

Warner is a writer, editor and former librarian (she has participated a great deal in increasing non-white content in North American libraries). This is why this, her first children’s book, does not feel like a first book at all. She has managed to tell Desmond’s story in such a wonderful way. The story is very engaging, interactive and evokes strong emotions. That’s quite a lot for 32 picture book pages!

She currently lives in Toronto with her partner and two children and we hope to see more of her work in the near future.

As a Martimer, it’s no wonder Rudnicki captures the place he calls home, Nova Scotia so well even if it’s over 60 years ago (that’s not a long time ago -just think there are some of us who can clearly remember the days of overt racial segregation!) I also love how he captured the strength, courage and beauty of Desmond in every image. He is also an award-winning illustrator of several children’s books and is also a teacher of figure drawing and portraiture.

I wish either of them had a website I could refer to….I’m sure like me you would love to learn more about them and their work (hint hint –nudge nudge!)

Here is a real picture of Viola Desmond, a brazen and bold Canadian woman I now won’t certainly forget:

(Image graciously borrowed from womenofcolour.com)

Shocking that I had never heard of her before –are you shocked too! Time to get this lady known!

Good night!

SM

 

6 Responses to “Why you don’t know who Viola Desmond is…Prepare to be shocked!”

  1. Emmet says:

    That sounds fascinating. I have been interested in learning more about Canada’s mixed heritage cultures, ever since I first learned about Louis Riel.

    Onto my list it goes :)

    • Hi Emmet,
      Despite some of the prevailling thoughts, Canadians have an interesting history filled with very more facinating characters inlcuding Viola Desmond and of course Louis Riel! Thanks so much for your comment!
      Cheers,
      Stacey

  2. Thanks for the great review! My Mom used to day it takes all kinds to make the world go ’round — a simple message, but so true — and my Dad taught me to have a soft spot for the underdog. It was an honour and a pleasure to illustrate this book — and to learn more about this true, Canadian story and this amazing woman, Viola Desmond. Not everyone was racist in those days, but enough were so that it was tolerated by many who were not. We have to watch that social pressure doesn’t influence our own behaviour. BTW, my website is http://www.richardrudnicki.com

  3. Tansy says:

    Great review of a great book!
    The sort of thing that should be required reading in schools…

    You can see Richard’s website at :
    http://www.chebucto.ns.ca/Culture/Richardrudnicki/mystudio/default.htm

  4. Hi Richard,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to comment! You make an excellent point about social pressure, that’s why it’s always so important to clearly define one’s own morals and values and try to live as close to those!

    This is a beautiful book! Thanks for sharing your comments and site!

    Let me know if you have any upcoming kids’ books or events for this book in the near future!

    Best,
    Stacey

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