Jeffrey Colvin’s absorbing debut, Africaville, follows three generations of the Sebolt family, from 1930s Africaville, an historically Black community in Nova Scotia, to the politically tumultuous American Deep South of the 1980s. This beautiful novel is, on the one hand, a family saga filled with hardship and triumph, but as we watch each generation move farther away from home, the book also becomes a moving portrait of a town destroyed by oppression and neglect.
In this interview, Colvin discusses what inspired his novel, the concept of “home,” and why Africaville is resonating so strongly with readers today.
Let’s start with the fictional town of Africaville. Is it based on a real place?
Africaville began as a series of short stories written in the late 1990s. These stories were set in a rural black community in central Alabama like the one where my grandmother raised a family. After I graduated college, I came home to the news that my grandmother had moved out of the community, and the last houses there had been abandoned and torn down. Many of the stories told by my grandmother and her former neighbors about their former community were happy ones.
But there were also unhappy stories such as the lack of adequate resources for the small public school, and the difficulties the young men and women from the community encountered when they searched for jobs after the coal mines closed. I did not envision any of the stories I was writing as part of a larger narrative until I read an article in the New York Times in 2001 about a black community called Africville had once existed on the northern edge of Nova Scotia.
Formed in the late 1700s Africville first made headlines in the late 1960s when over the objection of the residents, the city of Halifax forced residents out of their homes and bulldozed the houses, churches and other structures in the community to make way for a bridge entrance and a city park. Reading the article, I was moved by how vociferously the residents had protested the destruction, and their decades long fight for restitution. With further research I began to see connections between the story of Africville and the rural communities I was writing about. There were stories of individual successes, and of strong family and community ties along with stories of struggles against racism and oppression. I was soon convinced that characters from a town like Africville could be the source of a very compelling novel.
The novel reads as essentially about the town of Africaville, but it also follows characters who leave the town for the larger world. Could you talk a bit about what you were exploring by having residents react to the world beyond Africaville–and how the world reacts to the residents?
Like many people outside of Canada, I first learned about the village of Africville in media accounts of the protracted protests the residents waged against the city of Halifax’s plan to demolish the community. However, it was soon obvious to me that this community’s protests were not just against the actions of a few bigoted city employees, but against entrenched racism, a problem that exists well beyond Halifax. Kath Ella Sebolt, the matriarch in my novel, due to the dearth of higher educational opportunities for blacks in Nova Scotia in the 1930s, accepts a scholarship to a women’s college in Montreal. Though she escapes her impoverished neighborhood she soon must confront the racism that exists beyond its borders. Despite experiencing isolation and bigotry as one of three black students enrolled at the college, she graduates and becomes a teacher.
Her son, Etienne 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 novel demonstrates that the oppression that inhibited the lives of residents of a small village outside Halifax beginning in the late 1700s was still adversely affecting the lives of their offspring centuries later and thousands of miles away.
Etienne passes as white. Could you talk about what you were exploring with this character? What do you hope readers take away from Etienne’s experience?
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.
As a teenager, Etienne struggles to accept his blackness while having his blackness questioned by some of his school mates. He later moves to Vermont and then to Alabama where his son, Warner, grows up. Creating him 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? The decisions Etienne–and his son Warner–make about whether to pass for white also demonstrate the powerful way our identity can complicate our lives. These decisions also reveal that the internal and external struggles characters have around their racial identity exist whether the character lives in what is thought of as the liberal and progressive north, including Canada, or the conservative south.
I’ve read elsewhere that you grew up in rural Alabama. Is this novel shaped by your childhood experience there?
I was born and began school in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I lived in and around this small college town until I left for college. I attended an all-black elementary school and despite segregation, during my childhood, I felt supported and valued. I was encouraged to wonder about places beyond my neighborhood and one question I remember asking is why neighborhoods in Alabama were segregated. If people were the same as I had been taught–why did blacks and whites live in separate communities? And I wanted to know why the houses, the schools, and the roads in black communities were of lesser quality than those in white communities. These early experiences helped shaped the type of stories I would tell as a writer—illuminating the effects of racism on individuals and communities.
Your novel is a multi-generational story. Could you discuss your characters’ feelings of connection to family and to “home”? Those seem like such important themes in this novel.
My research let me to numerous articles, films, and books about Africville. However, none of these sources deeply explored how the pull of a community like Africville could affect a family over several generations. In my novel, Africaville, Kath Ella Sebolt, the matriarch of the family, moves with her son, Etienne to Montreal. Etienne later moves to Vermont and then to Alabama where his son, Warner, grows up. I knew what might pull the second and third generation toward cherishing the town where their ancestors lived–its unique history, the continued efforts by former residents to keep the towns memory alive. But what elements would pull subsequent generations away from Africaville? For me this raised more complicated questions, the exploration of which is one of the elements that propels the novel.
Your novel has recently entered its second printing. Congratulations! Why do you think it’s resonating so strongly at the moment?
Africaville grew out of a story of resistance that made headlines nearly twenty years ago, however, many of the novel’s main events are relevant to resistance stories in the media today. The novel begins in 1918 with the community besieged by a mysterious illness. This opening was based on the early twentieth century outbreak of influenza, a malady which, like COVID-19, had no cure, and which had a devastating effect on black communities. Early in the novel, Kiendra Penncampbell, a young resident of the community is unjustly killed in an encounter with the police. Zera Platt, a black defendant in Mississippi is given a harsh treatment by the courts and serves an unjustly long prison sentence. And finally, Africville presents numerous protest–whether near Montgomery, Alabama or Halifax, Nova Scotia–against the racist treatment of black residents. Unfortunately, stories of members of the black communities protesting inadequate health care, police violence, and unfair treatment by the criminal justice system are headlines still with us today.
What’s next for you?
This fall I will be the Hodson Trust research fellow at Brown University where I will be conducting research on another historical novel. I’m excited about the writing so far.
By Jeffrey Colvin
Published December 1, 2020
Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.