Ray Fernandes Reviews a Celebration of African Nova Scotian Culture
“Mrs. Viola L. Parsons did a great thing in writing My Grandmother’s Days in 1987. She became one of the few Scotians—African-Nova Scotians or Africadians—to tell younger people how our culture developed and of what it once consisted.”
–George Elliott Clarke, forward to the 2020 edition
Viola Parsons’ book My Grandmother’s Days was originally published in 1988. Her account of being raised by her grandmother at her home in Lucasville, Nova Scotia, could be considered essential reading in helping to build a better understanding of the history of our province, and of the African Nova Scotian experience of the early 1900s.
Viola Parsons moved with her sister to Lucasville, just outside of Halifax, in 1929, a couple of years after the death of her parents, to live with her grandmother. She provides vivid and detailed descriptions of life on her grandmother’s farm, describing rural life and community. She recounts milking cows, making cream, churning butter, picking apples and berries, bailing hay, feeding and watering the cows and horses. Life was a series of activities following nature’s seasons.
She writes, “We learned to knit, sew, patch, darn and cook,” and dozens of other essential agricultural skills required to be self-sufficient. Despite the poverty of the time, the agricultural base of her home and community always put plenty of food on the table. These were her “happy days,” cherished years living with her grandmother.
“It was a close-knit family, caring and sharing,” she writes. “Grandmother was a loving, kind and a hard worker. She was the mother of thirteen. Now she was taking on the responsibility of mothering her grandchildren. God had blessed and spared her to take care of us until we were on our own.”
She learned the pride of home, devotion to family and respect for church and community. Her book chronicles the customary “Africadian lifestyle,” writes Nova Scotian poet George Elliott Clarke in the forward to this new edition, published by the Delmore “Buddy” Daye Learning Institute. It describes a time when many African Nova Scotians lived in multi-generational self-built homes with small farms or gardens and animals on small, rural plots around a church. They relied on community, creativity, resourcefulness and faith in God.
It is hard not to be charmed by Viola Parsons’ downhome sensibilities and her warm and relaxed writing. To read her words is like sitting down in your grandmother’s home with a cup of tea, as she recounts stories about the beauty and simplicity of the old days. In so many ways that life was hard, but you can’t help but long for that innocence and simplicity.
Few copies of the original edition of the book exist in schools and public libraries in Nova Scotia. It was released at a time when there were few books being published by African Nova Scotian or BIPOC writers, a trend that continues to this day.
The book holds special significance during this time of pandemic, as people are forced to remain close to home, and the meaning of community, family, thrift and self-reliance take on new value. There seems to be a newfound love of the old ways and a focus on re-learning traditional skills like sewing, gardening, carpentry or cooking from scratch.
In his forward, George Elliot Clarke highlights that racism is not mentioned, that “one must read between the lines” to get a sense of the discrimination that existed. This sentiment is especially important in the face of Black Lives Matters’ struggles against police brutality and the erasure and invisibility of African Nova Scotian history.
As a “come from away” from Ontario, I did not learn in school, nor was I exposed to the history of African Nova Scotians, a history that goes back generations to the founding of this province. As an East-Indian kid growing up in the suburbs of Toronto in the 80s, racism and being told to “go back to your own country” was a daily part of life.
Arriving in Nova Scotia and learning African Nova Scotia history was inspiring and empowering, armour against a racist sentiment that had informed me for much of my life that my brown skin did not belong. I immediately felt an affinity and was grateful to the self-affirmation African Nova Scotia history provided.
Viola Parsons’ book chronicles an important part of African Nova Scotian history, but it is all our history; one of simplicity and survival, living off the land, our early rural life, that would appeal to both children and adults.
Ray Fernandes is a youth services librarian who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.