Emma Cohen (1st place winner, $5000)
Words Travel Far

Waterloo Collegiate Institute, Waterloo, Ont.


It is humans, of course, who shape human history. In an ever-evolving world, we are thrust into life, and with this entrance come all the burdens of the past. The burdens for some are heavier than others, and this is well known by African Canadians. However, it lies within our power to determine how we will shape the future, and the contributions of countless African Canadians have seized that power with gusto and heart. African Canadian history is as rich and brutal as the African sun, racism and injustice seeping from the pores of the nation, and yet hope and great accomplishments have prevailed. There are countless ways that African Canadians have made valid and important contributions to our society, but as a student of literature and participant in a world fascinated by media, particularly influential to me are the writers, wordsmiths and storytellers. Josiah Henson and Lawrence Hill are separated by decades of riots, peace-makings and strings of individual histories, but they are intrinsically linked across the generations by their shared purpose of storytelling, and thirst for justice.

Josiah Henson was born in 1789, and while he was born in Maryland, he is treasured as a Canadian hero. No stranger to the horrors of racism, Henson was not born a free man. As a young boy and man Henson was ushered around various plantations and slave operations, where, railing against the terrifying waves of blatant racism and oppression, he developed skills of leadership. In 1830, after years of suffering at the hands of a slave master, Henson escaped to Upper Canada, a refuge for slaves seeking a new life. As if his prevailing over insurmountable injustices were not enough, the true glory of Josiah Henson began with his freedom. Once he earned enough money through farm-work, Henson purchased plots of land and established the Dawn Settlement. It was here where he left a great Canadian legacy: the Dawn Settlement was a self-sufficient community of free African Canadians who were able to support themselves and live in a healthy community. This was no small feat.

Henson also became a Methodist preacher, travelling to neighbouring communities to speak, and promoting the abolitionist movement. Josiah Henson lived a truly remarkable life, overcoming incredible oppressions and succeeding to create a safe and politically advanced life, not only for himself, but for many others. An example to all Canadians in many respects, he was also the inspiration for the famed character Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom's Cabin, and he wrote three published works: The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself (1849), Truth Stranger Than Fiction: Father Henson's Story of His Own Life (1858), Uncle Tom's Story of His Life: An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson (1876). These each depict his journeys and tribulations throughout his life, and explore the contexts of life in such an era.

As an interesting parallel to Josiah Henson comes another and more contemporary African Canadian, who continues to leave marks on the face of Canadian culture. Lawrence Hill is a Canadian author, his father black and his mother white. The couple moved to Canada from Washington D.C. after they were married, and Hill grew up in the predominantly white suburb of Don Mills, Ontario during the sixties. Hill has written nine books; those of which I've read have not only greatly influenced me creatively, but touched me and urged me to delve into a pursuit of knowledge both specifically in African Canadian history and more broadly in the context of politics. His works are a fine combination of heartbreak and honesty, depicting events and eras that one sometimes wishes were just fiction. Dealing with immensely complex themes of slavery, war and social oppression, Hill splatters his pages with truths and declarations. As a writer he is crucial to the public's understanding of our own history, and with that understanding comes the inspiration of action.

Josiah Henson and Lawrence Hill are both djeli, as the Africans of Bayo in Hill's novel The Book of Negroes would call them; storytellers. Their impact on the political, social and cultural landscape of Canada has been of grand importance. As they have painted their own stories and the stories of their ancestors with anguish and joy, they have lit a spark and illuminated a history of complexities, tragedies and accomplishments of African Canadians, and at the same time raised awareness of the excellence of African Canadians everywhere.