Afraid of the Dark is Darmouth author Guyleigh Johnson’s second book. Johnson is a spoken word artist, writer, and community organizer and she pours her multiple talents into this work of short fiction and poetry.
The book is framed by prose sections written from the perspective of Kahlua Thomas, a 16-year-old black teenager from Halifax who lives in poverty with a mother that struggles with alcoholism. Kahlua dreams of escape—escape from poverty, abuse, discrimination, and even the colour of her own skin. When her high school history class proves to be too boring and whitewashed to bear, Kahlua uses the time to research and write poetry about black history and black experiences, focussing on incidents in her own life like her father’s absence, as well as black activism more broadly. Kahlua’s poetry is infused with pain, and is presented alongside several more prose sections that feature searing descriptions of trauma in her own life, including a violent falling out with her mother, her experiences of sexual abuse, and the loss of a friend to gun violence.
“Reading Johnson’s poems today reignited the fire I have for social justice and reminded me that these violent events will undoubtedly mark this time in history.”
Kahlua is immediately a lovable and sympathetic character: she is clearly smart but devalued by nearly everyone around her. She describes her insecurities: “In the back of my mind I know the essence of being black is beautiful, but why I’m afraid to express that I don’t know”. She often waxes philosophical in the prose sections of the book, as when she ponders her life, saying, “I felt like a punching bag and life kept throwing me jabs, uppercuts, and straight shots”. I found myself hoping that her writing would help her learn to punch back, so to speak.
Although Afraid of the Dark tackles many upsetting—yet extremely vital—topics, Johnson navigates these issues with passion and precision. Her poetry is particularly evocative; the rhymes crackle with life and urgency as in “Remember What They Promised Me”:
Falling to my knees
Can you see me?”
I found it particularly moving to read Johnson’s book now, in the summer of 2020, as support for the Black Lives Matter Movement surges stronger than ever. Her poetry, in particular, haunts me. I happened to read Johnson’s poem “Philando Castile” on the anniversary of his death and I was struck once again by the horrors of anti-black police violence and the urgent need for change. Reading Johnson’s poems today reignited the fire I have for social justice and reminded me that these violent events will undoubtedly mark this time in history.
Afraid of the Dark is especially powerful because it tells the story of one black teen in Eastern Canada in particular, but also extends its reach to include a discussion of the black experience in North American more broadly. Johnson reminds us that we are not exempt from racism north of the US border, and that we can do more to address both the large and small; systemic issues of racism and smaller aggressions in our daily lives. I hope all kinds of people read her book because we need to be reminded.
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