Jude and Diana by Sharon Robart-Johnson

(Editors note: This review by Naomi MacKinnon originally appeared on her book review site Consumed by Ink on November 22, 2021. It is reprinted here with her kind permission.)

A few years ago I read Africa’s Children: A History of Blacks in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia by Sharon Robart-Johnson. In it, there was a short newspaper clipping about the murder trial of a young, enslaved girl named Jude who was beaten to death in the early 1800s. In Jude and Diana, Robart-Johnson gives voice to Jude and to her sister Diana. Their story is hard to read at times, but–as many readers have said over the years–if Jude and Diana could live it then the least I can do is read about it.

Jude and Diana’s stories are hard to read. Their lives were full of violence, physical, sexual and systemic. I wanted readers to understand the unjust pain in Jude’s life. But there is also love in their stories. I wanted to understand for myself that there could be joy in the life of an enslaved person as well.

SHARON ROBART-JOHNSON

The book is divided up into three parts: Jude’s Story, The Murder Trial, and Diana’s Story. Jude tells us about her life as she lay dying on the Major and Missus’ living room floor, as family members go in and out, peering in at her to see if she’s still alive. We learn that she hasn’t always lived with the major and Missus; that she’s a fighter and that she’s often getting into trouble because of it; that she’s the one who sneaks into the kitchen or garden at night to bring extra food to her hungry family; that she and Diana have parents who love them and whose hearts must break a little every minute their children remain enslaved.

I learned over my years, not much point to cryin’ ’bout bein’ a slave. We is gonna be that till we die.

The Missus is an intriguing character. I automatically pictured her as mean and nasty to everyone, but as the book went on I realized that she is two different people – cold and heartless towards her slaves, and stern but loving towards her children. Such a thing is hard for me to imagine. I guess that’s the way it was. Similarly, the Major believed that he was not guilty of anything because “She’s my property; I’ll do what I please.”

During the murder trial, we get to know more about Israel and Mary; Israel is a distant neighbour who has been calling on Mary, the daughter of the house. They are both friendly to Jude and Diana.

Then he smiled at me. That smile it meaned the world to me. He wuzn’t lookin’ at me like I wuz mud on his boots or cow dung in the field.

Israel goes as far as reporting Jude’s death, knowing it was no accident, while Mary seems to be more like an ostrich with her head in the sand. In fact, for all her talk about how much she cares about Jude and Diana, she seems to be blind to the severity of their abuse. Is she afraid to get more involved, or is she in denial? A quote from Diana that matched my sentiments exactly: “I knowed she was tryin’ to help, but how could she be so stoopid?”

Diana’s narrative takes over after Jude’s death, trying to make sense of her life now that she’s alone. When they were young, Jude and Diana used to dream about finding a man and having children. Now that Jude is gone, Diana sees no reason left to live.

I miss Mamma and Papa, but most of all I miss my sister. Jude was always my pillar of strength, my rock. The one person who could make me laugh in this world of pain.

How things really ended for Diana 200 years ago will remain a mystery, but Robarts-Johnson doesn’t leave us without a little bit of hope. And there are lovely times spent with family peppered into the story for relief from the heartache.

I loves children. When they is small, before they is teached, they don’t know that I is brown an’ they is white.

The family who enslaved Jude tried to wipe her out, forget about her, as though she never existed. But Sharon Robarts-Johnson has given her a chance to make her story known – it might be blurry around the edges as Robarts-Johnson fills in the gaps with her research-informed imagination, but it’s here for the world to see. Jude once lived. Her life mattered.

All I has left is my mem’ries. Bad as some of them wuz, they still be mine.

Sharon Robart-Johnson was born in the South End of Yarmouth; she is a thirteenth-generation Nova Scotian. Her roots reach beyond the Expulsion of the Acadians in 1755 to the arrival of the Black Loyalists in Shelburne in 1783, as well as an enslaved person brought to Digby County in 1798. In 2009 she published her first book, Africas Children: A History of Blacks in Yarmouth. Sharon is the Publications Chair of the Yarmouth County Historical Society, which owns and operates the Yarmouth County Museum and Archives. Her years of archival experience and passion for researching Black history has most recently culminated in historical fiction, a way to honour those omitted from colonial archives.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Fernwood Publishing (March 10 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 300 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1773634410
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1773634418

 -- Website

Naomi MacKinnon is a mother, daughter, wife, sister, friend, pet-lover, reader, walker, camper, and Nova Scotian. Naomi has contributed several guest reviews over the years to The Miramichi Reader. Her book review blog is Consumed By Ink.