Lawrence Hill, Review of BlackBerry, Sweet Juice

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“The blacker the berry/The sweeter the juice/But if you get too black/It ain’t no use.”

Author Lawrence Hill says his father passed along this saying to him. In his memoir Black Berry, Sweet Juice, On Being Black and White in Canada, Hill tells the story of a young black and white man who developed his identity from two racial worlds in Canada. It’s a revealing tale of how his black father and white mother met, married and had three children. More importantly, it’s about how race has played a factor in his life:

Race becomes an issue as a result of environmental factors. The average white kid growing up in a totally white suburb doesn’t have to think of himself or herself as white. For a huge portion of my childhood, I was very much like that white kid. But gradually, as imperceptibly as the movement of the hour hand around the clock, my environment started talking to me and making me aware that I was different, that I could never truly be white. There’s nothing like being called “nigger” to let you know that you’re not white. It didn’t happen often. But it happened enough to awaken me.

Hill writes that growing up racially different in Don Mills wasn’t easy. However, he still was a privileged child who went to good schools, traveled to such places as Africa and dealt with his multicultural and multiracial extended family.

Lawrence Hill faced many difficulties, but his experience doesn’t seem any different from the life of many black people growing up in Canada. I will take myself as an example.

Hill talks about not knowing if you’re black. Until I was 5, I had no idea that I was black. And I thought my mother was white because she wasn’t the same colour as the rest of our family. Being from the Caribbean, she was lighter. My father is a dark-skinned African.

I grew up in a white suburb as Hill. I was privileged enough to learn French like Hill and travel to Africa.

Hill writes about having hair issues – I wrote my master’s thesis on that. If that’s not an indication of having an issue with my hair, I’m not sure what else could be.

Where the paths differ is that in a black and white existence, passing for white becomes an issue, where that has never been an option for me. Although Hill discusses in his book a passion for embracing his blackness and identifying as black, this becomes particularly fascinating for a man who could pass for white under an undiscerning eye.

I believe many black people could identify with Hill. So why are their story not told, and Hill’s is? There are so few black people published in Canada.

I am so grateful though that Hill mentions in his book since he does have the privilege to get published by Harper-Collins, that he recognizes race as a social construct more than a biological one:

“It’s necessary to probe into the social meanings of race. The book is my attempt to examine the issues of race. [The book is for] anyone who’s interested in examining the core of race and how it’s played out. My existence is the fighting against easy definitions of race.”

Hill’s writing style is similar to the way he speaks. It flows and it has a beat. It’s as easy to follow as an Amanda Marshall song. And it’s good that, as in Marshall’s song Everybody Has a Story, Hill tries to include the stories of other black and white people in his book. There are so many voices not heard. And he admits to this.

Perhaps Hill’s voice can become an echo for others. That would be sweet juice indeed.