Culture | Between here and there

Black Canadian literature strives to define itself in the face of a dominant American tradition

How do you write about a culture whose presence is hardly acknowledged? This is the challenge that black Canadian literature has faced historically, and continues to face today. Black Canadian literature (or African-Canadian literature) has been born out of an invisible struggle, grappling with themes of identity, race, and belonging in a nation eager to overlook its racial history.
Burdened with an omitted historical presence in Canada, affirming a sense of place and belonging within this country is an ongoing premise for black Canadians, inextricably linked to the fabric of this literary field.
George Elliott Clarke – poet, novelist, playwright, opera libbretist, and professor of English at the University of Toronto – has written one of the most comprehensive texts of black Canadian literature entitled Odysseys Home: Mapping African-Canadian Literature. In an interview with The Daily, Clarke commented on this theme of historical omission in relation to the birth of the literary genre, stating, “it was born basically because people of African heritage or African descent wanted to bear witness to their presence. [Canada] is a country who has difficulty acknowledging black people, acknowledging the black presence.”
In light of this omission, the content of this literature does not deal exclusively with themes of race or racism, but encompasses a very earnest process of stating, explaining, and reiterating presence within Canada. “So much of black Canadian literature deals with questions of immigration and multiculturalism and belonging to nation, especially where that’s challenged,” said Leslie C. Sanders, professor of black Canadian literature and African-American literature and Theatre at York University, in an interview.
Black Canadian literature is not static, but rather constantly evolving and extremely dynamic, with origins ranging from the Caribbean to continental Africa. “There’s a good strong part of black Canadian writing that consists of people coming from Somalia, Ethiopia, Cote-d’Ivoire, Senegal, Haiti, Brazil, the United States and from the Caribbean in general – Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana,” said Clarke. These authors are not only explaining the ways in which they navigate and decipher Canada’s cultural landscape, they are also recounting tales of their home countries and the personal stories which have brought them to the various Canadian provinces where they have ended up in. In these works the idea of blackness is also brought to the fore, “especially if they come from a black majority country,” explained Clarke. “They may never have even thought of themselves as being black before, it’s only when they arrive in a white majority context and everyone’s telling them – you’re black, that they suddenly have to think of themselves in a racialized fashion.” This is where themes of belonging and integration come into play, as it involves a process of transporting constructed identities across national and international boundaries and questioning, interpreting and communicating how these are transformed in new environments.
The challenge of integrating  black Canadian literature is partly attributed to its lack of publicity. As Toronto Star columnist Royson James has pointed out, large publishers have generally been reluctant to publish allegedly “insular” and “un-Canadian” novels of black Canadians. This trend can also be observed in Governor General’s Award verdicts, which until recently have neglected black Canadian writers altogether. This reluctance to bring narratives of black Canadian experience to the fore has created problems of representation, limiting the number of stories that become part of our collective memory.
In addition to George Elliott Clarke, Sanders highlighted several prominent anglophone figures within black Canadian literature including poet, fiction writer, essayist, and professor Dionne Brand, and short story writer, essayist and novelist Austin Clarke. As is common throughout this literary genre, these writers deal with themes of identity and challenges of integration, concepts of race among Diasporic communities and issues of belonging within a Canadian framework.
In this sense there are vast differences between African-American and African-Canadian literature. Histories of colonialism, slavery, and segregation are widely known and accepted within the American context, and although similar institutions prospered in Canada, they are often camouflaged by a euphemistic historical depiction.
Because of the themes and content of African-American and African-Canadian literature differ greatly. Prominent within Canada are “questions of belonging to nation rather than only a question of anti-racist sentiments,” said Sanders. “For African-Americans, the whole trajectory is different. Their literature may question issues of racism and citizenship but presence in the nation is not at stake in the same way.” While blackness and Americanness may be equated, hyphenated identities (e.g. Haitian-Canadian, Ethiopian-Canadian) are projected onto black Canadians. This imposed labelling impedes general processes of integration and originates from explicit and hidden histories within the United States and Canada respectively. Related to these histories are American ideologies of the “melting pot” in which immigrants become “Americanized” and homogenized, and Canadian ideologies of multiculturalism in which diversity, and that which is different, are maintained.
These differing approaches produce distinct narratives of black consciousness. “In African-American literature, black consciousness is taken for granted. You don’t need to explain it because it’s understood that if you’re Black in America, you know about your history, you know about your culture, you know about the heroes and heroines – Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey,” said Clarke. However similar narratives within the Canadian context are few are far between. Clark continued, “If you’re African-Canadian, you constantly need to be recovering the history… unearthing the heroines and heroes and… furthermore, interpreting and reinterpreting and defining blackness.”
Black Canadian literature is therefore creating a home and enclave for writers of the African and Caribbean diaspora to recreate their own stories, and bring truth to otherwise obscured and tainted historical accounts of their presence within Canada. This literary venture challenges conventional Canadian narratives and strives to give voice to populations who have been made invisible. Its contribution to Canadian literature is revolutionary, grappling with themes of transformed identities, belonging, and constant pulls between a here and a there.


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