Ain't No Border Wide Enough: Writing Black Canada in Lawrence Hill's Any Known Blood

Article excerpt

Reaching a satisfactory definition of blackness has proved a difficult task. As Rinaldo Walcott opens Black Like Who: Writing Black Canada, "Writing blackness is difficult work. The sliding signifier of blackness intends to continue to slide and remain out of bounds. And that is a good thing" (xi). Likewise, satisfactorily writing and/or defining Canada is difficult work. Dwarfed by larger nations like Britain and the United States, Canada inevitably exudes a sense of unease about its own fragile and long-contested identity. It is a nation, not unlike others, that constructs a self-flattering history-in this case, of genteel and polite settlement and expansion. What the nation does not like it obligingly projects elsewhere -usually onto that country conveniently located just south. And what the nation really does not like, and cannot incorporate into its mythology of Aryan über-Mounties, farmer-settlers roughing it in the bush, and coronation china, is blackness. As a means of dealing with blackness, Canada insists on projecting it elsewhere. Contemporary Canadian rhetoric concerning blackness and black folks works in one of two ways. First, the founders and settlers of the nation are presented as uniformly white, alternately assisted -or hindered -by First Nations peoples who have since conveniently "disappeared" from the nation. This overwhelming emphasis on whiteness supplanting brownness necessarily elides blackness. Black people as citizens are absented from history texts, from history curriculums, from literature courses pre-1970. The second way an official Canadian rhetoric concerning blackness works is to read post-1970 manifestations of blackness as intrusions from elsewhere, primarily the Caribbean, and not tied to our land or national consciousness.1 Through such acts of symbolic and physical displacement, official cultural discourses orchestrate and limit how blackness can be rhetorically presented in Canada.

Many black Canadian artists and scholars have come to recognize that the very idea of Black Canada frequently remains, to this present day, controversial or even dubious. Canadian author André Alexis, in an article in This Magazine, recalls being told that in order to discover his authentic "Black self" he should move to the United States. According to Alexis, "It was understood that no experience I might have in Canada could bring me closer to an understanding of real Black experience, that Black Canadians were not Black enough" (16). Erased not only by the Canadian nation, black Canadians are also fundamentally absent in the consciousness of Black America. The Essential Schomburg Black Literature Guide, published in association with the influential Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, boasts more than 450 entries on diasporic black authors, not one of them Canadian (Valade). Paul Gilroy's text The Black Atlantic similarly omits Black Canadians from its analysis of diasporic cultural exchange. This might cause the uninitiated to think of Canada as not only a literary void, but also a place devoid of black history and influence. To paraphrase an observation at the launch of York University's Centre for the Study of Black Cultures in Canada, it is as if people think the Underground Railroad ended at the Canadian border, and not one inch over. The result is not only the disregarding of black Canadian voices on an international scale, but also the inaccurate disassociation of black Canada from a larger black diasporic history. This disassociation is best epitomized by Toronto playwright Andrew Moodie's review of the film version of Toni Morrison's novel, Beloved. In this review, he claimed that the movie did not speak to him because as a Black Canadian, he had no ties to African America, or the history of slavery.2 Implicit in Moodie's assertion is his belief that the enslavement of African peoples did not exist in Canada, a myth perpetuated by national rhetorics that prefer to frame Canada as a refuge from, rather than a participant in, the African slave trade. …