Self-Discovery and the Quest for an Aesthetic, the Emergence of Black Canadian Literature: 1975 towards the Millennium
Joyette, Anthony, Kola
The following is a short history on the evolution of black Canadian literature, my quest for an aesthetic and an identity as an artist in contemporary Canada during the latter part of the twentieth century. Though reference is made to many writers, this documentary I must add, is not conclusive; French language writers are not included because of my limited command of the language.
Like most black Canadian artists, I believe that my role is defined within "the sensibility that assumes the artist is responsible not only for documenting and interpreting cultural experiences, but also for projecting and expanding the soul of his/her people." This idea is also expressed by many late contemporary black writers including George Elliott Clarke, Ayanna Black and film maker Claire Prieto. Prieto declared that her creativity as a film maker is "to help us to understand our identity and our continually changing place in the world. To define our past and make us a future of our own design."
When I speak of a black Canadian literature, it is not in opposition to white Canadian literature, but as an added cannon that represents another kind of Canadian. I cannot deny the influence of white Canadian writers in the shaping of my ideas and impressions of Canada. Leonard Cohen's poetry and songs, Margaret Atwood's Survival (1972), Bruce G. Trigger's Natives And Newcomers (1985), Destinies: Canadian History Since Confederation (1992) by Douglas Francis, Richard Jones and Donald B. Smith and In Search Of Canada (1989) an anthology of essays edited by Stephen R Graubard are a few of the works that have had some influence on my perception of Canada.
Immigrating to Canada in 1976, the impressions from my early experiences were consistent with what I was told life would be like before I left St. Vincent and the Grenadines where I was born. The winters are very cold, the summers humid and black people are welcome. Canada, my adopted home with a history of its own became my story too. The black community became my foster home. Despite the marginal status of black people in Canada, there is a dynamism which is undermined by shallow individualism and lack of perspective beyond the replay of the subordinate position seemingly traditional of the race. Jean-Claude Leblond, a Montreal freelance writer, expressed similar sentiments in reference to ethnicity in Quebec when he states that "There is a minority of generally well-educated people to whom social status is more important than cohesiveness within their own ethnic group." Though Leblond did not mention any specific ethnic group, his comment comfortably fits the black mind's articulation of self and its inability to identify self with place. I felt that this lack of awareness is partly due to the absence of a contemporary Black Canadian history that speaks of native and naturalized black Canadians, weaving the good and bad experiences with events and individuals that made them happen, thus removing the divisions within and among themselves. Such absence of history has profoundly affected black creativity aesthetically and black people politically. Though writers and other artists work from a pool of traditions, their works are not defined or viewed within the traditions of place.
Today, much has changed. Black Canadians are now counted among the best for their contribution to the social and cultural life of Canada. Black writers have since become part of the mainstream. However, without a history, their works could have a short life span and their relevance overlooked if critical approaches and analysis are not developed. When Dionne Brand, well-known (naturalized) Canadian author, describes the latter part of this century as the 'new wave' of Canadian writing (interview with Dagmar Novak, 1990) she further states that this 'new wave' of black thought will speak about the internal contradictions in Canadian writing? In 1997 George Elliott Clarke, (native) Canadian poet/playwright and one of the few exponents of African-Canadian literature, expressed a similar view when he described this period as the 'recent efflorescence' of black Canadian writing? Both writers were not only speaking about the sudden burst of black authors on the Canadian literary landscape, but also about the nature of writing in Canada towards the millennium. Dionne Brand's prediction about the future of Canadian writing being one of internal contradiction holds true for black Canadian writing and white Canadian literature, as different approaches, forms, styles, and idioms of languages become more visible. Since Brand and Clarke did not discuss further why they view the last years of the twentieth century with such optimism, I hope that I am not being presumptuous to interject my two cents at this point in time; to put a few things into perspective about this 'new wave/recent efflorescence' in black Canadian writing before we turn the pages on the twentieth century. I will look at some of the forces that directly and indirectly influence this flowering in black Canadian writing and cry to put to rest any misconceptions about its evolution during the last years of the twentieth century.
There was in fact a constant increase in the visibility of black authors, from the mid-seventies through the nineties, judging from the exposure that writers receive today compared to ten years ago. This period is not only a 'new wave/recent efflorescence' but the beginning of Contemporary Black Canadian literature. Historians will agree that the last twenty-five years of the twentieth century is the beginning of a Black Canadian thought as seen from the kind of books published during these years and the kind of awards bestowed upon black writers during this period.' It is also the time when writers began to identify their creativity with place and when literary groups and other movements began to influence the way black Canadians perceive themselves and are perceived by others. This period is the beginning of mainstream acceptance of writings of black authors whose works before the eighties were shunned by white publishers. Their writings were viewed with a sense of mediocrity, too foreign in their forms, meanings and underclass rhetoric.
From the seventies through the eighties and the nineties, native and naturalized writers dealt with the condition of being exiled and dislocated from their cultures and traditions. They wrote from the exile traditions of their places of origin. They mythologized their birthplaces and folk life as part of the national consciousness that began the shaping of a black Canadian thought. Through the eighties and nineties writers …
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Publication information: Article title: Self-Discovery and the Quest for an Aesthetic, the Emergence of Black Canadian Literature: 1975 towards the Millennium. Contributors: Joyette, Anthony - Author. Magazine title: Kola. Volume: 20. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 2008. Page number: 32+. © 2008 Black Writers' Guild. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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