The Critique of African-Canadian Literature

By Clarke, George Elliott | Journal of Canadian Studies, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Critique of African-Canadian Literature

Clarke, George Elliott, Journal of Canadian Studies

A literature must be greater than its critics, yes; but that does not mean lesser-than assessors are permitted a carte blanche illiteracy. Even carpaltunnel-syndrome-challenged typists who jet newspapery opinions should attempt a minimal degree of scholarly probity, so as to prevent their inventing idiocies or venting idiosyncrasies. Such observations must apply forcefully to critics of any obscure literature-such as that of African Canada-possessing a phantasmal bibliography, a shadowy canon, and murky archives.

The critique of African-Canadian literature remains an enterprise open to any form of intellectual abuse, for the literature itself has not yet been granted the dignity of an accepted, distinct existence. To many, it is a branch of Caribbean-or West Indian-or African-American-or African, literature. Its critique need derive therefore from no Canadian source. Too many think that by reading Toni Morrison and Derek Walcott, they are equipped to read, without alterating any facts of geography or society, Austin Clarke or M. Nourbese Philip. Thus, the public-and the academy-is assaulted with abstract social work or political bavardage that is alien, irrelevant, and unreal.

See, for instance, Donna Bailey Nurse's op-ed piece in The [Toronto] Globe and Mail "Books" insert of Saturday, 21 February 2004, appearing on page DlS. Titled "Black in print" and prefaced by a teaser proclaiming, "What you need to know about... being black in Canada," the article purports to offer an analysis of "black Canadian identity," but it is perversely narrow. Nurse begins with a canard, the idea that "According to Canadian culture, there was no such thing as a black Canadian woman." Yet, all one has to do is pick up a decent history, or even go to First Baptist Church on Huron Street in Toronto (not that far from Nurse's native Pickering, Ontario) and examine its documents, to commence a discovery of the deep roots of African men and women in Canadian soil.

Agreed: European-Canadian nationalist propaganda has never wanted to accept the prior presence of First Nations peoples, let alone the later arrivals of people of colour. It is lazy, however, to deny the history of the continuous presence of "Coloureds" and Natives thwarting white anglophone and francophone claims of cultural primordiality.

Nurse then posits, "suddenly, things have changed, and I think it has to do with the stories, the accumulation over time of black voices and literary ideas, characters and themes that are showing me who I am." One must applaud this development of positive self-consciousness, but the literature did not materialize into existence yesterday, nor did it do so simply to provide solace for one individual. Again, Nurse demonstrates a refusal to engage any AfricanCanadian literary earlier than, say, 1970-or maybe 1980 (or maybe 1990 or 2000). One must ask what her phrase "over time" really means: since 1783 or since 1983?

Nurse opines, too, "Black Canadian literature has reached the tipping point." (Her use of the metaphor popularized by African-Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell is unfortunate: Is the literature tipping "up" or "down"?) Problematic here is the determination that "now" the literature is doing "something," whereas before, presumably, it was somnambulant, infantile, or comatose.

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