Self-Discovery and the Quest for an Aesthetic, the Emergence of Black Canadian Literature: 1975 towards the Millennium

Article excerpt

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? …