Academic journal article ARIEL

Contesting Clarke: Towards a De-Racialized African-Canadian Literature

Academic journal article ARIEL

Contesting Clarke: Towards a De-Racialized African-Canadian Literature

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article draws on personal narrative, literary criticism, and multicultural Canadian literature to interrogate George Elliott Clarkes conceptualizations of a Black Canadian literature and a racialized African-Canadian literary canon in his 2002 essay collection Odysseys Home: Mapping African-Canadian Literatures. Clarke's work is juxtaposed with my own experience as a bi-racial, multi-ethnic, Black, Negro, mulatto, half-caste, African-Canadian woman, and with those of non-Black scholars, to expose the shifting contours of ethnicity and the blurred and blurring boundaries of Canadian blackness in multi-, mixed-, and indeterminately racial Canada. Through these critical comparisons, I suggest that a racialized African-Canadian literary canon excludes the multiple Canadian cultures in which our literatures are formed, and supports racial constructs that no longer fit the shapes of our multi-ethnic, diasporic, postcolonial skins. I conclude that upon the fertile ground tended by Clarke's Black literary activism, a de-racialized African-Canadian literature may grow.

Keywords: African-Canadian literature, autoethnography, Canadian blackness, ethnic studies, postcolonial studies, race theory


In Canada, some are born black, some acquire blackness, and others have blackness thrust upon them.

George Elliott Clarke, Odysseys Home (16)

When I was a child living in northeast Edmonton, the term used for people like me was "Negro." This was in the early 1980s, when everyone had Michael Jackson's Thriller album and Pierre Elliott Trudeaus proclamations about Canadian multiculturalism were being enacted through Canada's new Charter of Rights and Freedoms and--most relevant to my seven-year-old self--through Alberta's public education curricula. I was one of two Negroes in my elementary school, the other a boy named Harley who had darker skin and coarser hair. He had a dad who came out for Parent Day and who gave helicopter rides on his sky-high shoulders while we dug our hands in his thick afro and screamed pure joy. Harley was one grade up from me, but our parents' and teachers' expectations that we would play together was persistent and unavoidable. I remember his theatrical sighs when I approached him on the playground, and my own cramping stomach. I remember hot shame in my face and the tickle of grass on my thighs when he pantsed me on the monkey bars and I ran past the mower line into the OIF Limits part of our weedy school field. There were thistles as high as my hips, with dusty purple flowers and winter-bleached garbage hemming the fence. When my cousin Jeff came to get me, his knuckles were split because he had jumped up two times to smash Harley's nose. The three of us had detention for a week. Our mothers received pamphlets about encouraging racial tolerance in young children. I hated Harley.

My grade two teacher was convinced that the colour of my skin and the bend of my hair held cultural portent, and she was both obligated and anxious to celebrate that. I embodied difference in ways extending beyond my thick lips and wide nose, or the braids woven tight to my scalp. The stories of the Middle Passage, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks' bus ride and Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," dashikis and caftans, bone-piercings and cowrie shells, tribal drums, National Geographic photo spreads, and advertisements flaunting starved children with flies near their eyes whose fate could be eased for mere pennies a day and whose plight served as leverage against Brussels sprouts resistance and the last limp forkful of spinach: these were all symbols I bore on my skin, at that age unwittingly. They twisted in my hair, swelled in my lips, and spread their creamed coffee stain from the seams of my soles and my pink-white palms. Africa walked with me, my teacher was certain, in step with the captivating drama of its terrible colonial history now edited for prime-time TV. …

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