Canadian Biraciality and Its "Zebra" Poetics

By Clarke, George Elliott | Intertexts, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Canadian Biraciality and Its "Zebra" Poetics

Clarke, George Elliott, Intertexts

For Adrienne Shadd (1)


Like all African diasporic writing, African-Canadian literature engages the symbol and the image of the mixed-race black because this figure violates the sanctity of racial polarities, thus reminding Africans and Europeans of the white-initiated sexual violence against black women that ensured the sadism of slavery. Scholar Richard Newman stresses that "slaves were property, like animals or objects, they had no rights, and all black women were sexually available to all white men" (1320). Hence, "Virtually every [US] plantation produced children of mixed race" (1320). The Canadian experience varied only slightly. In 1788, the revelation that "Rev. Daniel Cock, a highly esteemed minister of the Presbyterian Church in Truro [Nova Scotia], was the owner of two female slaves excited public feelings and controversy" (Best, Fire [vol.1], 121). Black Loyalist Lydia Jackson, eight months pregnant, found herself enslaved and brutalized by her white Nova Scotian master, Dr. Bulman (Walker, Black, 50). Historian Robin W. Winks reports that "[o]f 573 children of slaves [in Nouvelle-France] for whom there is adequate record, 59.5 percent were born outside any form of marriage, and while in many cases the parents may have been of the same race, the entry in the registers--pere inconnu [father unknown]-no doubt covers many white men too" (11). The dramas of white-black coupling mandate that mixed-race figures should spark the imaginations of African-Canadian authors. Fascinatingly though, it is Western Canadian mixed-race blacks who limn, most fetishistically, a "zebra" consciousness. To engage the exploration of mixed-race status in this particular African-Canadian literature, we must first consider the appearance of the 'mulatto' in general New World African thought.

Tragedizing the Mulatto

In his finicky, obsessive account of Euro-American racism and its African-American victims, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and the Modern Democracy (1944), Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal asserts, "Everybody having a known trace of Negro blood in his veins--no matter how far back it was acquired--is classified as a Negro. No amount of white ancestry, except one hundred per cent, will permit entrance to the white race" (113). Myrdal's findings were not news for blacks, particularly those of mixed-race heritage, some of whom were eager to trace their entire lineage--if only they could--to whites. (2) Because they could not, ambivalence and alienation were their lot. (3) Honeying this agony--this estranging straddling of the color line--the salutary effect of the so-called one-drop-rule was to up the potential number of African-American warriors available to fight US apartheid. Thus, relatively light-skinned blacks like W. E. B. DuBois (1868-1963), Malcolm X (1925-1965), and Angela Davis (1944-) were a ble to join forces with darker-skinned brethren and sistren like Paul Robeson (1898-1976), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), and Audre Lorde (1934-1992) to promote immediate equality for blacks. (4) Simultaneously, the depiction of the "Tragic Mulatto" in literature and film stressed that the person of mixed race belonged, absolutely, to an inescapable--and, for some, debilitating--blackness. (5)

For instance, the essays of the incisive, Martiniquan-born foe of racialist imperialism, Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), branded the mixed-race black as suspect, that is, as a ready collaborateur with white supremacy. Theoretically, but damningly, he or she was the offspring of a black parent who had sought, through sexual intercourse with a white partner, to experience the disorienting pleasure of a vicarious whiteness. In Peau noire, masques blancs (1952) [Black Skin, White Masks (1965)], Fanon insists that when the Martiniquan author Mayotte Capecia announces in her autobiography Je suis Martiniquaise [I Am a Martiniquan Woman] (1948) her desire to marry a white Frenchman, she is seeking "la lactification" (40) ["a kind of lactification" (Black 47)]. …

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