In his article “‘Our words spoken among us, in fragments’: Austin Clarke’s Aesthetics of Crossing,” Paul Barrett recalls a bold statement from a 1996 interview with Dionne Brand and Rinaldo Walcott in which Clarke proclaimed, “there are no Canadian critics qualified to look at the things I write, in the sense of having a sensitive feeling towards what I write.” When I was first approached about contributing to an issue of The Puritan in honour of the late Austin Clarke—a giant of Canadian literature—I thought, I am an outsider. An interloper. I had to remind myself of the diasporic view of Blackness that was so important to his work and his insistence on making space for Blackness where it was tacitly told it should not be. As I thought about what this “sensitive feeling” might be for me as a Black American, I returned again and again to feeling a kind of kinship.
My introduction to Clarke came in a graduate course at McMaster University focusing on “the interpretive frameworks we bring to our interpretations of Canadian texts” and, more broadly, the politics of literary canonization. In a particularly rancorous seminar session on The Meeting Point, we came to a discussion of the scene in which the head nurse, a Black woman named Priscilla, works to distinguish herself in the eyes of her White colleagues from another Black woman, Estelle, who is suffering a miscarriage. Though she was part of the welcoming party for Estelle’s arrival in Canada, Priscilla comes to model that unique blend of anti-Blackness and sexism which cuts deeply at Black women. (“Another black whore! … They don’t even have any shame!” she declares.) At this point, a White woman in the room pondered if this was, in fact, true. Were there not “two kinds of black women,” as Priscilla suggested? In this moment, the seemingly innocent tone in this woman’s voice made clear the power of Clarke’s work to lay anti-Blackness in Canada bare. The paradox of such a literary rendering of the insidious nature of racism was lost in the woman’s interpretation. In that graduate seminar, I quickly learned how anti-Blackness can continue to be reproduced with minuscule difference.
In the 150th year of “Canada,” many are eager to celebrate the benevolence of the nation, especially in comparison to the United States and the current Trump regime. However, such comparisons too easily cast shadows that can obscure discomforting truths. Certainly, my own engagement with Clarke’s work sprung from my interest in exploring transnational Blackness. I once described Clarke’s Toronto trilogy (The Meeting Point, Storm of Fortune, and The Bigger Light) as an exploration of the limitations of deploying American-centric models of Blackness and political resistance. At the time, my reading of the trilogy focused on what I saw as a growing disillusionment with such models of racial alliance for its characters. But this was only the beginning of my growing understanding of one of the most important themes present in Clarke’s work. His work does not enable a comparison to the political climate of the United States that paints Canada as an accepting multicultural nation, and thus elides its own history of White supremacy.
Reading Clarke thoughtfully means confronting the problem of anti-Blackness in Canada as a specific, local one that, though sharing sentiments of American-style racism, manifests itself in other insidious ways. Anthony Stewart suggests that the “cost of white supremacy is considerably lower in Canada than in America because it is so rarely discussed in public.” Clarke’s body of work has consistently excavated such cost. I am reminded of it each time I return to Toronto. I recall the only time I have (yet) been called “nigger” to my face occurred on a packed TTC train. I remember this cost each time I revisit the sensation of being in that packed train car full of White, deathly silent faces that communicated so much with so little. I think back to that room full of future educators and public servants, many of whom would carry forth ideas of Canadian righteousness, unmarred by the literary representation of Black Canadians’ quotidian experiences of anti-black racism and discrimination. I ruminate on the difference between acts of kindness that can serve as important interventions and the inaction of passive consent.
Clarke’s oeuvre urges us to recognize and reckon with the histories of colonization and enslavement that link here to there, past to present. His work requires seeing these entanglements not as signs of Canada as an exemplary fair and open society, but as a progeny of the same notions of race that continuously give life to White supremacy elsewhere. Anti-Black racism in Canada may not seem as intensely spectacular as in America, but it is nonetheless an extension of the shared legacy of colonization that binds Canada, Britain, and the United States. In The Meeting Place, Clarke urges us to confront this ugly inheritance, to resist simplistically trading “one kind of space for another” in a race to the bottom. It is not enough to bestow awards and honours upon the talented and well-deserving. True tribute to Clarke’s work requires facing the reality of racism in Canada, which is uncomfortable, inculpatory, and challenging.
Marquita R. Smith is an Assistant Professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey. Her critical writing on the intersection of sexuality, race, and gender in literature, music, and culture can be read in Popular Music and Society, Postcolonial Text, Michigan Feminist Studies, and, mostly recently, The Routledge Research Companion to Popular Music and Gender (2017).