The following originally appeared as part of the York University series Counterparts, produced by Marjorie Cohen.
Leslie Sanders works in African American and Black Canadian literatures. She is the author of The Development of Black Theater in America (Louisiana State University Press), a general editor of the Collected Works of Langston Hughes (University of Missouri Press), and the volume editor for two volumes of plays and other performance works. Aside from publications on Hughes, she has published on such Black Canadian writers as Austin Clarke, Dionne Brand, Nourbese Philip, Claire Harris, George Elliot Clarke, Maxine Tynes and Djanet Sears. She is a founder of the Centre for the Study of Black Cultures in Canada and webmaster for African Canadian Online.
Leslie Sanders: Austin, first your memoir, with that wonderful title, Growing up Stupid Under the Union Jack. Why do you say you grew up stupid?
Austin Clarke: Stupid in the sense that the content of the education was not intended to develop a Barbadian personality. Stupid in the sense that the consequences of the education were not intended to produce a Barbadian who could contribute to the development—whatever that terms means—of Barbados. Apart from that, the education was quite good.
There is a mild contradiction in that because I don’t see how an education could be good and, yet, not relevant. It is good in the sense that those of us who survived it probably understood that it was an education, and not an acculturization. That is to say, it taught us some of the gimmicks of study, it introduced us to broader literary horizons, it instilled in us a certain desperate desperation to find out what was actually happening in the world. We then enacted that development of intellectual activity physically as we felt that we had to actually leave Barbados.
The problems that we have—or they have—in Barbados today seem to me, qualitatively, to be the same problems they had when I was growing up. I think that one of the reasons for this is that the way we were educated was not to serve Barbados but to serve as important functionaries in the colonial civil service. This is to say, we would always be little Englishmen.
LS: Do you think that Canadian education has been similarly stupid?
AC: I wouldn’t say Canadian education is, or has been, stupid in the same way that Barbados was. Canadian education seems to me to be more relevant in the sense that it, more or less, provides for jobs, functions, and vocations so that when a person goes through this system of education, he can find his place, other things being equal. There is nothing that would shock him if he were placed in a certain position based on his qualifications.
I would say, however, that I find Canadian education to be quite narrow. I say this because of my own children were educated here. Their ideas of criticism are certainly not equal to mine when I was going to school. That is, of course, a difference in the philosophies of education which is to say the Canadian, or American, and the English.
LS: Lets turn now to your novels that are about Toronto. In these works you pursue a group of characters for about six years of their Toronto life. You seem to suggest that although they can’t return to the West Indies, there’s little in Canada that offers them joy or fulfillment. Some writers have discussed the ways you treat your characters as being alienated. How would you describe their predicament and choices?
AC: First you would have to decide why they came here. In some cases they came to be educated, in other cases they came to get jobs. The characters in the books came to get jobs but the jobs they got were not jobs which would put them in better social or mental states in Canada. However, the jobs they got did elevate them into a higher class vis-à-vis Barbados.
One of the important things about those people is that, insofar as coming to Canada is concerned, there was not much culture shock. Certainly at the time I was writing these books in the 1950s and 60s, they could see, in Canada, certain acceptable and comfortable colonial attitudes. Of course Canada was not unknown to them; they had heard of Canada. If they had gone to school above Civil Standard they would have learned Canadian geography.
What puzzled them, I think, was that they were not accepted in Canada as if they had known something about Canada that had little to do with race. The race thing, I think, is quite easy to be put forward as an argument but if one looked at them as people I think you would tend to conclude that they were alienated from themselves.
LS: Are you suggesting that they can only overcome the problems they face if they are accepted by Canadian society?
AC: I think acceptance in the sense that they would have to make it less of a daily problem of passing an examination. Like, if you went to get a job, you would have to pass an examination which had nothing to do with the actual examination you would have to pass in order to demonstrate that you are qualified. Rather, the chap would say “Well I wonder whether it is wise to hire this man, not because he was not qualified but because he is new or strange or Black.” Acceptance in that sense.
LS: Leroi Jones has a line in a poem about “I can’t know who I am unless you accept I’m real.”
AC: Well that is the best putting it: yes, that the man is a person.
LS: There was a conference in Montreal sometime ago about the role of the Black writer in Canada and I understand that one of issues raised is that the writer has a responsibility to describe and interpret the Canadian experience for those who share it. As the only Black writer in Canada who is dealing with the Canadian experience, I wonder if you have any comment about that idea about the writer’s responsibility.
AC: I understand why people would call me a Black writer. There was a time when I revelled in the categorization; those were the times of Black national awareness and things like that. Now I simply regard myself as a writer and if anyone knows me he would know that I’m Black. I would not like the conclusion to be made that I am writing things of interest only to Blacks. So I do not have to say that I am a black writer to suggest that my point of view is Black; my point of view can only be what I am. I believe that after a certain point, race is not a very substantial stone on which to build literature.
You see, I don’t require the posture of a Black writer because if I have a Black character waiting for a streetcar and he breaks the line and gets on first or if he’s driving a car and there’s a one way street and he goes down the other side to get to the corner first, that is a statement I’m making. So one has got to be able, in the production of art, to understand what is the medium of the art from what is the content. In other words, a good artist, a good writer, knows when he is submerging the politics in a piece for the sake of the art.
LS: What’s the difference between art and politics then?
AC: You know in the late 70s there was a group of musicians in America who were trying to follow Coltrane’s mastery of tenor sax and who heard, with very uncritical and un-artistic ears, what that idiot Nat Hentoff called “sheets of sound.”
These people built their art on what they could hear, but they could not understand that Coltrane had come through years of experimentation so that when he played A Love Supreme, and you had listened to him before, you would understand this was not discordancy. In other words, to get the point of view in another thing he did called Africa Brass, he was not being discordant in order to say ‘this is what Africa is like,’ ‘this is the Africa in me.’
So the bad artist is incapable, until he becomes better, of understanding how politics is connected in art and how one has got to restrain oneself as one is putting across a political situation.