Troubled Meeting Points

by Megan Suttie and Ira Halpern

Ira Halpern lives in Toronto where he is pursuing his PhD in English literature. His work has been appeared in the online journal Drain as well as in other academic publications.

The first entry in Austin Clarke’s Toronto Trilogy, The Meeting Point is set in 1960s Toronto and describes the experiences of the first significant wave of immigrant workers from the Caribbean who arrived under the Canadian domestic worker scheme of 1955. Bernice, the central character, works for a Jewish couple, Mr. and Mrs. Burrmann, in the Forest Hill area of Toronto. The novel tracks the experience of Bernice and her friends in Toronto: Dots, another domestic working in Toronto, Henry, Boysie, Agatha, and Bernice’s sister, Estelle. In its depiction of Black life in Toronto, The Meeting Point at once attends to the transformation of identity for immigrants as well as the failings of Canadian liberalism to contend with Black identity and racial difference. In Clarke’s thematizing of the relationship between the Black characters and their Jewish employers, he takes up the tensions between two minority communities, particularly as Sam Burrmann attempts to claim White identity precisely by distancing himself from Black people. This drama, and its attendant forms of anti-Black racism, plays out in the relationships between Bernice, Estelle, and the Burrmanns, particularly in the way that Bernice and Estelle are fixed within a particularly denigrating concept of Blackness. These tensions are heightened when a visit from Estelle’s sister from Barbados leads to the explicit engagement with the theme of sexual violence in the novel: Sam Burrmann rapes Estelle, unleashing one of the most violent “meetings” in the text.  Thus the novel links both the everyday violence and racism faced by the West Indian characters in Toronto to the forms of sexual violence enacted against Black women. While Clarke’s handling of the difficult subject matter is not always successful, the novel’s satirizing of the possibilities for cross-ethnic and cross-cultural understanding offers a fascinating glimpse into pre-multicultural-era Canadian racism.

Violent Misrecognitions

Written well before the advent or legislation of state multiculturalism in Canada, The Meeting Point offers both an insightful look into multicultural identity formation as well as a damning account of anti-Black racism in 1960s Toronto. Clarke’s novel reveals the limits of liberal notions of identity in Canada, particularly as they depict Black people as excluded and denigrated others. Where The Canadian Multiculturalism Act promises to “recognize and promote” a wide range of cultural and racial identities, Clarke demonstrates how these acts of recognition are more often acts of mis-recognition that continue to exclude Black people from the national imaginary. Yet Clarke’s aim is not singularly on traditional ‘White’ Canada, as the novel’s depiction of the violence and conflict that emerge within and across the Black and Jewish communities demonstrate the antagonisms and discord at the heart of multicultural conceptions of identity. While characters such as Bernice, Dots, Henry, and Sam Burrmann all attempt to establish identities according to traditional liberal models, including Charles Taylor’s politics of recognition, their failure to do so reveals the limits of these theories to account for the actual experience of difference and otherness and its unavoidable forms of conflict and violence. Clarke therefore shows the impossibility of developing an authentic and satisfactory Black identity within these systems by detailing the failure of these liberal frameworks to account for race, particularly anti-Black racism that, his novel shows, remains at the heart of the Canadian multicultural project.

The act of misrecognition does more than cause immediate harm; it corrodes and often subsumes an individual’s sense of identity such that they lose their ability to assert any identity in opposition to the one projected upon them by others. 

The anti-Black racism and stereotypical projections which characterise the reception and treatment of the novel’s Black characters are a form of what Taylor refers to as “misrecognition.” In “The Politics of Recognition,” Taylor outlines the important connection between recognition and identity, as well as the damage caused by misrecognition which occurs when “a person’s understanding of who they are, of their fundamental defining characteristics as a human being” is not acknowledged by others, and a different malicious idea of who they are takes its place. As Taylor explains:

The thesis is that our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of others, and so a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves. Nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being.

The act of misrecognition does more than cause immediate harm; it corrodes and often subsumes an individual’s sense of identity such that they lose their ability to assert any identity in opposition to the one projected upon them by others. Eventually, they internalize “a picture of their own inferiority” and become complicit in their oppression. Misrecognition is, therefore, more than merely “a lack of due respect,” for it can “inflict a grievous wound, saddling its victims with a crippling self-hatred.”

Misrecognition and the wounds it inflicts happen gradually, one moment of misrecognition building on the last until the distorted identity dominates both external and internal recognition and culminates in a crisis of identity. Frantz Fanon complicates this process in action, and describes the ramifications of even a single moment of misrecognition in his discussion of misrecognized Blackness in Black Skin, White Masks. In a passage where Fanon is sitting on a White train, a White child publicly labels him “a Negro.” What Taylor blithely summarizes as misrecognition, Fanon imagines as the decentering experience of being “[s]ealed into that crushing objecthood;” his identity “burst apart” and “the fragments…put back together again by another self” to create and confine Fanon within a degrading and singular understanding of Blackness as “Negro.” Fanon, made through the child’s utterance to “experience his being through others,” identifies the “moment his inferiority comes into being,” as his Blackness is defined in opposition to the child’s Whiteness. In an instant, Fanon’s own self-understanding is subsumed and replaced through the assertion of the child that he is “a Negro;” an external identifier of his being, his skin, becomes a metonym for his entire being. The act of misrecognition strips his identity of any depth or complexity; his entire identity becomes knowable through the external significations of skin.  Fanon’s experience on the train indicates the forms of violence, in the annihilation of the other’s identity, the projecting of racial fantasies onto non-white subjects, and the silencing of Black people, that underwrite liberal conceptions of recognition and identity.

 

The Price of Whiteness: Jewish and Black Misrecognition

Clarke’s depictions of race resonate with Fanon’s, and explode Taylor’s simplistic politics of recognition by dramatizing these very real forms of violence and power that are integral to any act of identity formation. As Fanon explains, “not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man,” and the Burrmanns and other Jewish characters capitalize on this to define their own Whiteness in opposition to Blackness. Multicultural theorist Will Kymlicka has made a similar observation in a Canadian context, arguing that new immigrant groups gain a degree of respectability and acceptance “precisely by gaining some distance from ‘blacks’. They have come to be seen as ‘respectable’, like whites, in contrast to the ‘unruly’ blacks. They are seen as decent, hard-working and law-abiding citizens, as opposed to the promiscuous, lazy, and criminal blacks.” Kymlicka asserts that the “fundamental divide” between who is and is not accepted in Canada is, rather than between “white and non-whites,” between “blacks and non-blacks, so that being accepted does not require that one be white … so long as one is not black.” The politics of recognition is therefore exposed as one of domination wherein one intentionally mis-recognizes an Other in order to elevate oneself.

Fanon’s scene on the train is re-staged in the novel, making the politics of domination explicit, when the neighbours’ children call attention to Bernice’s race: “She’s black,” says the Gasstein boy; “Look! She is really black” (emphasis in original). Bernice’s humiliation is underscored by her position in the household, and, even though the only witnesses are the four children, Bernice recalls that she “had not then liked the word “black” used to describe her colour” and the encounter made her “stiff with tension, with shame and with hate.” This moment of misrecognition—in which a young Jewish child has already learned to assert his own identity as white by publicly and explicitly denigrating Black people—reduces and essentializes Bernice’s identity to the colour of her skin and “seals her into that crushing objecthood.”

The moments of sexual violence in the novel indicate the impossibility of ever achieving true recognition or understanding.

To an extent, Bernice and Dots have also internalized the devaluing of Blackness as they respond to their experiences with racism by trying to physically distance themselves from their Black identities. Dots and Bernice use makeup to disguise their Black skin, including the “white powder” that was “like snow.” What they cannot mask, they hide—when Bernice suggests she will wear shorts out in public, Dots responds with shocked reprimand:

Oh Christ, no, gal! What you think you are doing? Wearing shorts? Not in Toronto! I have never seen a Black person in the many years I been here, who was man enough or woman enough, to wear shorts, in public. And I not talking ‘bout the shape o’ your legs, neither. I am concern with the colour! (emphasis in original).

What they cannot disguise or hide, they make light of: Bernice and Dots make jokes about Gertrude, a woman they know with even darker skin than their own, with Dots referring to her as “Coal Dust.” These jokes distance Bernice and Dots from someone “Blacker” than them in order to assert their own Whiteness in comparison, recalling the strategy of the Burrmanns and other Jewish characters. Indeed, Bernice changes churches, moving from the Toronto Negro Baptist Church to the Unitarian Congregation which is “all white—or mostly white.” Having made this change, “Bernice felt purged, in a way”; and this language suggests her internal “Whitening” and “Anglicizing,” a desire to transform her true, inner identity. Yet in these acts of purging of the demeaning images of herself, Bernice in a sense succumbs to the acts of misrecognition as she enables them to transform her: in publicly distancing herself from Black people and hoping to not be recognized as Black, Bernice sacrifices an important dimension of her identity.

 

Sexual Violence and Misrecognition

The violence that pervades these acts of misrecognition comes to a head in the novel’s depiction of interracial sex. In this respect, the narrative is aligned with a strand of 1960s Black nationalism that challenged the idea that sexual integration would inevitably lead to better race relations. Clarke asks his readers to reconsider the assumption that interracial romance, and specifically interracial sex, is simply a subset, or the apex, of integrationist reform. In the world of The Meeting Point, sex can segregate and exploit, and it is always haunted by legacies of slavery, racialization and violence.

The violence and danger of interracial encounters are evident even during a seemingly amicable house party. In a moment that evokes the potential for identification across racial lines, Boysie teaches the German maid Brigitte the calypso, exclaiming “You does dance like a real West Indian, though!” Yet this moment of potential recognition across racial lines is quickly undone by the emergence of Bernice’s raging jealousy: she imagines Brigitte as a “man-stealer” and taunts Boysie in her mind: “give her a good twirl, and I hope you put a proper black man breeding on her, too!” The scene of casual dancing becomes a battleground structured by a long history of aggression.

In addition to these moments of subtle aggression, the moments of sexual violence in the novel indicate the impossibility of ever achieving true recognition or understanding. Indeed, rape seems to lurk everywhere in the novel, permeating a range of scenes, and often taking the reader by surprise. For instance, there is a moment when Henry peers into a car because he thinks he sees an interracial couple having sex. When a police officer questions him, Henry explains his behaviour, “Well I came up here to rape three white women!” The rape joke is oddly provocative. Henry intends to make the officer think twice about questioning him by sarcastically suggesting that he’s committed a crime. But why the crime of rape in particular? The joke suggests the pervasive atmosphere of violence in the world of the novel, and it foreshadows the rape that does occur.

Sam Burrmann’s meeting with Estelle, alone in his house, leads to the explicit surfacing of the sexual violence that already permeates the world of the novel. But if rape is in the air even before it literally occurs, what’s notable is how the act of sexual violence gets revised or even effaced as soon it happens. While raping Estelle, Sam views his crime as an act of love, and following the rape scene, the narrator describes Sam and Estelle’s relationship as a “friendship.” While Sam  thinks his rape of Estelle is an act of “love,” it is, of course, a brutal act of violence. Estelle also has contradictory thoughts about the incident: “Rape? She had thought of it happening. She had actually urged it on in her mind.” But at the same time, she “hoped it would never happen.”  This obfuscation of the act of rape continues throughout the novel, as Sam and Estelle stroll through Yorkville. The image of the interracial couple, whose “friendship” is founded on rape, strolling through bohemian and progressive Yorkville, suggests the ubiquity of these acts of misrecognition and their concealed histories of violence. In this passage, the brutal violence that had marked these characters’ initial “meeting” is sublimated. The narrative offers little explanation of how Sam’s rape of Estelle produces a “friendship.” This euphemism is disturbing and provocative: is this Clarke’s paternalistic, or misogynist, handling of the act of rape, or an effort to retain some textual ambivalence about the nature of Sam and Estelle’s relationship? The narrative lingers uneasily in these kinds of gaps of disassociation to indicate just how fraught meetings across racial lines can be.

These meetings are rendered even more fraught because they are part of ongoing, collective histories. During Sam’s rape of Estelle, Sam recalls a childhood memory of a police officer beating a Black boy, Jeffrey, who Sam let take the blame for stealing an apple. Jeffrey’s mother told Sam that he would “pay for [his] silence, one o’ these good days.” Scared of receiving such repayment, Sam tries to dominate Estelle, who serves, in part, as a kind of substitute Black body for Jeffrey. Thus Sam pays violence forward in a twisted attempt to avoid paying for his own violation of Jeffrey. But in addition to trying to resolving a childhood trauma, as he rapes Estelle, Sam thinks of the history of his people: “he saw Dachau and Auschwitz; he saw torment of bodies emaciated, tortured, twisted.” This strange moment suggests, perhaps, Clarke’s latent anti-Semitism, but more significantly, it also signals the manner in which acts of relation can be shadowed by the trauma of history and collective pasts. The Holocaust imagery does not spark sympathy for Sam’s victim, but instead only seems to fuel his lust and make his act of “repayment” all the more vindictive.

Clarke’s novel shows that the traumatic histories of the past remain unresolved, and continue to produce damage and violence in today’s acts of meeting or attempted recognition.

In place of Taylor’s ideal conception of identities structured by mutual recognition, The Meeting Point often demonstrates how racial separation and stratification become stabilized through acts of violence, abuse and repayment. Like Sam’s rape of Estelle, which attempts to pass the debts of the past onto her, Henry frames sex within a collective history of violence that renders having sex with any White woman a means of correcting for violent acts perpetrated against racialized subjects more generally. He argues that when he has sex with Agatha—a White, Jewish woman—he is also repaying her: “I was repaying her for what her brothers do to my sister, you dig? There ain’t no such thing as love, baby. It’s a re-payment. A final goddamn re-payment.” If Sam thinks of himself as “lover” as he rapes Estelle, Henry glorifies sex without love as a means of fighting back. He seeks revenge for a whole history of violence against those “black people lynched and killed, all those black cats, murdered and slain, all those black chicks raped and dehumanized.” Yet, despite his emphasis on traumatic, collective histories, Henry’s rant about “driving” women begins with his claim that “there ain’t no colour problem. Because, dig! when you come down to the level of undressing a woman, that thing is all the same colour and formation, baby. You dig?” For a brief moment, Henry suggests the possibility for sex to overcome interracial divisions rather than sharpening them. This comment represents a kind of potential in the world of the novel. But it is a potential rendered impossible by the state of race relations in their present form.

Bernice elaborates on this same impossibility when Dots explains to her that she wants to sleep with a “nice, young strapping white man” in order to take revenge on her husband Boysie for sleeping with White women. Bernice evokes a long history of exploitation of racialized, Black women by White men: in her great-great grandmother’s day, Bernice insists, a White man could “grab her grandmother… and lay down flat on top o’ she, and work himself and his unwanted substance and seed into her belly.” Bernice chastises Dots, accusing her of wishing to bring these days back. Dots’s reply, a politically tame stance on integration, referring to the “modern trend” in “technicolour Toronto,” does not account for Bernice’s argument about history, and instead emphasizes the rapidly changing present. In her desire to repay Boysie for his affairs, Dots attempts to situate herself within emerging discourses of sexual liberation. Bernice reminds her, however, that history must be given its due, and that the kind of sexual liberation she proposes—which in this case involves interracial sex as means of revenge—will only recall and reproduce scenes of violent misrecognition. But what Dot’s argument about the “modern trend” of interracial coupling fails to acknowledge, according to the logic of the novel, is that integration via intimacy might not be possible if histories of sexual violence are not taken up and somehow rectified.

 

The Limits of Recognition / The Promise of Representation

Clarke’s novel shows that the traumatic histories of the past remain unresolved, and continue to produce damage and violence in today’s acts of meeting or attempted recognition. As Bernice and the other West Indian characters simultaneously resist, internalize, and distance themselves from this persistent misrecognition and assert an alternative identity, they undergo fundamental changes to their own identities. Estelle, from the very night of her arrival, senses this change in Bernice and her friends from how they had been back home: she accuses them of being “so tense, that nobody didn’t ask me how I enjoyed my trip.” Estelle eventually makes this accusation explicit, telling Bernice that: “you changed; and changed a damn lot, too.” While each of the Black characters in the novel employs a different strategy to be recognized on their own terms, their strategies are regularly frustrated by the structures of white supremacy and racism at work in Canada. This frustration reflects the reported reality of West Indian domestic workers who asserted, in Frances Henry’s study in Montreal in 1965, that the process of adjusting to life in Canada negatively affected their personalities and self-conceptions. They reported becoming “independent, emotionless, bitter, hard, tough, aggressive and bold” as well as “materialistic, money-conscious, less religious … [and having] lower standards for morality, especially relating to sexual behaviour.” The women in this study cited these changes as a direct result of the “prejudiced treatment and hard conditions” they had experienced in Canada.

It’s not that The Meeting Point should leave us feeling blocked by the impossibility of better points of contact, better meetings, but the novel does show that we have a long way to go.

Clarke was cognizant of these material realities for Black immigrants to Canada in the 1960s. In a Maclean’s article entitled “A Black Man in White Canada” (1963), he writes:

How do black immigrants react to the discrimination and prejudice that is part of their daily lives? Some live in terror of its icy fingers and avoid anything that might “give the white man the wrong impression of black people.”

Others become hostile and take out their hostility in aggressive social and sexual behaviour. Some marry white women and seek to drown their fears and complexes in their wives’ environment. In my opinion they only create another problem—the problem of producing mulatto children who belong neither to the white world nor the Black.

Each of Clarke’s strategies for survival is depicted within the dialogic nature of the novel, which, full of conversation and debate, tends to crack open other possibilities for self-recognition. That said, the logic of the novel also closely resonates with a strand of Black nationalist ideology whose proponents chanted “Black is beautiful” and wanted Black men to develop romantic relations with Black women. Clarke thus refuses to align interracial marriage with progress, but suggests instead that it creates confusion, violence, and pain in a Canadian landscape corroded by racism. In The Meeting Point, Clarke dwells on the point of sexual contact—interrogating both the logics, and the logical gaps, that produce the “fears and complexes” of both racialized and racializing subjects. The agonizing question, for Clarke, is not simply how will Canada recognize Black people but how will Black people recognize themselves in Canada? While Clarke has shed new light on the struggle for recognition his question remains, thus far, unanswered.

A year after The Meeting Point was published, the Black Panther Elridge Cleaver’s memoir Soul on Ice came out. Cleaver’s confession of having once serially raped White women shocked readers. But Cleaver, having refashioned himself in prison, came to see interracial sex as a way of producing harmony across racial lines. In The Meeting Point, Clarke mostly resists this kind of thinking: the kind of thinking that would disavow a history of sexual violence and replace it with the notion that interracial sex produces mutual respect and the kind of recognition that liberalism often envisions. The novel suggests that violence seems to haunt almost all interracial sexual encounters. It’s not that The Meeting Point should leave us feeling blocked by the impossibility of better points of contact, better meetings, but the novel does show that we have a long way to go in terms of creating the contexts that might produce more desirable scenes of intimacy. No interracial sexual encounter for Clarke is hermetically sealed off from traumatic pasts, psychological baggage, or misrecognized forms of desire. The scene of the sexual encounter unfolds within the context of long collective histories. These scenes are fraught, for Clarke, precisely because they tend to evacuate the word “meeting” of its connotations of mutuality, dialogue, identification, and recognition.

 

Megan Suttie studies the treatment and representation of education in English-language fantasy fiction, looking at the ways in which American and British fantasy texts adapt and subvert the school story genre. She is pursuing this research under a Joseph-Armand Bombardier Doctoral Scholarship and is a McMaster Harry Lyman Hooker Sr. Fellow. Her dissertation on education in American fantasy continues the work begun in her Master’s thesis on Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy. Megan completed her B.A. at Trent University in Peterborough, and is also a certified intermediate-secondary teacher through Queen’s University in Kingston.


Ira Halpern lives in Toronto where he is pursuing his PhD in English literature. His work has been appeared in the online journal Drain as well as in other academic publications.

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