Austin Clarke’s Colonial Critique: ‘Amongst Thistles and Thorns’ in Canada

by Sharon Morgan Beckford

Sharon Morgan Beckford is associate professor and Chair in the Department of English at Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY. Her research interests include Black Diaspora Studies, Canadian literature, Postcolonial literatures, and Black Cultural and Feminist Studies. She is the author of several publications including her book Naturally Woman: The Search for Self in Black Canadian Women’s Literature (Ianna Publications).

In his seminal text The Blacks in Canada: A History, the eminent historian Robin W. Winks declared that “the black tile in the mosaic” discovered that’ ‘he’ had become “a symbol of the basic Canadian dilemma.” By this observation Winks meant that “of all ethnic groups in Canada, the Negroes were the one that no longer had a cultural base to which they could return.”[1] While this cultural loss was not true of Austin Clarke’s particular circumstances (in the narrowest sense of nationality, he was born in colonial Barbados and could return there), it was most certainly true in the broader sense of his being in the Black Diaspora in the Americas. And it was in the United States that he with Houston Baker, Jr. and other Black faculty at Yale University, “the cream of a very exclusive crop,” as Baker put it, pioneered the establishment of what is now known as African American Studies. So whether in Barbados or North America, Clarke was living at home.

Winks was reflecting on Canada’s history and the struggle for a multicultural state in which all cultures could belong on a basis of equality. In this state of cultural uneasiness, Winks wondered how Black people would find a space in this cultural confusion, or as he put it: “in a society which persistently denied that there was a cultural norm against which assimilation could be measured.” Upon further thought Winks probed, “Against the reflected light of which color within the secular mosaic should the Negro cast his shadow? The Italian, the Irish, the French, the Ukranian, the Scots, the English? For there was no clear form of Canadianism by which Negroes could show their loyalty.” Evidently for Winks there was not even a gesture to be made to what later would be called the recognition of Blackness as inherently Canadian on its own. In this view Blackness, then, had to be compared to other cultures and ethnicities for validation and any acceptance. At the end of this chapter, titled “The Black Tile in the Mosaic,” Winks concluded that “The black tile in the mosaic appeared ready to test the pattern.” It is against this interpretation of multiculturalism that Black people in Canada have had to struggle for almost the last half century.

In 1996, upon the completion of the “Preface to the Second Edition” of the book, Winks thanked Austin Clarke, his friend, a “son of Barbados, distinguished Canadian novelist, who has acted as a one-man clipping service over the years” (emphasis added). He also noted that Clarke, “a Barbadian by birth, often writes for the better literary journals and is a novelist and editor of stature[2]…Clarke is clearly the best established black writer in Canada, however.”

Winks’s commendation of Clarke invites us to contemplate at this historical moment Clarke’s work on the first anniversary of his passing. Reflecting on my conversations with Clarke over twenty years, I feel his work has provided Canadians with much to reflect on through recurring themes, tropes, and motifs. I want to focus on four recurring themes that I have also observed in one of Clarke’s earlier novels Amongst Thistles and Thorns (1965) to argue that in this moment, 2017, Black people in Canada are living amongst thistles and thorns: the prickly pain of violence, segregation, subordination, and exploitation. Readers of Clarke’s oeuvre will recognize the recurrence of these themes over his five-decade long career.

Amongst Thistles gestures to what would become Clarke’s five-decade critique of how social relations as practiced in the Black Diaspora during colonialism negatively impacted the characters’ lives.

Clarke’s second novel, Amongst Thistles and Thorns, depicts what it means for Black people to live a deprived and abused life in poverty in Barbados during British colonial rule in the 1950s. The novel captures the polarity of the segregated population inhabiting the island under colonialism. Readers observe the stark differences between the poor Black population struggling to make ends meet on limited resources and opportunities afforded to them by the rich White population who controls the economic resources on the island. The story revolves around the lives of the narrator Milton Sobers and his mother Ruby, who live in extreme poverty and whose daily survival depends on Ruby’s washing clothes for her White client. Ruby receives inadequate compensation and has to borrow money weekly from her close friend Girlie to buy supplies to do her work. Black men are portrayed as dependent upon Black women and life for all seems dim. The White people, in marked contrast, live a lifestyle based on the wealth that they have either inherited as colonizers or have acquired by virtue of White privilege. Milton observes the difference between the lifestyles of the two ethnic groups and comments often on the mistreatment of Black people by White people through the violence, both physical and epistemic, that they bestow on the people in his community. Black people, in this story, often internalize the stereotypes that White people ascribe to them and also mistreat each other based on what they have come to learn from their White colonial oppressors.

Published the year after his Survivors of the Crossing, Amongst Thistles gestures to what would become Clarke’s five-decade critique of how social relations as practiced in the Black Diaspora during colonialism negatively impacted the characters’ lives. The novel portrays a violent, misogynistic, poor, and segregated society, while illuminating the dehumanizing colonial conditions that shaped Black people’s lives. Through the perspective of the nine-year-old narrator Milton Sobers, readers learn about the ways that poverty was enforced by segregation, violence, subordination, and exploitation—themes that will be discussed later. Time and space notwithstanding, scholars agree that modernity bequeathed a shared experience to Black people in the Black Diaspora. We can therefore extend Clarke’s critique in Amongst Thistles to North American Black people, as he himself implicitly does when he has the narrator Milton remark: “our village looked like the street in Harlem.” Indeed, we might read this novel as an extension of Clarke’s Toronto Trilogy, for how he introduced in the homeland the “West Indian” women that would become the domestics depicted in the trilogy, and who would pioneer the most recent round of Black immigration to Canada. We might also read in the trilogy his warning of the violence a society can inflict when it forces member to live lives segregated from the mainstream—something that was still very much the thought of the day when Clarke was writing. The “West Indian” women were coming to Canada, and Canadian elites were still holding on to the notion of developing Canada, as a favoured daughter of the British Commonwealth, into a White society—that is, an Anglo-Saxon—country.

Black people’s social and economic conditions have not significantly improved since the novel’s publication. Some may argue that with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, multicultural Canada offers Black people a better life, as all cultures are equal (in principle). However, in practice, a different story emerges, one underwritten by modernized unjust colonial practices that produce the social inequalities that Black people experience in Canada.

Clarke uses the titular motif of thistles and thorns—indeed, as imaginative as Winks suggested of the ‘black tile in the mosaic’ is blackness like the proverbial rose among thorns all growing in what Northrop Frye’s would call the Canadian “Bush Garden”—to convey the ways that extreme poverty elicits violence in the home and community during colonialism. Like the characters in the novel, people become frustrated when they must live awash in poverty without the means to elevate their circumstances; soon violence creeps in like thistles and thorns harming the members of the household. Other forms of violence affect the impoverished communities such as the psychological violence experienced by the residents due to police surveillance, carding, and profiling in communities and of Black individuals exercising their freedoms in Canada.

Clarke manipulates our gaze by shifting his critical lens from Barbados to the United States and back, heightening our awareness of the similarities in communal life between Black folks in the Caribbean and the United States.

Milton’s story resonates with those who recognize these situations, even today. Milton, having run away from his mother Ruby to escape the violence of her beatings, spends a third of the story hiding from her. She is an underpaid washerwoman who is frustrated by her impoverished condition. Milton describes his relationship with his mother as distant: “I found out nothing about her. The wall of silence between us was broken only when she summoned me to her presence to remind me that she was my mother by flogging the life out of me.” While in hiding he dreams of being in Harlem, in the dream he recognizes spaces and places that he knows exist in Barbados: “And there were policemen. The policemen were the only people who were not black like the people. … They were walking and sauntering up and down the street looking at the black people congregated at the corner of the street which I thought was our Bath Corner. But it was not our Bath Corner.” In his dream, Milton pictures himself in the midst of the crowd: “And there was I, in the midst of the flowers and in the midst of the thistles and thorns of men, barefooted.” We know that in reality this is a familiar scene in Canada, too. We can easily include Toronto and Montreal as places Clarke could just as well been describing. For would the Black immigrants running away like Milton find Canada as colonially the same, as the saying goes, simply swapping black dog for monkey in terms of a common British colonial experience? Clarke appeared to be saying there was danger of this happening; in trying to escape a Bath Corner for the pristine Whiteness of Canada, these immigrants could be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. Or rather, that whether it is Bath Corner or Toronto or Montreal, they started out in the same frying pan.

Upon returning home Ruby sends Milton to the village stand-pipe to fetch water. Standing there, he gazes at the moon and the stars and reflects on the birth of Jesus Christ, who was visited by three Wise Men—“two white men from England, and a black man from a place called Africa.” He thinks about traveling “riding on in majesty on the hump of a camel of [his] imagination … all through English History, our history.” But Milton experiences his grim reality after returning home to his mother. It is the day before laundry day, and she is ranting over the sheets and clothes she needs to clean for a “white woman.” Meanwhile, Milton’s father has taken off with their money. Milton frets quietly: “I knew I was home again. There are no stars, no camels of my imagination, no wandering through history in her voice. Her voice is the voice of thistles, of thorns.” Thistles and thorns: a marriage between poverty and violence. Milton claims English history, as his history—his words connected the English Canadian history with Black Diasporic history—with no understanding of nor perceived connection to “a place called Africa.” His dream of travelling is not likely to come true.

While the travels of the domestic workers portrayed in Clarke’s The Meeting Point might be physical, technically they have gone nowhere in terms of seeking acceptance and recognition in a nation—to use Dionne Brand’s evocative term, they have no Land to Light On. Contextually, it is worth pointing out that Amongst Thistles was published four years before what is now called the Sir George Williams computer riots, when a number of “West Indian” students took a stand demanding inclusions for Black people in the Canadian society by occupying the university’s computer room at what is now part of Concordia University. This stand reverberated throughout the British Commonwealth/Empire and was no different from similar stands that Black people in the United States were taking for Civil Rights and citizenship.

When Clarke was writing the novel in the mid-60s, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (formed in 1963) was in the midst of discussions on British and French Canada, the nation, and belonging, and Canadians were turning their attention to the development of a national literature. Clarke offered his answer to the “Canadian dilemma,” but being in a colonial relationship with the British, Black people in the diaspora like Clarke were not considered British by Canadians of the day. However, literary scholar Leslie Sanders suggests another reason in her essay titled “Austin Clarke.” While “Canadians viewed Clarke’s work during this period with fascination and some uneasiness,” they also “often resisted his transferring of American definitions of the questions of race and racism to Canadian society.” In fact, the only mention of Black people in the Commission’s report was in reference to women domestic servants. We know that this reference to the Black presence is incorrect because Black people have been living in Canada since at least 1608, and not all of them were domestic women.

Although Amongst Thistles is set in Barbados, it also creates a bridge to Harlem, New York, through the stories that the character Willy-Willy shares with Ruby. I submit that Clarke shifts the setting between Barbados and Harlem, NY, to offer Canadians a fresh perspective on colonial oppression and to suggest what it was like for Black people in Canada, too. And let’s not forget that New York and Harlem would be the attractive Bigger Light for Black people in Canada thinking of secondary migration, still in search of acceptance and inclusion as told in Clarke’s later trilogy. Clarke manipulates our gaze by shifting his critical lens from Barbados to the United States and back, heightening our awareness of the similarities in communal life between Black folks in the Caribbean and the United States during the 1950s. The point here is that Clarke’s novel was published the year after the Civil Rights Act was passed in the US and at the rise of the Black Power Movement, when Black folks were actively pushing for self-determination in life and the arts.

It is even more disturbing to look back through Clarke’s work over five decades to see that colonial forms of oppression are even more entrenched in practice now, even if they materialize in subtler forms.

While Clark certainly was aware that the Caribbean, the US, and Canada were different societies, he was nevertheless alert to the colonial similarities as practiced in and across geographical spaces. Katherine McKittrick in Demonic Grounds explains this phenomenon in her discussion of the work of Marlene NourbeSe Philip, Dionne Brand, and Rinaldo Walcott in Black Canadian Diaspora Studies: “These studies and literatures have produced connected geographic trajectories: first, are the ways in which black histories, geographies, and experiences in Canada are bound to non-Canadian sites and histories.” Clarke experienced these cultures long enough to recognize the similarities that connected these geographies and histories in the Canadian context, and he saw the underlying causes of the dehumanizing conditions Black people in colonial Barbados and Black people in North America both experienced. He saw no difference in how these societies treated Black people.

Canada has been and continues to be critiqued for its failure to embrace Blackness as typified in the Black experience (for example, see the work of Cecil Foster, George Elliott Clarke, Dionne Brand, Rinaldo Walcott, McKittrick, Beckford, and Barrett, just to name a few). And it is even more disturbing to look back through Clarke’s work over five decades to see that colonial forms of oppression are even more entrenched in practice now, even if they materialize in subtler forms. These oppressive acts continue to be deployed to limit the social mobility of Black people; they have become normalized to the point where some Canadians have become frustrated and a number of them are now rising up to assert that Black lives matter, too. Some proponents of Black Canadian Studies continue to protest the enforced invisibility of Black people, in select institutions and society, by those with the power to make significant changes but who still persist, unwillingly or willingly, in suppressing the social advancement of Black people. Others challenge the Canadian nation-state on its lack of sensitivity towards the social and economic conditions of Black people, demanding concrete measures to remedy these social and economic inequalities. Multiculturalism rejects rather than embraces the Black experience as worthy of Canadianness—of social justice and equality that would lead to self-actualization and clear progress in the life of Black people as Canadians. As Paul Barrett’s cultural critique, offered in Blackening Canada, articulates: “Clarke’s work therefore contrasts the promises of multiculturalism with the social paralysis that black people continue to experience in Canada.”

From as early as Clarke’s first novel The Survivors of the Crossing and later with Amongst Thistles until the publication of his last novel More, Clarke’s oeuvre attests to the many ways Black people have been prevented from self-actualizing as much as other ethnic groups that have arrived in Canada since its independence. Winfried Siemerling points out also a similarity in his observation of Clarke’s first novel. In his book The Black Atlantic Reconsidered: Black Canadian Writing, Cultural History, and the Presence of the Past, he observes:

The Survivors of the Crossing comments on this continuity of oppression and exclusion that reaches from Bajan plantation realities both before and after emancipation to his Canadian Caribbean present, as a character (‘a worker’) notes: ‘in this country is the same slavery as what I run from back in the island.’

While Clarke is recognized as an acclaimed Canadian novelist, select publishers, editors, and readers are content to see his work set in Barbados as solely a Barbadian story, and would insist his work continue to retell the same stories over and over again. But the Barbados setting transcends it locale to symbolically reflect colonial oppression in North America and reveal the physical, psychological, social, economic, and political maneuvers by those in power that have kept Black people in a subordinate position to White people whether in Barbados or Canada. His critique confronts the ways that Black peoples’ contribution to literature and culture remain static, like some of the characters in his fiction. It might be helpful for the Canadian government to remove the blinders and see the nation-state for what it truly is today, and to recognize the positives in what it could become. It has long passed the time for Black people in Canada to receive social justice as promised in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

As a bildungsroman, Amongst Thistles‘ opening paragraph invites readers into a world of violence both physical and epistemic.

In Amongst Thistles segregation is one of the psychological forces behind the successful subordination of Black people to White people from the moment of new world slavery and continues today. During slavery Black people were segregated on the plantations and forced to work for free under violent oppressive conditions. Based on this structure, Black people in general did not accumulate any wealth, received no education or very little, and as such were more than likely unable to uplift themselves at emancipation out of the poverty that was handed to them by the colonists. After emancipation, Black people were largely situated in poor neighbourhoods, not having the education nor the opportunity readily available to advance themselves. In this way, the colonial project ensured that many Black people continued to live in impoverished conditions—as Milton puts it, “Our village, a clutter of poverty and shacks.” He goes on to characterize the community as two different areas, “the Front Road [the White people’s district] facing the back road [the Black people’s district] that led to the village. … the doctor shop was in the white people’s district.” Segregating Black people living impoverished lives from well-to-do White people was a way of perpetuating the notion that Black people were inferior to White people—so much so that Black people learned to employ the same rhetoric of inferiority, used on them by White people, in their communication with each other.

One day young Milton is attacked by a dog belonging to a White boy while running an errand for his mother. While sitting on the fence outside a hotel, he observes a young White boy approaching with his dog:

for no reason at all, the little boy said, ‘Ssssick!’ The dog made a leap. The boy dropped the leather string. The dog rushed up on the wall and pulled me down. Tearing and biting and shaking its head at the same time, the dog had me rolled into the dust in the gutter.

Upon hearing the commotion, the hotel watchman comes out and shouts, “You black boy! Get up to-arse offa the white man dog. … You little black fool, what the hell right you have hanging ’round the white man hotel? You ain’ belongst up here! You belongst down there.” The imposed hierarchy has now been reinforced, White people at the top and Black people at the bottom. This hierarchical structure exists in Canada as well.

As a bildungsroman, Amongst Thistles‘ opening paragraph invites readers into a world of violence both physical and epistemic. Readers are appalled by the level of violence meted out to young Milton by his mother, the headmaster, the white shop owner and, most especially, the British school inspector. His headmaster takes great pleasure in beating Milton, as he does all his students. In the opening scene, Milton describes: “Large beads of sweat were pouring down the headmaster’s neck and his face, as he held the whip above my head. I saw his wrist jerk like a piston. And before the blow landed, I closed my eyes.” The school inspector’s visit to his class provides another example of humiliation:

The inspector pushed a long lead pencil through my hair and the pencil broke, and he laughed and he expected the headmaster to laugh, but the headmaster did not laugh. ‘This boy should use Brylcreem, Mister Headmaster,’ the inspector had said. But the headmaster only turned his head aside in shame.

Physical and epistemic violence were part and parcel of the educational system, modelled on the British system. The beatings are acts of power relations between the powerful over the powerless children—and adults, too: the shame the headmaster betrays at the school inspector’s comment about Milton’s hair texture relates to his hair being like Milton’s. Brylcreem, used specifically by Black males in the Caribbean back then, was meant to ‘help’ Black people’s hairstyles conform to a White norm. In the current Canadian context we also read and hear stories in the media about Black people being shamed for their hair at school and at work. Trey Anthony’s play Da Kink in My Hair, which illuminated the importance of black women’s hair to their sense of self, was so timely and well received, it had a successful season at the Princess Margaret Theatre back in 2005 and had a short stint as a TV series on Global TV. Such stories make their audiences aware of why Black people maintaining their own hairstyles is an individual and deeply personal choice.

The field of Canadian Studies, in the main, does not readily consider more than the token Black presence, if at all.

Clarke’s work points to the ways in which violence disciplines and punishes Black people and thus controls the terms of their existence. There are other examples of epistemic violence that demonstrate the ways subordination through stereotyping frequently occurs in Milton’s village: Milton experiences this violence at the bath house as well, when he is caught peeking into the women section of the Bath and is caught by the bath inspector, Mr. Waterman, who yells: “You is a savage, Milton! A savage do not need a bath! You is a African! And Africans do not know what water mean. You big, idiot-headed black Cannibull!” Similar ideas about Black people still prevail and can be found recurring in the ways Black people are treated; even when these stereotypes are not overtly spoken, they are covertly deployed when those in power devalue the life, human dignity, and freedoms of Black people.

These stereotypes are also evident in the stories that are published, or commissioned to be published, or that publishers refuse to publish as Canadian literature. This stereotypical way of thinking is evident when Black professors and teachers are not given the opportunities to have a career teaching what they, too, love to teach. Even the field of Canadian Studies, in the main, does not readily consider more than the token Black presence, if at all, in this work—more Black people in all aspects of Canadian life doesn’t mean less White people, it simply shows Canadian humanity.

Social and psychological consequences of exclusion, enforced invisibility, and lack of support through unavailable economic and social opportunities may lead to the death of the self. These circumstances recur in Clarke’s fiction. In Amongst Thistles, Ruby says it well: “I living is true … living, but I done dead already.” For her, having very little to no money leads to lack of social advancement and continued ignorance. Psychological violence is one of the major ways Black people were kept in their place. Readers cannot help but notice the invectives used by the characters to communicate their displeasure with others and how much pleasure the headmaster experiences when he beats Milton and his schoolmates for different reasons but motivated by the same desire: power.

Subordination supported by violence, then, reinforces the imposed inferior status of Black people. Most, if not all, British colonial subjects were taught to sing this song, “Rule Britannia, Britannia Rules the waves;/Britons, never- never-ne-verr shall be slaves!!” This reinforcement of freedom for Britons begins in religious and educational institutions where Black children are taught that Black people are inferior to White people, that they are delinquent, that violence is the only way to keep them in their place, and that they should not aspire to hold positions in society that are the preserve of White people. By means of subordination White people continue to exploit Black people by inadequately compensating adults for the work they do. Ruby, Milton’s mother, does the laundry for a white woman whom she and also Milton feel does not fairly compensate her, as Milton explained: “My mother who was scared to suggest to the white lady out the Front Road in the mansion house that she should receive five plus five plus five shillings (at least!) for washing her dirty linen in the secrecy of our backyard, instead of five shillings [per week].” Ruby is never really able to rise above the circumstances of impoverishment that force her to continue working as a washerwoman. Ruby’s despair over her underprivileged life and dependency on the work she does for the white woman living in the Front Road comes across painfully clear when she appeals to God:

Lord, this world o’ Yourn gone ‘stray bad bad bad. This world that You put we in, to live with one another in, and love one another in, Lord, it turning ’round ’pon pounds, shillings, and pence, every blasted twenty-four hours! It not spinning ’round ’pon love and charity as You say it ought to spin ’round ’pon, at all. This whole blasted world that I live in going backwards like them days during the war when a person was a lucky bitch if he had a grain o’ rice to put inside his child’ mouth, once a week. Christ, Christ, Christ! It taking everything outta me, just to live.

The novel illustrates the way in which poverty by exploitation is intertwined with social conditioning, a world in which love and charity are one-sided.

Clarke’s fiction elevates major concerns over the placement, position, and treatment of Black people in the Canadian context, and focuses on the social immobility of Black people in Canada.

While the plethora of violent acts affect Black people in groups and individual circumstances in ways that are also self-inflicted, it is clear that segregation along racial and class lines supports exploitation in colonial environments. Black people living in the village are exploited by White people and through that exploitation White people are able to maintain their social status and keep Black people subordinate to them. This is clear as we observed in Ruby’s case as a poor washerwoman. Ruby’s client lives in a mansion in Front Road; the areas of industry and commerce are controlled by White people and are located in the Front Road area. The doctor’s shop is also located in the Front Road, which leads Milton to reflect, “I do not know, whether the owner of the shop, Mister Smith, a White man, did not like the people of the village or not; but he always took our money, and sometimes he would make you bleed to death before he would give you an aspirin.” And the hotel where Milton is bitten by a dog is owned by a White man and located in the White district.

Clarke draws on the Barbadian colonial condition showing how acts of segregation, violence, subordination, and exploitation continue to be used as strategies that position Black people as the underclass in societies that are shaped by colonial histories. Through these strategies it is easy for those in power and holding privilege in the mainstream to perpetuate exclusionary practices that limit Black people from achieving social mobility, especially in areas that are known to influence cultural understanding that can lead to social acceptance of Black people in Canada. Violence, whether physical or epistemic, is one means by which exclusion is reified as normative across the social spectrum at all levels.

There are at least two such levels at which these exclusionary actions manifest themselves and persist today, both of which I am intimately connected: academia and publishing. Clarke’s fiction raises readers’ awareness of these exclusionary practices in academia and publishing because they signal how these practices relate to the societal limits placed on Black Canadian Studies and the faculty invested in researching and teaching in this area. Clarke’s fiction also elevates major concerns over the placement, position, and treatment of Black people in the Canadian context, and focuses on the social immobility of Black people in Canada. It also signals the ways publishing restricts the stories that Black folks want to tell. Perhaps a Black editor in each of the major publishing houses would be a significant investment and would show an appreciation of the layered Canadian story that has a rich vein. We hide what we are ashamed others will see, but we shouldn’t hide ourselves as human.

Unlike Clarke’s experience with the development of African American Studies at Yale in the 1960s, Black Studies continues to be absent from the curriculum in most universities because there doesn’t seem to be the political will in higher education to develop this field. Nor does the publishing industry appear to support the stories that show the Canada that Black people know exists. Frankly, I want to know how we can hope to understand the cultures that comprise Canada if we don’t read about them in literature. It would help for Canada to invest in publishing stories that talk about all lives in Canada, not specific versions that are shaped by specific people not bold enough to publish the Black person’s story that would help Canadians come to terms with the importance of engaging with stories about the Black experience and to embrace a deeper understanding of why Black lives matter, too.

As Frye opined in his seminal text The Bush Garden, uniformity is boring.

Canadian Literature is still very much a reflection of whiteness. Black professors are not being hired in tenurable positions to teach Canadian literature, which is also a significant exclusion. By not opening the field to demonstrate that Black people are equally capable of teaching Canadian literature, these institutions send a clear message that Black people who are trained Canadianists should not aspire to teach and research Canadian literature. This view should clearly not be the establish norm, but it is, because there are many other non-Black scholars researching and teaching in the field and many do teach one or two nominal Black Canadian texts. Just as the watchman told Milton to stay in his place “down there” and not be “up here” where he doesn’t belong because specific areas are reserved for White people, similarly by not hiring Black faculty in tenurable positions academic institutions suggest that Black people should not aspire to teach in the field of Canadian literature, no matter how qualified. George Elliott Clarke makes an important point about White privilege, exclusion, and silencing when he says “I recognize … that academic and public intellectuals and orators and rhetoricians, in Canada, are primarily white, and whenever they use the words we or nous, they almost always refer to people of the same class, cultural background, and hue as themselves.” And with this recognition, Clarke explains his position: “I know I am a nominal African Baptist from a marginal black community, that’s all; but I still claim the right to comment on anybody’s literature. I feel a responsibility, too, to contest the erasure and silencing of black culture and history in Canada” (emphasis added). The same exclusionary or limited practices holds true for publishing. These observations are some of the thistles and thorns that Clarke’s work invoke.


Afterthought: Lessons For Us—Clarke and His Contemporaries

For over 20 years I have met with Austin Clarke, have shared his love for the fat on my jerk pork, his Bajan coconut sweet bread, his Virginia ham, his humour, and his love for things Barbadian, Caribbean and Canadian, and Black Diasporic. He always asked me for my opinion on his writing and Canadian literature too. I remember his generosity when he opened his home to host a party to celebrate my being granted a PhD. And I deeply appreciate the gift of his work. I can hear him saying still that there has to be action and a willingness to accept new realities in the telling of Canadian stories. I can hear him saying that as a nation Canada can move forward by acknowledging the differences in diversity followed by positive action.

As Frye opined in his seminal text The Bush Garden, uniformity is boring. Frye went on to argue, in 1971, that “Real unity tolerates descent and rejoices in variety of outlook and tradition, recognizes that it is man’s destiny to unite and not divide, and understand that creating proletariats and scapegoats and second-class citizens is a mean and contemptible activity.” Furthermore, he implores Canadians to think about unity, as “the extra dimension that raises the sense of belonging into genuine human life. Nobody of any intelligence,” he contends, “has any business in being loyal to an ideal of uniformity.” We may argue that this suggestion is not new, but if that’s the case why are we still at this point today? I agree that Clarke’s literature makes this same point—characters in the Canadian contexts do experience psychological development but it remains internal, not the intersubjective kind that Cecil Foster points out might be that of the Canadian political will when he comments on Black Canadian literature in his book Genuine Multiculturalism: The Tragedy and Comedy of Diversity. Because the characters continue to represent Black people who are not able to enter into society on their own terms and remain in a social state of paralysis, many readers understand this stasis as the characters not progressing into Canadianness.

This is a call for the gatekeepers to open the storehouse of Canadian literature to include new works by Black people that account for the Black experience in all its diversity and differences.

I advocate for real change in the academic and the publishing institutions through their willingness to take bold stands to embrace more work written by Black people and also to engage meaningfully in Black Canadian Studies. As Siemerling explains:

The repressive energies extended to regional or national narratives that elide parts of our historical inheritance contribute to marginalization and hamper fights against present day racism. In the realm of literature and culture, such cultivated oblivion curtails the possibilities of art to intervene critically in processes of cultural transformation and social justice.

This is a call for the gatekeepers to open the storehouse of Canadian literature to include new works by Black people that account for the Black experience in all its diversity and differences.

Rinaldo Walcott, in his seminal text Black Like Who?, observes that Clarke and other Black Canadian writers who live “at, or on, the in-between space” of the Black Diaspora know of what they speak; “Calls for justice in their work are not ill-informed, naïve rants.” As Foster reasons, “Justice will appear when different groups see a full reflection of themselves in the universal that is Canadian culture or a societal culture, and also feel an indispensable part of the Canadian whole. … Much of the discussion in Canadian culture revolves around conformity, even if it makes allowances for differences.” However, such conformity, with a bit of difference included, he explains, “masks the efforts of an elite group, the heir to a particular legacy, to determine by right what is indeed universally Canadian but from a particular perspective or gaze. Its members have a different view of justice and of what is good for Canada than do outsiders.” Dominance and hierarchy, then, put limits on creativity and innovation that Canada would profit from by moving forward. We can learn from Clarke’s writings that show how society places limits on Black people; this is what literature by Black Canadians mainly shows. French theorist Ernest Renan said: “The best way of being right in the future is, in certain periods, to know how to resign oneself to being out of fashion.” Foster put it this way: “The body is revolting against itself. … When this dominance happens, the body as a universal becomes sick, conflicted, and unjust, as it cannot represent the disparate ideas of good to which all members aspire.” If Canada aims sincerely to be Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s “just society,” the government should acknowledge that the time has come for a new, bolder, style. To paraphrase Renan, Canada is reborn in us every day. To return to Winks, the “black tile in the mosaic” doesn’t need to cast a shadow on any other ethnic space in the mosaic because Black just is.


[1] Note that Winks, as was acceptable at the time of his writing, used “Negro” and Black interchangeably. In this paper my preference is for the term Black people or African-Canadians, but I repeat the term “Negro” when quoting earlier works.

[2] Winks made this observation in a footnote in both the first and second editions of his book, but it was the only reference to Clarke in the first edition.

Sharon Morgan Beckford is associate professor and Chair in the Department of English at Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY. Her research interests include Black Diaspora Studies, Canadian literature, Postcolonial literatures, and Black Cultural and Feminist Studies. She is the author of several publications including her book Naturally Woman: The Search for Self in Black Canadian Women’s Literature (Ianna Publications).