Black Emigrant in Canada
- David Toby Homel (Translator) and Dany Laferrière (Author)
A Drifting Year. Douglas & McIntyre (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Richard Almonte (Editor) and Mary A. Shadd (Author)
A Plea for Emigration Or, Notes of Canada West. Mercury Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Rinaldo Walcott (Author)
Black Like Who? Writing Black Canada. Insomniac Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Tracy Bains
Although they use different genres and write about different periods of Canadian history, Walcott, Laferrière and Shadd all deal with emigration and the presence of blacks in Canada.
Walcott endeavors to "articulate some grammars for thinking Canadian blackness" by critiquing black cultural production in diaspora. Seven essays on texts, films, rap lyrics, and other forms of popular expression by Canadian black artists produce an elastic definition of "blackness" and its trans-national implications. Opening with a discussion of nineteenth-century black emigrants such as Martin Robinson Delany, Walcott challenges representations of Canada as a "place of sanctuary," and suggests that "Canadian blackness is a bubbling brew of desires for elsewhere, disappointments in the nation and the pleasures of exile even for those who have resided here for many generations."
However, Black Like Who? pursues a thesis which is too expansive to be dealt with adequately. In the introduction, Walcott himself admits that the text is not cohesive as "the chapters in this book initially were all written as separate essays, and continue to bear the marks of their individuality." He readily acknowledges that he has focused on black cultures in Ontario. However, such forthrightness does little to excuse or alter matters. In addition, Walcott’s understanding of blackness is so broad that, in the end, it signifies everything and nothing. "Repetition, reference, citation, [and] circularity [are] all the characteristics of black diasporic cultures," but these are similar stylistic features rather than proof of an intimate understanding between black artists, filmmakers and writers.
A Drifting Year is a semi-autobiographical chronicle of day-to-day events as experienced by an Haitian immigrant during his first year in Canada; the text is presented in three hundred and sixty poetic fragments that catalogue the speaker’s daily encounters and activities throughout the year. As a political exile escaping "the madness/ of a tropical dictatorship," the unnamed speaker disembarks in Montreal during the 1976 Summer Olympic Games just as athletes and spectators from all nations have converged upon the city. Figuratively, the world collapses into one metropolis and to be an outsider in Montreal means being a stranger everywhere. Once again, Canada proves to be an indifferent space of asylum where the speaker has been forced to flee to rather than towards: "I’m not a/ tourist passing through . . . I’m here to stay,/ whether I like it or not."
Although Laferrière offers a cursory documentation of the travails involved in emigration, I enjoyed following the progress of the two contradictory impulses which compel the speaker to familiarize himself with Montreal but also maintain a sense of surreal dislocation. For example, the speaker’s refusal to provide names, of either people or places, contributes to the overall feeling of aimless drifting. As Walcott explains, the act of "naming is a practice of the in- between" in which under-represented members of society seek to reclaim buried histories and spaces such as Negro Creek Road, Ontario. However, Laferrière’s speaker prolongs his uncertain position as an outsider by failing to disclose specific locales and identify his social circle. Likewise, his inability to find a stable living space further prolongs this state of displacement: "I told the super I/ was taking out the garbage . . . I hoped I hadn’t left anything . . . My fourth move/ and it’s only August." The speaker’s disengagement with his surroundings is affected by his chaotic sense of time and self: "I can’t tell you/ how many days/ I’ve been here/or how long/ I’ll stay./ I know nothing of my life." He exists in a void where he lacks the volition to direct his own life, and thus strays through Montreal without pause for "the time,/ or the day, or the month/ or even the year."
In opposition to the disorienting qualities of the text, Lafferière situates the speaker’s sexual liaisons in the context of sheer survival. Initially, the speaker conflates his naivete with his limited knowledge of Montreal: "I walked all night/ in this new city./ I don’t know yet/ what neighbor- hoods to avoid . .. I’m an innocent." Although he is "still vaguely a virgin" when he arrives in Canada, the speaker soon learns that women will help him navigate the city and provide for him through the harsh winter season. During a visit to a local bar, an older woman makes a thinly veiled proposition by offering a tour of Montreal: "’I bet no one’s shown you around yet . . . I’ll make it my business’" she says. While the speaker does not take advantage of this offer, the female body inevitably becomes a map as if sensual exploration doubles as a metaphor for geography; for instance, "the nape of [Julie’s] neck is the center of the world," while the secretary’s breasts become "broad globes/ in the pale light/ of the moon," and the fat lady from the laundromat is a "mountain of cool clean flesh." The implication is that the bodies of his lovers will assist the speaker become acquainted with the terrain of Montreal. Moreover, the speaker accepts the advice of a friend who urges him to: "’get... in with the women. They’re rock-solid, they’ll feed you, wash you, dress you and put you to bed if you get sick." While Julie and Nathalie assume the archetypal role of eroticized virgin and whore respectively, the fat lady from the laundromat exchanges food for sexual favours. She "showed up with two big bags of groceries . . . I made love to her calmly, figuring I wouldn’t starve to death this month."
While Walcott and Laferrière manifest an ambivalence towards Canada, the circumstances which prompted Mary A. Shadd to write A Plea for Emigration produced a more positive image. In 1850, American legislators enacted the Fugitive Slave Act, permitting slaveowners to pursue runaway slaves into the northern states and effectively rendering slaves and free blacks alike subject to arrest and recapture. As Richard Almonte adroitly explains in the introduction to the text, Shadd evaded this increasingly precarious situation by emigrating to Canada West, or modern-day Ontario. An educated and politically active member of the community, she found her destination to be a commendable refuge for blacks who were fleeing the oppressive conditions of America, and thus she wrote the book in order to encourage others to come to Canada West. In addition to providing an excellent biographical sketch of Shadd and outlining the book’s historical context, Almonte situates it within a literary tradition, namely the settlement journal." While women such as Susanna Moodie and her sister Catharine Parr Traill produced journals in which they simply endured life in the backwoods of Canada, Almonte points out that Shadd’s "book is written with a strict urgency; [b]lack Americans should, indeed must, move to Canada West." With this first edition of this book since its original publication in 1852, Almonte has made a significant contribution to the recovery of early black writing in Canada.
Shadd presents a utopic view of Canada West as a place where blacks can escape the American tyranny and become British subjects who might enjoy the advantages afforded by the British Empire. Although Almonte observes that Shadd’s favourable representation of Canada West is the exception rather than the rule in emigrant guides, he does not comment upon the fact that Shadd transforms Canada West into a mythical site designed to compel blacks to leave behind servitude for freedom and independence. Shadd creates an idyllic landscape: "the soil [in Canada West] is unsurpassed . . . and naturally superior to the adjoining Northern States . . . [as is] the unequaled growth and size of timber on uncleared lands" and "the extent to which fruit is cultivated, and the yield, are incredible."
Shadd assures blacks that they will be supported rather than hindered by the whites: "coloured men prosecute all the different trades . . . and are not only unmolested, but sustained and encouraged in any business for which their qualifications and means fit them." She represents whites as paternal guardians who shield and promote black enterprises. The revelation that prejudice does exist would of course be counterproductive to her objective and dissuade blacks from emigration. As a result, whites are depicted as open-minded and benevolent figures while black emigrants are catechized for harbouring resentments that recall their past enslavement. An affirmed anti-segregationist, Shadd vehemently opposes the adoption of separate black institutions by those who "pertinaciously refus [e] overtures of . . . fellowship from the whites." The onus is on blacks to discard their prejudices in the interests of integration, and to become industrious members of society whose contributions will invalidate any racial intolerance that whites might exhibit.
I am fascinated by the incongruity between Shadd’s efforts on behalf of the black community on the one hand and her active participation in a colonial discourse on the other. For example, in opposing the idea of transporting free blacks to Africa, she uses tropes widely applied by European colonists: "Tropical Africa . . . teeming as she is with the breath of pestilence, a burning sun and fearful maladies, bids them welcome; she feelingly invites to moral and physical death." In the tradition of English travel narratives, Shadd represents Africa as a feminized and pathological space where extreme heat assists in the spread of disease and death. Alternatively, Canada West has a climate which is "healthy and temperate: epidemics are not of such frequency as in the United States [and Africa], owing to a more equable temperature, and local diseases are unknown." She does not question the language used by whites to oppress other ethnic communities, and, instead, she perpetuates these racist representations in her own writing.
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MLA: Bains, Tracy . Black Emigrant in Canada. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #173 (Summer 2002), (Crawford, Munro, Watson, Atwood, Duncan). (pg. 183 - 186)
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