Locating Home: The First African-Canadian Novel and Verse Collections. Tightrope Books
George Elliott Clarke’s Locating Home: The First African-Canadian Novel and Verse Collections arrives at an auspicious moment for Black writing in Canada. Clarke’s latest collection of early African-Canadian writing joins Karina Vernon’s The Black Prairie Archives: An Anthology and Whitney French’s Black Writers Matter (both 2019) as texts that map important new territories of Black writing in Canada.
Clarke’s volume is a collection of “firsts”: the first novella published by a Black Canadian woman, Amelia Etta Hall Johnson, and the first poetry collections from a “born-in-Canada Black” man and “African-Canadian woman.” These three entries, alongside Clarke’s introductory essay, constitute the entirety of this “too-brief anthology” that is, hopefully, the first foray into uncovering the archive of unrecognized Black Canadian writing. Indeed, it is surprising that Clarke’s volume is not more extensive; in his introduction he describes the import of Martin R. Delany’s Blake and Lennox John Brown’s The Captive to the early African-Canadian canon, yet these texts are missing from the collection. Blake’s absence is understandable, as the text is widely available elsewhere. Yet The Captive, a 1965 play staged in Ottawa in which four Black men kidnap a man trying to organize a Canadian chapter of the KKK, is notably missed.
The works Clarke collects are uneven. He describes Johnson’s novella, Clarence and Corinne; or, God’s Way, as a “Christian comedy,” yet the humour was lost on this reader. Rather, the novella is dry Biblical allegory in which the titular characters are rewarded for pious behaviour during a series of improbable trials. While Robert Nathaniel Dett’s collection, The Album of a Heart, contains a range of forms, his handling of formal verse, dialect, and lyrics is mostly just competent. There are, however, some interesting moments, such as in “The Traumerei,” wherein Dett suggests the transformative and ambivalent power of music in a manner evocative of Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues:
Oh music—of the holy arts most high!
Shall these poor hands thy subtle power
Thy holy essence may I understand
Till feeling these the very stones and trees
Acknowledge me their master! Once again
I would have made decision—but a sense
Of something yet to come appr’ended me.
Anna Minerva Henderson’s collection, Citadel, is far more compelling: her familiar and startling depictions of Saint John demonstrate her careful and considered poetic vision, while her meditations on faith and love are genuinely moving. Furthermore, her poetry offers a depiction of Black New Brunswick and Black Britishness that brings George Grant and W. E. B. Du Bois into a challenging dialogue:
The heart of Saint John is King Square,
Like the Union Jack, so in plan and name
(Though quite unconsciously there is
Making to Loyalty a dual claim.
Clarke acknowledges that these writers “are—yep—obscure”; however, they “jet an inkling of Black Canuck literature” such that a writer like Johnson “belongs primordially to the African-Canadian canon.” Yet what is at stake in this primordial uniting of Blackness and the nation, or in Clarke’s (sometimes strained) efforts to draw thematic and formal links between his authors and contemporary writers like Suzette Mayr and Wayde Compton? Indeed, while Clarke’s introduction sidesteps the history of his more vitriolic exchanges with Rinaldo Walcott, the questions that animated their debate in the 1990s and early 2000s continue to haunt these newly uncovered texts: are they part of a tradition of “Black Canuck literature” or, to quote Walcott, do these writers practise “a deterritorialized strategy . . . consciously aware of the ground of the nation from which it speaks”? Are these things one and the same?
To push the question further, is it relevant that Johnson moved from Montreal to the US at age sixteen or that Dett only lived in Canada for the first eleven years of his life? Perhaps not, but it does suggest that we lose some understanding of the manner in which these works travel when we force them into national frameworks. Indeed, such contemporary texts as Vernon’s anthology, French’s collection, and David Austen’s Fear of a Black Nation discuss Black writing here with no reference to Canadian nation in their titles. Does the framing of these critical works and Clarke’s authors as “African-Canadian” adequately articulate the forms of cultural expression and transmission at work in these texts? These questions have been taken up in some recent criticism by scholars such as Katherine McKittrick, Camille Isaacs, Winfried Siemerling, and others. Clarke’s introduction might have engaged their important contributions to offer a more nuanced account of the relationship between nation and diaspora.
Locating Home does important work to further debunk the notion that Canadian literature was a white enterprise until the 1960s. It remains to be seen, however, whether these recovered texts will spark the imagination of today’s writers or remain primarily of interest to the scholarly community. Will today’s Black Canadian writers find themselves “Locating Home” in this archive of early Black writing, or will they draw upon other sources for their inspiration?