Narrating Black Canada

Reviewed by Andrea Davis

North to Bondage, by Harvey Amani Whitfield, and Blackening Canada, by Paul Barrett, offer compelling and timely reconfigurations of the Canadian historical past and present that situate the experiences of black Canadians firmly within the contours of the nation. The books upset dominant images of Canada as a benign democracy and multicultural haven, tracing the roots and routes of anti-black racism from slavery to the contemporary period even as they articulate the role and function of black people’s agency in the narration of alternative national possibilities.

North to Bondage provides a powerful interruption of the historical silencing of slavery in Canada, detailing the complex origins and intricate social relationships that formed the basis of slavery in the Maritimes. The book thus functions as an important corrective to Canadian narratives of slavery that have functioned largely to erase black presence and suffering in Canada by encouraging a belief that slavery was either non-existent, benevolent, or economically unimportant. These narratives have tended to privilege Canada’s role in the Underground Railroad and its service as a sanctuary nation for refugee slaves from the American South—without paying attention to the racism and economic marginalization refugees faced upon their arrival. In attempting to correct this bias, other historical accounts have focused on the arrival of black Loyalists and refugees of the War of 1812 who relocated to British North America as free people to signal their political agency and to provide evidence of black people’s extensive contributions to the country.

Shifting the focus from the black Loyalists to the 1,500 to two thousand forgotten slaves who came after the American Revolution as the property of American Loyalists, North to Bondage provides a rare view into the practice of slavery in a specific Canadian region and at a specific historical juncture. In tracing the transition of black people from slavery in the US to slavery in the Maritime colonies, Whitfield focuses on the ways in which slaves (both incoming and already present) used a period of flux and instability to negotiate their terms of existence. The presence of a growing number of free black people and the absence of a statutory basis for slavery provided the means by which slaves could undermine the system by running away or seeking legal redress. These conditions helped eventually to erode the foundations of slavery, encouraging a gradual movement toward indentured servitude. Still, the book concedes, the presence of slavery in the Maritimes until at least the 1820s contributed to the deep entrenchment of anti-black racism in Canada. Rather than propelling most black Maritimers to abscond from the nation (a minority returned to the US or relocated to Sierra Leone and the Caribbean), their social exclusion led to the creation of religious, economic, and political organizations that provided the social framework through which black communities could survive.

Blackening Canada, a book of literary criticism and black cultural studies, offers an equally compelling intervention into Canada’s self-narration of egalitarian democracy through a new reading of Canadian multiculturalism. Going beyond a simple critique of Canada’s national policy, the book offers a nuanced reflection of how black diasporic literatures in Canada employ multiculturalism’s ambiguity and contradictions—the very slipperiness identified as the source of the policy’s weakness—to re-narrate and expand the terms of the nation. The flux and instability of slavery’s transnational exchanges that Whitfield identifies as a moment of historical creation in North to Bondage are thus repeated unexpectedly in Barrett’s multicultural and diasporic ambiguities. Barrett situates his analysis of multiculturalism and critique of Canada’s democratic racism in a specifically Canadian reading of W. E. B. Du Bois’s “double consciousness.” Identifying black subjectivity as both diasporic and local, Barrett argues that the poetry and fiction of black Canadian writers Dionne Brand, Austin Clarke, and Tessa McWatt function to “blacken the nation,” reconstituting it as the very site of diaspora. In bringing black diasporic absences into direct tension with Canadian narrations of nation, their fiction and poetry not only unsettle Canada’s use of multiculturalism in the service of a homogeneous and stable whiteness, but also deploy that moment of instability into one of possibility where other ways of being in Canada may be articulated.

Most of Blackening Canada is devoted to an analysis of Brand’s poem Thirsty (2002) and Clarke’s novel More (2008), and of the texts’ narration of the 1979 death of Albert Johnson at the hands of the Toronto police. Offering a close reading of both texts, Barrett identifies Brand’s use of the Canadian long poem and Clarke’s appropriation of the Jonah narrative as explicit literary instances in which the writers blacken the nation. By reconstituting these quintessential Canadian forms and motifs, the texts offer a representation of black diasporic experiences and characters as specifically Canadian. In his reading of McWatt’s novel Out of My Skin, Barrett expands his literary analysis of race and citizenship to include an examination of the intersections of the histories of black Canadians, First Nations people, and Francophone Canadians in Quebec. His use of the “metaphor of nation-as-family” situates the protagonist’s futile search for family and stable identity alongside a critique of Canadian multiculturalism’s emphasis on “heritage” as the basis of shared community. The inability of Canada’s “untidy” multiculturalism to provide a singular, stable sign of national identity, however, opens up precisely the spaces for new black possibilities. The “surprise and wonder” of black presence in Canada, Barrett suggests, allow for a rewriting of a tragic history into a kind of redemptive narrative.

North to Bondage and Blackening Canada thus provide a critical interruption of Canadian cultural and literary historiographies by contesting the abjection of black people from the nation. In so doing, they contribute to a more complete narration of Canada’s past and present. While the insistence on the power of black people’s agency and creative praxis sometimes rings hollow alongside the texts’ portrayal of their continued and violent exclusion from the nation, both books are powerful in their insistence on the function of the presence and memory of blackness in pushing Canada toward a more honest engagement of the politics of difference.

This review “Narrating Black Canada” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 131-133.

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