The Prairie is Black

Reviewed by Alison Calder

In her introduction to this anthology, Karina Vernon asks, “[W]here are the black writers in all our critical assessments of prairie literature?” Checking in at 594 pages, The Black Prairie Archives should permanently shut down any nostalgic thoughts that settler culture on the Canadian Prairies was exclusively built by white folks. Vernon’s thoughtfully curated selection of writing by Black people redefines Western literary history and is an important resource for anyone interested in regional studies.

Vernon writes that this anthology has four purposes:

(1) to make the archive public; (2) to transform the dominant inherited imaginings of the prairies by reading the region through the aperture of the recovered black archive; (3) to establish a black prairie literary tradition; and (4) to assist readers’ close engagements with the literature, thus opening up new scholarly and pedagogical possibilities. (1)

Ranging from Daniel T. Williams’ notebook entries from 1872 to Miranda Martini’s gorgeous 2010 essay, with stops in fiction, poetry, memoir, drama, and rap, the anthology dazzles with the sheer diversity of entries. It would be impossible to find “the Black prairie voice,” and happily Vernon doesn’t try.

Vernon divides her literary history into four periods: fur trade and settlement (1790-1900); the migration of Black farmers from the US, primarily Oklahoma (1905-12); Canada’s institution of the points system for immigration (1960s-present); and “the era of neoliberal immigration and asylum” (2012-present)(11). That two of these eras overlap stresses how history can happen differently to different people in the same place. It is instructive to compare Vernon’s introduction, which stresses diasporic identity and multiple ways of belonging, with the introductions to studies of Prairie literature, particularly those from the 1980s and 1990s, which often seek to establish and defend ideas of authenticity and deliberately exclude immigrants or city dwellers.

Through excavating and legitimating often marginalized Black voices, The Black Prairie Archives reveals also “the process by which the region gained identity as a political, social, and above all, ideological formation by rejecting this presence and producing it as the outside boundary that defined the legitimate spaces of the region” (3). In this, Blackness, like Indigeneity, is revealed as that which white settler culture rejects, and also that upon which it depends. Black presence here didn’t drop innocently out of sight: it was deliberately effaced as part of the strategy to cement white settler claims to the land. Vernon’s question, “Where are the black farmers and store keepers in the pages of Frederick Philip Grove’s Settlers of the Marsh?” hits the mark (2): I edited a critical edition of this text, and never thought to ask.

For Vernon, the construction of Black archives requires a rethinking of the conventional notion of an archive, popularly understood as an institutionally validated catalogue of historically important items. In contrast, Vernon stresses the importance of the archival process, which becomes a complex negotiation between the collector and the collected. “A black archive is a network of social relations forged slowly and carefully, on the basis of trust,” she writes (4). Sometimes those negotiations don’t bear fruit, and so the item cannot be included. The relationship, in this case between editor and writer, that this kind of curation requires is the difference between what Vernon, quoting Katrina Leial Sellinger, calls “an archive of blackness and an archive as blackness” (4). She emphasizes the incompleteness of this anthology, particularly around the loss of oral stories and oral histories. The first entry in the anthology is a page of solid black, reminding readers that Vernon’s version of the Black Prairie archives is necessarily incomplete.

While these pieces vary widely in both form and content, a number of them address the complicated relationship between Black settlers and Indigenous people, sometimes depicting a shifting and arbitrary set of identities and the ways in which the writers worked within and against these systems. These complex situations are only touched on in Vernon’s introduction, which promises that she will develop the discussion further in a forthcoming companion volume. One note: the youngest writer included in this anthology was born in 1990, suggesting that a sequel might be needed.

This review “The Prairie is Black” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 2 Dec. 2020. Web.

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