The Presence of the Past

  • Austin Clarke
    In Your Crib. Guernica Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Winfried Siemerling
    The Black Atlantic Reconsidered: Black Canadian Writing, Cultural History, and the Presence of the Past. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Paul Watkins

Winfried Siemerling’s The Black Atlantic Reconsidered and Austin Clarke’s In Your Crib prioritize transatlantic Black perspectives from within national paradigms to explore Black Canadian identity, belonging, and the presence of the past. The two works are quite different: Clarke’s text is an introspective long poem that channels the radical spirits and rhythms of the civil rights movement, and Siemerling’s text is a considerable historical undertaking that reconsiders Canada’s place in the Black Atlantic. However, both texts deepen our understanding of Black writing and radical thinking within a Canadian space that belongs to a larger historic transatlantic nexus.

Winfried Siemerling’s substantial The Black Atlantic Reconsidered—which includes a useful companion site (www.blackatlantic.ca) and timeline in the appendix—demonstrates that Black writing in Canada is multilingual, transatlantic, and over two centuries old, with Black speech being even older. Responding to culpable omissions that leave Canada out of the Black Atlantic (such as Paul Gilroy’s influential The Black Atlantic), Siemerling covers Black immigration, mobility, the abolitionist movement in Canada, jazz music and its influence on Montreal’s French and English literary scene, and devotes considerable case study space to African Canadian literary texts, which he weaves in the warp and weft of the Black Atlantic world. With encyclopedic scope, Siemerling travels back to slave testimony in New France, examines the 1783 “Book of Negroes” and Lawrence Hill’s novel of the same title, and moves through the nascent canon of contemporary Black Canadian writers including Dionne Brand, Austin Clarke, George Elliott Clarke, Wayde Compton, Esi Edugyan, M. NourbeSe Philip, and others.

In The Black Atlantic Reconsidered the presence of the past is felt as a kind of haunting; however, Siemerling resists melancholia as an overarching theoretical concept, asking who “is served by the ascription of melancholia to others and to aggrieved communities in particular?” Rather than limit his study to the language of Black suffering, Siemerling focuses on the exceptional reader identification within Black Canadian writing and states that the “recognition of theses works [with an emphasis here on spiritual autobiographies] requires canonical change, and highlights the transnational roots of this national literature.” Siemerling draws from contemporary works of historical fiction that deal explicitly with polymorphous and transatlantic identity, and he includes the often-overlooked slave narratives that speak of Canada. Siemerling generatively refers to the wide range of material produced in the nineteenth century as a Black Canadian Renaissance, championing Mary Ann Shadd, who was the full-time editor of the radical paper The Provincial Freeman and the first woman publisher of a newspaper in Canada, as a transnational and transatlantic thinker and writer. Siemerling’s many examples of Black writers who confound the metaphorical and physical borders of Canada testify to the fact that Canada belongs to a Black Atlantic that is a “porous, multiple, and non-linear” site of possibility.

While only fifty-three pages in length, Austin Clarke’s In Your Crib is a fervid meditation on racial inequality and the violence that takes the lives of young Black men. Scored on rations of jazz and Black radical thinking, certainly drawn from Clarke’s own experiences in 1960’s Toronto and onwards, the book reads as a soloing monologue, where an older black man from Toronto addresses a disenfranchised and disaffected young Black man whose arrest is witnessed by the narrator. The speaker is a civil rights veteran who at first only sees the differences between himself and the young man: “cut-down pants . . . unrestrained by no belt or buckle”; “your lexicon is filled with new words: / your ‘wheels’, your ‘piece,’ / ‘your crib’.” Clarke euphoniously employs antiphony and echo, repeating phrases such as “again” and “remember that,” as mantras that sound the ongoing relation of the past to the present. There are a number of musical intertexts that score the speaker’s polemical discourse: “sitting in the sound of jazz, playing Kings and Li’l Ones; / Coltrane and Miles and Aretha; the card table. / Miles and Aretha in moaning, tinny disdain, / the puzzling sheets of Coltrane.” Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” is recalled throughout as a refrain, moving through a text that works its way through blood-soaked history in the hopes of finding redemption.

Also sampled are various civil rights figures: “I have talked with, and walked in line behind Malcolm X; / shared a microphone with Stokely Carmichael.” The speaker recalls how “We have lived to our own music, discordant,” which he tries to reconcile with the young man who grooves to a “different beat / and drummer,” a possible shout-out to William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer. The narrator desires spaces where creative Black expression is possible, invoking Amiri Baraka’s virulent “Black Arts”: “‘We want a black poem / And a / Black World.’ / Let the world be a Black Poem / And let All Black People Speak / This poem / Silently / or LOUD.” The speaker laments his generation’s inability to adequately inspire the young man’s disenfranchised state. And yet, the narrator realizes that every generation sings their own resistance: “You singing Rap, / them singing the Blues.” Another theme in the book is the failed promises of multicultural Canada (“this Canadian cold; / multicultural ice touching your heart”; “the lie of this multicultural land”), which is a theme Clarke has dealt with since his first novel, The Survivors of the Crossing. Canada is thus implicated in a transnational and transatlantic system of oppression and by fighting “old pirates, yes, / they rob I,” In Your Crib recalls recent happenings in Ferguson and Baltimore, and bespeaks a poetry born out social change, suffering, and Black agency. Although “violence has always been used in history, / and in songs, in jazz and the blues,” the poem resolutely concerns Black liberation and racial equality.

Both Siemerling and Clarke—albeit through different mediums—invoke the specters of past into the sounding mix of the present, providing rallying cries that allow us to imagine the kind of future we want for a multicultural Canada that can, and must, continue to be conceived within locally and globally imbricated spaces.

 



This review “The Presence of the Past” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 144-46.

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