Clarke, George Elliott 1960–
George Elliott Clarke 1960–
George Elliott Clarke has devoted much of his career to mining the history of blacks in Canada for his poetry, plays, and other writings. Clarke, a professor of African-Canadian literature at the University of Toronto, writes eloquently of his country’s multicultural landscape, and emphasizes that its history stretches back much further than the waves of Caribbean and African immigrants who arrived in his own generation. His writings, both verse and nonfiction, challenge the myth that “the African presence in Canada is both recent and urban,” as he wrote in a 1997 article for Borderlines. “It is neither. African Canadians have been part of this country, in all its immensity, since its settlement commenced. Though whites often thought that we would perish because of the climate (which is, in places, downright miserable), we have remained.”
Clarke was born in 1960, in Windsor Plains, a city in the province of Nova Scotia. He grew up in the provincial capital, Halifax, in a rough section of town called the North End. He remembered his neighborhood, in an article he wrote for Canadian Geographic, as “all pavement and smashed glass and malice-eyed cops and pink-faced drunks.” Racism in Nova Scotia and the other Maritime provinces of Canada—as those that jut out into the Atlantic Ocean are called—was still prevalent and even deadly at times in the era just before his birth; two of his cousins were hanged in New Brunswick in 1949.
Clarke’s mother was a teacher who often visited her parents in the largely black community of Three Mile Plains, which had been founded by African-American slaves liberated by the British during the War of 1812. Clarke recalled Three Mile Plains and the Annapolis Valley area as lush and fertile, and noted that the setting inspired him to write his first poems as a teenager. He marked the start of his career as a writer as one day in 1977 when, as he recalled in Canadian Geographic, “my mother and I drove to Three Mile Plains on a sunny, frigid, snowy morning. That day, as I trudged up and down hilly, white-dusted Green Street, I drafted in my head a poem, my first attempt to sing a black and Nova Scotian—an Africadian—consciousness …. I was standing on land that has always made us feel whole.”
As a young man, Clarke received his undergraduate degree from the University of Waterloo, then went on to earn two graduate degrees—a master’s in English from Dalhousie University and a doctorate from Queen’s University. He became a community development worker with the Black United Front of Nova Scotia, a service organization in the Annapolis Valley area, and went on to teaching stints at Duke University and McGill University of Montreal. His first collection of verse, Whylah Falls, appeared in Canada in 1990; the poems were set in the title place, a black community in Jarvis County, Nova Scotia, and commemorated its hardships and its achievers.
Whylah Falls served to establish Clarke’s name as one of the rising young voices of Canadian multicultural literature, and he became a frequent contributor to both journals devoted to the field and more mainstream publications in the country. As a contributor to the
Born on February 12, 1960, in Windsor Plains, Nova Scotia, Canada; son of Bill and Geraldine Elizabeth (a teacher) Clarke, Education: University of Waterloo, B.A.; Dalhousie University, M.A.; Queen’s University, Ph.D.
Career: Writer, poet, and playwright. Black United Front of Nova Scotia (a community service organization), development worker; Duke University, Durham, NC, assistant professor of English and Canadian studies; McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Seagram Visiting Chair in Canadian Studies; University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, professor of African-Canadian literature.
Awards: Poetry Award, Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia, 1981; Archibald Lampman Award, 1990, for Whylah Falls; Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center fellowship, 1998; Portia White Prize, Nova Scotia Arts Council, 1998.
Addresses: Office —Department of Humanities, University of Toronto, 7 King’s College Circle, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 3H7.
Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s leading newspapers, he wrote in 1997 about the trial of O.J. Simpson, which had ended in an acquittal for the former pro football player on murder charges. Clarke called the media circus surrounding the case “one more electronic carnival in a society that deploys spectacles to tune out its scabrous social disparities.”
In 1997 Clarke’s article, “Honouring African-Canadian Geography: Mapping the Black Presence in Atlantic Canada” appeared in Borderlines. Its content illuminated the particular field of cultural/historical work that Clarke had made his own. In it, Clarke imagines “somewhere in frost-accursed Nova Scotian fields” there was a church in which “African Baptists, in black robes, wheel, shout and testify.” Clarke noted that such an “image confronts the consensual understanding of Canada as a white, pristine land settled by pristine whites, with only a few, docile First Nations peoples providing incidences of local colour.”
In Borderlines Clarke notes that many parts of Ontario had black farming communities settled by slaves who had escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad; Harriet Tubman even lived in St. Catherine’s for a number of years. In the Borderlines article, however, he chronicled some lesser known examples of the rich multicultural history of his country, such as the presence of Matthieu de Costa, a Portuguese of African ancestry, who came to Nova Scotia and learned the language of its Mi’kmaq people. De Costa translated the indigenous tongue into French for explorer Samuel de Champlain, who arrived there to establish one of the first European settlements in Canada in 1605.
Clarke also pointed out that the first generations of Europeans in Canada had slaves, some of whom helped construct Louisbourg, a great fortress on Cape Breton Island that was retained by loyalists to the French throne—known as Acadians—in the 1700s after Nova Scotia itself passed to British control. Halifax, founded in 1749, also had a slave population, but since the city was also a thriving shipping port, black sailors, refugees, and even merchants from the Caribbean settled there early in its history. In other cases, Clarke wrote in Borderlines, African Americans who had fought for the British side in the American Revolutionary War settled in Canada and founded their own communities. He notes his own ancestors—slaves liberated from Chesapeake Bay plantations during another Anglo-American conflict, the War of 1812— settled many of the black communities in Nova Scotia. One of them, an area near Halifax known for generations as “Africville,” was demolished in the 1960s in a municipal effort to eradicate what was viewed as a slum. Africville, Clarke argues, was in reality a poor but unique, generations-old community. “In the end, villagers lost their land, their homes and, in some cases, their health, their dignity, and their sanity, for the city and its allies—social workers and urban planners—insisted that the preservation of a distinctive Black community contradicted their liberal objective to obliterate it in favour of integration,” he wrote in Borderlines. Many of the former Africville residents came to settle in the area of Halifax where he grew up, the North End.
Other volumes of Clarke’s verse, such as 1994’s Lush Dreams, Blue Exile: Fugitive Poems, 1978–1993, helped earn him the prestigious Portia White Prize from the Nova Scotia Arts Council. This 1998 honor, bestowed on an artist who has impacted the province’s culture, included a generous &25,000 prize. Clarke has also won acclaim for a verse play, Beatrice Chancy, which was both published in book form and staged as an opera. He drew upon a story, dating back to sixteenth-century Rome, about a young woman who is sexually assaulted by her father and murders him; English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley adapted “The Cenci,” as did the French writer Stendhal.
Clarke’s version, however, is set in 1801 in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. Its heroine is a slave, herself the product of a rape; after she returns from a convent, where she has been sent for her education, she falls in love with another slave. This enrages her white father, who rapes her; she becomes pregnant, and she and her mother extract their revenge. In the end, both are hanged. “Beatrice Clancy gives readers and audiences alike an example of the stunning imagery of which Clarke is capable,” asserted Black Issues Book Review contributor Sharita M. Hunt. Kevin Burns reviewed it for Quill & Quire and declared it revealed the author “writing at the top of his form… Clarke’s Annapolis Valley is a place of rage and suppression.” In conclusion, Burns termed it “a singular creative work that should be shelved under tour de force or must read.” Clarke has also written Gold Indigoes and Execution Poems: The Black Acadian Tragedy of “George and Rue,” two volumes that appeared in 2000.
Whylah Falls, Polestar Book Publishers (Victoria, Canada), 1990, published as Whylah Falls: Tenth Anniversary Edition, Polestar Book Publishers (Chicago, IL), 2000.
(Editor) Fire on the Water: An Anthology of Black Nova Scotian Writing, Pottersfield Press (Porters Lake, Canada), volume 1, 1991, volume 2, 1992.
Lush Dreams, Blue Exile: Fugitive Poems, 1978–1993, Pottersfield Press (Lawrencetown Beach, Canada), 1994.
(Editor) Eyeing the North Star: Directions in African-Canadian Literature, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Canada), 1997.
Beatrice Chancy, Polestar Book Publishers (Custer, WA), 1999.
Gold Indigoes, Carolina Wren Press (Durham, NC), 2000.
Execution Poems: The Black Acadian Tragedy of “George and Rue,” Gaspereau Press (Wolfville, Canada), 2000.
Black Issues Book Review, July 2000, p. 22.
Borderlines, December 1997, pp. 35–39.
Canadian Geographic, January 2001, p. 98.
Globe and Mail, April 12, 1997, p. D11; February 5, 1998, p. D5.
Library Journal, November 1, 1999, p. 80.
Quill & Quire, May 1999, p. 35.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2001.
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