Canadian Writers in English

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Canadian Writers in English

African-Canadian literature in English begins in the same ruptures that gave birth to African-American literature. Its arrival was later, however, both chronologically and culturally, and it has become a product of the general African diaspora. Both facts render it superficially similar to its American counterpart, yet also radically other. If the first is characterized by DuBoisian "double-consciousness," the latter may be said to possess a "polyphonous consciousness."

While African-American letters locates its effective genesis in the American Revolutionary poet Phillis Wheatley, African-Canadian writing originates in British Loyalistand evangelicalpamphleteers such as David George, Boston King, and John Marrant, all Americans who sided with Britain during the War of Independence, and, losing, later took refuge in the northern Royalist colonies. Naturally, George, King, and Marrant may be claimed as "Canadian" only with an asterisk, for Canada proper did not exist when they spoke (or wrote) their testaments about slavery and redemption, with George's appearing in 1793, King's in 1798, and Marrant's nativecaptivity narrative in 1785. Indeed, the latter's Narrative of the Lord's Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black (Now Going to Preach the Gospel in Nova-Scotia), the fount of African-Canadian literature, received at least twenty-one printings.

Most of the 3,400 so-called black Loyalists who flooded into Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in 1783 were illiterate, so their archival documents consist of letters inked (or dictated) after 1,200 of these black pilgrims abandoned frigid, inclement "Acadia" for Sierra Leone in 1792. Among this party, an ex-Virginian, Susannah Smith, directed a letter, dated May 12, 1792, to colonial authorities, requesting "sope" for her family. This missive inaugurates the "womanist" side of African-Canadian literature.

Between 1783 and the mid-nineteenth-century, African-Canadian publications were few. For one thing, British North America remained legally an oppressive, slaveholding territory until 1834 (although slavery died a de facto death by the beginning of the nineteenth century). Though another two thousand black refugees (that is, African-American slaves liberated by British troops during the War of 1812) entered Nova Scotia and New Brunswick between 1812 and 1815, these émigrés, again illiterate, could not enter the nascent canon. However, with the arrival to Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec), between the 1830s and the 1860s, of up to forty thousand African Americansvoting with their feet against Southern slaveryseveral of them became nominally "African-Canadian" writers. Most prominent in this category is Martin Robinson Delany, whose Blake, or the Huts of America (1859, 18611862), written in Chatham, Ontario, from 1856 to 1859, is the third African-American novel but the first African-Canadian one. Other expatriate African-American writers now counted as "Canadian" include Mary Ann Shadd, whose A Plea for Emigration, or, Notes of Canada West (Ontario) was issued in 1853; Henry Bibb, whose Narrative was published in 1849; and Samuel Ringgold Ward, whose Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro saw publication in 1855. Also notable here is Josiah Henson, whose ghost-written narrative, released in 1849, served supposedly as a source for Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Slave narratives were penned by onetime Americans Moses Roper (1838), Lewis and Milton Clarke (18451846), Thomas Smallwood (1851), Theophilus Steward (1856), Jermain Loguen (1859), and John William Robertson (1854), whose unique text fuses autobiography and sanguinary theology.

A set of diaries (18401865) kept by the Guyaneseborn "octoroon" governor of British Columbia, Sir James Douglas, constitutes the earliest literary expression by a Caribbean-Canadian writer. (The diaries were partly published in 1965.)

With the conclusion of the American Civil War, many African Canadians, both long-settled and recent arrivals, removed to the United States, thus stranding the bulk of the black community in Nova Scotia, with pockets surviving in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Canada (Québec and Ontario), and British Columbia. These colonies began to coalesce into the new Dominion of Canada in 1867.

From the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, then, African-Canadian literature consists of church documents sponsored by the African (United) Baptist Association of Nova Scotia and the British Methodist Episcopal Church in Ontario, plus other, smaller churches elsewhere; occasional sociological essays; two major church histories (History of the Colored Baptists of Nova Scotia, by Antigua native Peter E. McKerrow in 1895, and History of the Colored Baptists of Nova Scotia, 17821953, by Pearleen Oliver in 1954); various collections of hymns and songs, culminating in R. Nathaniel Dett's Religious Folk-Songs of the Negro in 1927; and a major folklore study (Folk-Lore of Nova Scotia in 1931 by Arthur Huff Fauset, an African-American anthropologist). Three novelists born in Canada in the mid-nineteenth century published their works at the century's end, all in the United States: See Amelia E. Johnson (1890, 1894, 1901), Lucretia Coleman (18901891), and William Haslip Stowers, or "Sanda" (1894). The Canadian-born Dett (1911) and Theodore Henry Shackelford (1916, 1918) issued the first poetry collections. The first important African-Canadian woman poet, Anna Minerva Henderson, released her single chapbook in 1967 when she was eighty years old and Canada was a hundred years old. For his part, John Hearne, born in Canada in 1926, became a top Jamaican novelist in the mid-twentieth century.

As the foregoing chronicle indicates, early African-Canadian literature possesses a skimpy corpus. Its bibliography expanded only with the onset of immigration from the Caribbean in the mid-1950s, then Africa in the 1970s. Thus, new energy came to its poetry in 1973, with the publication of Dead Roots, a posthumous work by South African exile and Canadian immigrant Arthur Nortje. Ex-Trinidadian Lennox Brown published the first African-Canadian play in English (The Captive in 1965), while Barbados native Austin Clarke produced the first "contemporary" novel (The Survivors of the Crossing in 1964).

Since 1964 for fiction, 1965 for drama, and 1973 for poetry, the majority of the writers contributing to a selfconscious African-Canadian literary canon are firstgeneration immigrants, primarily from the Caribbean. The major writers are such Trinidad and Tobago natives as Andre Alexis (1957), Dionne Brand (1953), Lennox Brown (1934), Claire Harris (1937), M. NourbeSe Phillip (1947), and David Woods (1957); ex-Jamaicans such as Lillian Allen (1951), Hopeton Anderson (1950), Louise Bennett (1919), Afua Cooper (1957), Ahdri Mandiela (1955?), Pamela Mordecai (1942), and Olive Senior (1941); ex-"Bajans" such as Austin Clarke (1934), Lorris Elliott (19321999), and Cecil Foster (1957); former Antiguans such as Clifton Joseph (1957) and Althea Prince (1945); ex-Guyanese such as Jan Carew (1920) and Nalo Hopkinson (1965?); as well as native Grenadian Richardo Keens-Douglas (1955?) and St. Vincentian H. Nigel Thomas (1947). Vital African-born writers include former South Africans such as Archie Crail (1948), Harold Head (1936), Rozena Maart (1962), and Arthur Nortje (19421970); Kenyans David Odhiambo (1965) and Jan Tapsubei Creider (1950?); as well as Malawian Paul Tiyambe Zeleza (1955), Nigerian Ken Wiwa (1968), Tanzania's Tololwa M. Mollel (1955?), Ugandan George Seremba (1958), and Ethiopian Nega Mezlekia (1958). African-American principals also continue to "infiltrate" the black Canuck canon. Note Rubin "Hurricane" Carter (1937), Christopher Paul Curtis (1953), Charles R. Saunders (1946), and Frederick Ward (1937). Crucial British-born authors are Djanet Sears (1955?) and Rachel Manley (1947), who is also of Caribbean heritage. Major native-born authors include George Boyd (1952), Wendy Braithwaite (1970?), George Elliott Clarke (1960), Wayde Compton (1972), Lorena Gale (1958), Lawrence Hill (1957), Sonnet L'Abbé (1970?), Suzette Mayr (1967), Andrew Moodie (1967), Robert Sandiford (1968), and Maxine Tynes (1949). Given that secondgeneration immigrant youth constitute the largest portion of the African-Canadian community, "indigenous" authors will multiply.

The multicultural origins of African-Canadian literature give it a protean diversity. Its authors stress their "Canadian" identity (e.g., Alexis and Moodie), immigrant experience (e.g., NourbeSe Phillip and Mandiela), their homeland (e.g., Creider and Mezlekia), or the historical reality of "African Canada" (e.g., Compton and Tynes). The cosmopolitan, kaleidoscopic "fact" of the literatureits status as a callaloo of accents and a gumbo of perspectivesrenders it a jazzy hubbub of voices, sans concord on "black identity," "Afrocentrism," "Canadian identity," or any topic of African diasporic concern. Assuredly, the "black community" in Canada is really a "community of communities" (to borrow a well-known Canadian political phrase), and the literature reflects this internal (in)consistency. Add the reality of regional difference (the West and Atlantic Canada versus the center, Québec versus the rest of Canada, the "ethnic" cities versus the homogeneous countryside), as well as the divisions among immigrant generations and those between immigrant and "indigenous" blacks, not to mention the distinctions between Anglophones and Francophones, and one ends up with a literature that, unlike its African-American and Afro-Caribbean cousins, can never pretend to certainty about its identity. Because no one definition of "blackness" rules in Canada, everyone is free to be "black" as he or she chooses.

Ultimately, African-Canadian literature is the literary laboratory of the African diaspora, for in this unique space, one created by transientsexiles, refugees, fugitivesas well as scattered, but hardy, "settlers," there is room for divergence, for a "blackness" that is a spectrum of skin tones and ideologies, for a multiplicity of discourse that can never be grounded in any one constricted (or constricting) faith or belief, for debates that can never be resolved for anyone's totalitarian satisfaction. "African Canada" is a homeland where no one need pledge allegiance, where "blackness" is defined as persistent, bitter, exhilarating, Sisyphean questioning.

See also Canadian Writers in French


Bristow, Peggy. "We're Rooted Here and They Can't Pull Us Up": Essays in African-Canadian Women's History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.

Clarke, George Elliott. Eyeing the North Star: Directions in African-Canadian Literature. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1997.

Clarke, George Elliott. Odysseys Home: Mapping African-Canadian Literature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

Dalhousie Review 77, no. 2 (Summer 1997). Special "Africadian" issue.

Essays on Canadian Writing 75 (Winter 2002). Special issue on "Race."

Foster, Cecil. A Place Called Heaven: The Meaning of Being Black in Canada. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1996.

Sears, Djanet, ed. Testifyin': Contemporary African-Canadian Drama, vol. 1. Toronto: Playwrights Union of Canada, 2000.

george elliott clarke (2005)

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Canadian Writers in English

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