You wouldn't let it lie
Posted on: Tuesday 28 August 2007
Dr Daniel McNeil
I am old enough to remember nasty little labels like "half-caste" being tossed around British streets and screens during the 1980s and 90s. On the other hand, I am also able to indulge in fits of nostalgia about popular British catchphrases like "you wouldn't let it lie". As many conference participants will recall, Vic Reeves uttered this phrase whenever he exposed one of his dirty little secrets, expertly capturing the indignant pose of many people caught in a lie. Yet it can also be applied to folks who refused to accept the necessity of terms like "half-caste," and saw the importance of asserting a "Black British" culture that included people of African, Caribbean or Asian descent.
Rather than simply play a game of "remember when", and invite comparison with the atrocious television clip shows dedicated to the 1980s and 90s, I would like to use this short paper to connect my past in England to a contemporary critic in Canada. As the first Western country to introduce a multiculturalism policy, Canada has made terms like "half-caste" unacceptable in polite company. Nonetheless, its officials can't quite get people to live with clumsily constructed terms like "dual heritage" or consumer driven labels like "ethnically ambiguous". So, while few conference participants will be aware of Donna Bailey Nurse, she is worth knowing because of her links to the Toronto Star and other media outlets that have tried to spin half-truths about mixed-race identities in Canada. Her views are easily accessible online but it is easiest to summarise her opinion as one in which she claims to write for "ordinary blacks...not half-blacks, fair-skinned blacks or lesbians."(1)
Such problematic opinions also litter the writings of Austin Clarke, one of Nurse's favourite authors. Clarke, a writer who spent many years in England as well as Canada and Barbados, even positioned himself as a "father" to Black Canadian literature by demeaning black men who "marry white women and seek to drown their fears and complexes in their wives' environment ... [creating] mulatto children who belong neither to the white world nor the black."(2)
I could have let the comments of Nurse and Clarke lie. However, this conference offers an invaluable opportunity to take some sort of stand against Nurse's desire to praise writers like Clarke while "leading the dialogue" on Black Canadian writing. More pointedly, a discussion of her work lets us address the question of mixed-race identities in relation to a Black Atlantic (a term made famous by the British scholar Paul Gilroy).
It is difficult to accept Nurse's assumption that she "leads" a dialogue about Blackness in Canada when she just recycles passages from the jacket covers of academic texts. For example, the jacket cover of The Black Atlantic reads: "There is, Paul Gilroy tells us, a culture that is not specifically Africa, American, Caribbean, or British, but all of these at once, a black Atlantic culture whose themes and techniques transcend ethnicity and nationality".(3) In Nurse's introduction to Revival: an Anthology of Black Canadian Writing, this becomes "a hybrid culture characterized by an 'in-between' identity that transcends national borders and fixed ideas about identity."(4) To make matters worse, she does not provide any evidence to nuance or substantiate this tautological claim. She just repeats it two pages later ("Gilroy characterizes the hybrid culture of the Black Atlantic as one that transcends fixed notions of identity and national borders"(5)).
Academics will obviously worry about the fruits of this style, but it is more important to challenge Nurse's belief that "very few black Canadian writers wish to transcend borders" and are content to limit themselves to an exploration of multicultural citizenship.(6) Even if one avoids the obvious rhetorical questions (what borders does Nurse mean? Borders relating to gender? Sexuality? Above-average book stores?), and assumes that Nurse means national borders, various riddles remain. To pick two: why does her collection include mixed-race authors, such as Lawrence Hill, who address border crossing between the United States and Canada? How can one explore multicultural citizenship without engaging with nations as diverse as, say, Australia and Zimbabwe?
Nurse's editors at McLelland and Stewart publish a number of political biographies and are used to politicians who repeat key phrases so that they stay on message. However, literary critics that repeat pat clichés and dogmatic assertions not only avoid tough questions - they end up suffocating the artistry of others and patronising readers who do not suffer from attention deficit disorder. Thankfully, we can turn to other Canadian authors like Wayde Compton, who build on Frantz Fanon (one of the best-known Black Atlantic theorists) and ironically talk about a "Halfrican" homeland where people proudly exclaim, "Say it loud I'm mixed-race from a satellite of the United States and proud."
It is worth emphasising that Compton and other poets have worked hard to encourage critical discussion about race and mixed-race around the world - they don't talk about leading a dialogue in Canada because they heed Fanon's warning about the profiteers and schemers who set themselves up as racial heroes for a native middle-class. It is also imperative that conference participants think carefully about desires to replace a Black or "mixed-race" identity for a "purely" British label. Lest we forget, Black and mixed-race identities allow us to connect with people beyond our national borders; they are not just a third-class ticket to ghettoization. I have dwelt on Nurse's attempt to establish a Black Canadian canon because it sheds light on the race for positions and pensions, which is as prevalent in newly multicultural countries like Canada and the UK as it was in the newly independent countries of Africa and the Caribbean that Fanon studied in the 1950s and 1960s. As Fanon knew, some people do pursue a place in a "closed middle-class society", limiting themselves to questions of political emancipation or multicultural citizenship rather than human emancipation. We cannot let them lie.
(1) D. Bailey Nurse to author, 12 December 2004.
(2) A. Clarke, "A Black Man Talks About Race Prejudice in White Canada," Maclean's April 20 1963. After Clarke left his post as managing editor of Contrast in 1972, many contributors to the Black magazine replicated his opposition to interracial alliances. While the United Negro Improvement Association hall was used for interracial dances, Clova Robinson wondered, "How can we have unity on a universal level if our one-on-one relationships and families are falling apart?" Clova Robinson, "Black men, white women, black women: Conflicting triad", Contrast, August 9, 1979. Barbara Jones questioned "the very soul" of Black men who choose to be with white women and longed for messianic leaders, 'untainted by whiteness', who could inspire Black unity. Barbara Jones, Contrast, February 26 1982.
(3) Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).
(4) Donna Bailey Nurse, ed., Revival: an Anthology of Black Canadian Writing (Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 2006) xvi.
(5) Nurse, ed., Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing xviii.