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Let all Black People speak this poem: remembering Austin Clarke, 1934–2016

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austin-clarkeAustin Clarke never considered himself part of the CanLit firmament. Despite his many achievements – which include winning the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and the Trillium Book Award for his 2002 novel The Polished Hoe; being longlisted for the Giller and winning the Toronto Book Award for his 2008 novel More; and being invested into the Order of Canada in 1998 – he refused to acknowledge the influence or importance of a Canadian tradition on his writing or outlook. In his 2015 memoir, Membering, Clarke writes, “I have never held a Canadian writer as a model of my own work. This is simply because the theme and the style of Canadian literature are irrelevant to my work. I do not therefore see any connection, in the sense of ‘literary ancestry,’ to my writing. I am alone, singular, peculiar, and foreign to the establishment that governs and controls Canadian literature.”

Clarke had reason to feel this way. McClelland & Stewart published his first novel, Survivors of the Crossing, in 1964; it stands as the first blast of the trumpet from an author who resolutely rejected the accepted pieties of Canadian writing and projected his own individual vision and voice – a voice steeped in Caribbean rhythms and dialects – onto his writing.

“Austin Clarke broke the mould of white Canada when he first began to publish in 1964, writing novels and stories populated with immigrant characters from the Caribbean,” says Patrick Crean, Clarke’s former publisher and editor at Thomas Allen & Son. “This was an early example of the literature of diversity and displacement, a quality which now informs our literature. His influence was huge.”

(photo: Tom Sandler)

Austin Clarke and Patrick Crean (photo: Tom Sandler)

“When I think of Austin Clarke,” writes cultural critic Donna Bailey Nurse, “I think of how his fiction irrevocably etched West Indians, Bajans, black people, and himself into the landscape of Toronto and the collective imagination of Canadians. I think of the courage with which he exposed to white people the psychological realities of being black in the world.”

Clarke, who died in Toronto on June 26 at the age of 81, came to Canada from Barbados in 1955; in his adopted country, he established himself as a broadcaster, writer, provocateur, and activist. He spent a number of years as a journalist in the northern Ontario cities of Timmins and Kirkland Lake (asked at one of his last live appearances, at Toronto’s Word on the Street in September 2015, what it was like coming to Canada from Barbados, Clarke responded definitively, “Cold!”), and in 1977 he ran unsuccessfully for Ontario’s provincial Progressive Conservatives. In 1963, Harry J. Boyle of the CBC agreed to send Clarke to the U.S. to interview the writer James Baldwin; that interview never happened, but Clarke arguably did one better: he landed an extended interview with the civil rights leader Malcolm X, which was incorporated into a two-hour CBC documentary titled Austin Clarke’s Harlem.

Clarke’s involvement in the civil rights movement south of the border, along with his refusal to capitulate to an accepted version of made-in-Canada politesse, helped earn him the moniker “Canada’s angriest black man,” an appellation that continued to rankle even in recent years. “The euphemism ‘Canada’s angriest black man’ did not faze any thinking person,” Clarke writes in ’Membering. “The hidden meaning was simply ‘Canada’s most anti-white black man.’ ”

Regardless of its relative accuracy (Clarke himself would admit to mellowing in his attitudes and approach in later years), the accusation had an understandable genesis in the author’s lived experience. In Toronto in the 1960s, Clarke writes in his memoir, he faced the kind of institutional racism that is rarely acknowledged in discussions of Canadian tolerance or openness:

I am living … in the sixties, in the atmosphere of great physical fear, of the expectation that a policeman might shoot me – bang, bang, you’re dead, dead – of being refused the renting of a basement room, or an apartment in a public building, that I would find myself standing noticeably longer than other customers at a counter in Eaton’s store, at the corner of Yonge and College Streets, that I might be thrown out, sometimes physically, from a restaurant, or a nightclub, as Oscar Peterson was, and face the embarrassment of being told by a barber that he does not cut niggers’ hair. This is my Toronto.

Austin Clarke after receiving the 2012 Harbourfront Festival Prize (photo: Nancy Paiva)

Austin Clarke after receiving the 2012 Harbourfront Festival Prize (photo: Nancy Paiva)

This was the Toronto that gave life to early stories like “The Motor Car,” about a proud Bajan immigrant who accidentally kills a white woman who is his passenger in the titular vehicle, or the corrosive “Canadian Experience,” about another Bajan immigrant denied entry to the echelons of Bay St. bankers who ends up killing himself by jumping in front of a subway train. It is the Toronto that was still in existence, some four decades later, when Clarke published More, about a mother living in Moss Park and desperately attempting to locate her wayward son, who has gone missing after becoming increasingly ensconced in the lifestyle of local gangs.

And it is the Toronto that still exists: a city in which journalist Desmond Cole gets repeatedly accosted by police and carded for no other reason than the colour of his skin, and which provides fodder for Clarke’s long narrative poem In Your Crib, about an aging black veteran of the civil rights movement who cannot comprehend the ignorance and seeming insouciance of a rap-and-gang-besotted black youth. “The unproven nature of crime, / of disturbance, / of silence, / of misunderstanding,” Clarke writes,

Misunderstanding is known by all the other residents
in the lie of this multicultural land
in which you chose,
like a poor man chooses the ticket, every Friday night,
to make a fortune
from the Lottery’s spinning-wheel
that plays for luck.

Published in 2015, In Your Crib was only Clarke’s second book of poetry, following the 2013 volume Where the Sun Shines Best, about a racially motivated murder that occurred in the author’s own downtown Toronto neighbourhood of Moss Park. The volumes of poetry testify to the fact that, however much Clarke remained focused on the vision and subject matter that gave life to his work, his restless, roaming imagination was always keen to find new modes of expression. Rhythmically, the poems hearken back to the bebop affinities of Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance writers, and the jazz music that Clarke adored throughout his life, most especially the off-beat (and frequently offbeat) work of John Coltrane and Miles Davis.

“Austin Clarke told so many of our stories, and told our stories so well,” says broadcaster Garvia Bailey. “Stories that struggled with otherness, with being ‘in,’ but not ‘of’ your chosen country. I regret that our love for him as a national treasure wasn’t as vigorous as it should have been.”

It is true that Clarke never received the kind of mass readership he deserved, and it is also probably true that the reason for this, at least in part, has to do with racism – the sense of discomfort white readers feel encountering the author’s work. Clarke refused to comfort his readers, or to reassure them that they were not complicit in the issues or problems he wrote about. (He also expressed anger at the insinuation that his Giller win was motivated more by the fact that he was a black man than by the quality of his novel.) But it is precisely this uncompromising fidelity to his individual vision and belief system that makes him such a bracing, necessary voice, and it is precisely this aspect of his work that will likely ensure its longevity.

In Your Crib includes lines from “Black Art,” a poem by Amiri Baraka, for whose writing Clarke professed a great admiration. Baraka’s lines stand as a fitting epitaph for one of Canada’s unique and vital literary voices:

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