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After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing and Region

by Wayde Compton

Poet and scholar Wayde Compton’s collection of essays on race in Canada is a refreshing series of investigations into the national myths that have resulted in Canada being dubbed a “post-racial” nation. Focusing on the province of B.C., Compton exposes the discomfort that matters of race continue to elicit in our national discourse. Building on the Compton-edited essay collection Bluesprint (2002), After Canaan offers an alternative epistemology for thinking about race in Canada, and a way of interpreting Canadian mixed-race identities that allows for contradiction and multiplicity, as opposed to essentialist tactics or an insistence on racial authenticity. 

Compton argues that the term “racial passing” (a mixed-race person presenting as white) is often misused because it assumes racially ambiguous folks are always actively trying to be something they’re not. Instead, he suggests a new term – “pheneticizing” – that shifts the focus from the viewed to the viewer, and dispels the gross assumptions at work in attempts to slot Canada’s racial populations into easy binaries. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “phenetics” (one of several terms Compton includes in a self-reflexively ironic “Very Short Glossary of Racial Transgression”) as “the classification of organisms on the basis of their observed similarities and difference … without reference to functional significance or evolutionary relationships.” Compton expertly weaves this concept through each essay, providing a multi-faceted look into B.C.’s interracial past.

Fascinating connections are made between the arrival of American blacks in Canada in the 19th century and the ­process of integration that ensued. He also ­addresses the connection between the 1970 destruction of Hogan’s Alley (a largely black neighbourhood in Vancouver) and the ­misunderstood legacy of black Canadian writers; the politics and poetics of hip-hop and turntabling; and, of course, the significance of Barack Obama. 

After Canaan locates Canada’s place in the future as dependent upon an honest dialogue with its history. Compton expertly riffs on the concept of Canada as a promised land, arguing for a strategic engagement with race, one that can function along poetic – open-ended, potentially radical – rather than post-racial lines.

Though refusing to offer a script for what the Canadian mixed-race experience should look like (or worse, degenerating into a ­simple celebration of multiculturalism), Compton’s book struggles to find an effective methodology for understanding the interracial experience. At the same time, the text engages critically and materially with race in a way that hasn’t been done before, courageously critiquing Canada’s refusal to account for or legitimize the experience of racial ambiguity.