Author and poet George Elliott Clarke photographed in his home in Toronto, Ontario, 2018. Photo: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Where Beauty Survived
Award-winning author George Elliott Clarke, 61, discusses his new memoir, his youth in Nova Scotia and exploring his Africadian roots / BY Ashante Infantry / September 24th, 2021
Author George Elliott Clarke is a genial as they come, but there’s one sure way for a stranger to raise his ire.
“When people ask me ‘Where are you from, I take it as an affront, because I know that most of the time, when that question gets asked, people expect you to say ‘Well, I’m from somewhere other than Canada;’ or they expect you to admit — confess — that your parents, your grandparents, your great-grandparents are from someplace else,” Canada’s erstwhile Parliamentary Poet Laureate says, agitation threatening the equanimity of a recent phone interview about his new memoir, Where Beauty Survived: An Africadian Memoir.
The 61-year-old continues, noting, “it’s powerful to say to people ‘No, no: seven generations on my mother’s side, not counting the Indigenous, and three generations on my father’s side, again, not counting the Indigenous; and land in my possession going back 200 years now.”
So central are questions of identity and belonging to the memoir — which details Clarke’s first two decades, spent mostly in segregated Halifax’s North End, and disabuses assumptions of what it means to be Black and Canadian — that it opens with “A Note on Nomenclature.” In that note, the author reinforces the use of the term “Africadian,” which he coined in 1991 “to designate people arising from the historical communities of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island,” to distinguish their culture and three-century-long presence “from the originally offshore histories and cultures of Black newcomers.
“To say that one is African-Nova Scotia, to say that one is Africadian, is to say that we have also a presence in Nova Scotia that is cultural, that is historical and, above all — and I’m sending chills down my spine when I say this — landed, geographical,” Clarke explains. “Even though the colonial governments did their best, and the provincial government did its best from the 18th into the 20th century, to force our ancestors to leave because conditions were so bad.”
The Africadian communities were poor and oppressed, but they endured, and flourished even, giving rise to talents like Clarke, a notable poet, novelist, screenwriter, librettist and scholar, and his great-aunt Portia May White, an internationally renowned contralto who gave voice lessons to the likes of Lorne Greene, Dinah Christie and Robert Goulet. The humble but harmonious Nova Scotia homesteads in places such as Weymouth Falls and East Preston remain anchors for its far-flung citizenry.
“I was just there, three weeks ago, walking on my little piece of land; three-quarters of an acre, but it goes back to 1812, 1815, for crying out loud; back to the time when slavery was still legal in Nova Scotia,” says Clarke, who now lives in Toronto.
The Three Mile Plains property he inherited from his mom is not much to look at — an overgrowth of anthills, blackberry bushes, crabapple trees, spruce, pine, and lots of unidentifiable spiky greenery, just down the road from the (West) Hants County capital, Windsor, where he was born. But it’s his.
“So I’m grounded, I got a sense of identity … and that’s what I was trying to name, by giving a specific name tied to our geographical presence. I’m not going to say possession, because I’m also part Indigenous and … I do not believe the treaties were ever actually conducted between equal partners or in good faith.
“I will make an exception for Black communities, because we never had any choice. It’s not as if we arrived en masse and started grabbing land from people … Our ancestors back in Nova Scotia, they were deliberately given the very worst land possible so they could not become economically independent. And that land was often next to an Indigenous reserve, and people ended up mixing.”
In Where Beauty Survived, Clarke — who won the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Poetry in 2001 for his collection Execution Poems and now teaches African-Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto — melds historical fact with humour and poetic dexterity. He recalls a cheerful boyhood rich with music and food and puppy love, buoyed by a curious cast of Indigenous Black and Afro-Metis characters and relatives — most notably his parents, his mother a teacher and his father a railway worker.
Mother Gerry was “Caucasian in look, but profoundly Coloured in taste: food, fashion dance moves, speech,” he writes, “… Windsor Plains in her roots and Windsor Castle in her elegance, but being chic did not contradict being ribald.”
Meanwhile, his father Bill “was a mahogany-dark man who preferred classical music, spoke polished English, and eschewed the typical, Africadian male stride, which was part-dip, part-glide.”
The unraveling of his parents’ marriage, against the backdrop of his dad’s infidelity and abusive behaviour, upended the tranquility of life for Clarke and his two younger brothers. The author balances admiration for Bill’s intellectual and artistic gifts with abhorrence of the brutality he meted out inside the house. Today, Clarke doesn’t excuse his dad’s behaviour but considers it in the context of the racism and servitude he endured in the society at large.
Clarke credits The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which he read at 18, with helping him understand his “predicament as a so-called visible minority Black youth.
“What was so empowering about that, I come across an African-American race leader, a Black leader, who is unapologetic for being an intellectual,” he explains. “That was a huge thing, because I had always been someone who was teased as a boy for wanting to read, carrying loads of books home from the library … doing well in school and in my community, it was often seen — and I think this is true for many oppressed communities — that anybody who demonstrated any kind of real mastery of the so-called white man’s books, and their school system, was automatically on the road to becoming an Uncle Tom, or an Aunt Jemima, or someone who was going to betray [their] people … in the name of trying to ingratiate ourselves with white power in order to have a better existence.”
It was Clarke’s first inkling that, instead of perpetuating ideas of Black inferiority, scholarship could be used to correct or attack the demonization of his people. And that’s why Where Beauty Survived begs a second volume; one can only imagine the juicy exploits of an increasingly confident, land-rooted Clarke forging through Canada’s hallowed academic and literary environs with a Malcolm X mindset.
Where Beauty Survived is available in stores and online now.