Black History Month Features February 16, 2021 – Posted in: Highlights, Holidays & Observances – Tags: , , , , ,

To mark Black History Month, we highlight a selection of Mawenzi House titles that play with the anthology form to celebrate the plurality and polyphony of Black culture, Black creativity, and Black lives. 

Beyond Sangre Grande

Beyond Sangre Grande cover

Black History Month, since its inception by an American historian in 1926, has tended to focus on the experiences of African Americans, with references to Martin Luther King, Jr., Phillis Wheatley, Muhammed Ali, Ida B. Wells, James Baldwin, and so on taking centre stage. Given the sheer multitude of histories to honour, this is to be expected. Yet it is also worth remembering that interwoven with these more prominent narratives, or unfolding in parallel to them, are Black Caribbean narratives—the Caribbean being the birthplace of so many remarkable lives, works, and legacies: Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Stokely Carmichael and C. L. R. James, Marcus Garvey and Claude McKay, Franz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, not to mention countless undersung, but no less revolutionary, women such as Claudia Jones and Elma Francois.

Taking this formidable list as inspiration, we can perhaps draw up another one, one that includes writers and cultural figures like Derek Walcott, Sam Selvon, Austin Clarke, Olive Senior, Kamau Brathwaite, Dionne Brand, David Dabydeen, Ramabai Espinet, Nalo Hopkinson, and Anson Gonzalez and more. These are some of the names that populate the pages of Beyond Sangre Grande, a colourful anthology that reflects the kaleidoscopic world of contemporary Caribbean literature and the multiple cultural, geographical, and generational shifts that have shaped it so profoundly. Featuring writers from Canada, the US, the UK, as well as various Caribbean countries, Beyond Sangre Grande is steeped in a serious historical consciousness, but also delights in the rhythms, moods, and cadences that flow out of the complex dance between creole and other cultural energies.

Confluences 1 & 2

The history of Black Canadians, too, deserves to be studied and celebrated more closely, as a distinct phenomenon from the African American history with which it is undoubtedly bound up. Black Canadian history consists of many stories of many migrations, from the fugitive journeys made through the Underground Railroad during the North American abolitionist movement, to the vast influx of West Indians following new immigration legislation in the 1960s and 1970s, to the burgeoning arrival of immigrants and refugees from African countries in more recent decades. 

Confluences, with its two current volumes and a third one on the way, takes a cultural view of this history of movement: it demonstrates how some of the most exciting Canadian writing emerges from, and continues to evolve within, communities that came from elsewhere. Wide-ranging in theme and literary approach, each volume features a panoply of different voices—many Black and diasporic—that consider the politics of different aesthetics, confront cultural forms of imperialism, and think through urgent questions about memory, history, identity, and language. Presented this way, Black experiences and perspectives are perhaps all the richer and more insightful for being explored side-by-side against the experiences and perspectives of other, non-Black immigrant communities. Readers keen to encounter the work of Black Canadian writers certainly do so in a thoughtful, varied selection that includes such lodestars as Dionne Brand, Austin Clarke, M. NourbeSe Philip, Cecil Foster, and Olive Senior.

Why We Write

Why We Write cover

In Why We Write, novelists, poets, and essayists reflect, through a series of interviews, on the complexities of writing as Black Canadians. On one hand, they write out of humanist convictions, out of a universal impulse to probe what we have called the “human condition,” intending to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. On the other hand, they clearly also write with all the other inflections that come with their distinctly hybrid identities, which are born out of the geographical and social realities of their lives and which are deeply felt in their worldviews and relationships to language.

While Why We Write excavates the personal and the lived for insights on the creative process, it moves well beyond the realm of the autobiographical. A contextual throughline that runs throughout the whole collection is that of the struggle of Black writers to find a footing in an environment so hostile to their flourishing. Interview by interview, readers piece together a sense of the wider story of Black Canadian writing: how it first grew out of small, self-reliant, community-level efforts and later managed to secure a greater prominence for itself towards the turn of the century; how its cultural place is nevertheless still uncertain going into the perceivable future, compromised and even threatened by the terms set by others; and how, through it all, writers continue to have to navigate the maneuvers of industry professionals, the changing tastes of readers, and the void in which they often find themselves working, given the apparent difficulty involved in finding a clearly identifiable market for their writing. Apart from being an enjoyable set of conversations with well-known and well-loved writers, from Nalo Hopkinson to Wadye Compton to Suzette Mayr to Afua Cooper to Robert Sandiford and many more, Why We Write is an illuminating commentary on the politics behind how culture is produced in Canada—this supposed haven of multiculturalism and inclusivity—and the economics that dictate it must be so.

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