Austin Clarke and Canada’s Black Lives Matter Movement
Austin Clarke, the Barbadian-Canadian writer, died at age 81 on June 26. Clarke was one of Canada’s leading literary figures and is widely credited for writing the Black experience into Canadian literature and contributing to a Canadian literary tradition that more accurately reflected the country’s diverse nature. His books included novels such as The Polished Hoe and More, memoirs including Love and Sweet Food and ‘Membering and two collections of poetry, Where the Sun Shines Best and In Your Crib. Clarke, who came to Canada from Barbados as a student in 1955, was a lifelong critic of Canadian racism and was at the forefront of the development of a distinctly Canadian approach to Black radicalism that emerged in the 1960s.
A week after Clarke died, a Black Lives Matter protest in Toronto drew attention to the issue of Canadian racism and led to the emergence of a crowd-sourced syllabus similar to those that came out following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the mass shooting of African-American parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston. In this post, I show how Clarke’s critiques of Canada’s racism provide a historical background against which to see the Toronto Protest and the Black Lives Canada Syllabus as part of a longer history of Black activists in Canada finding inspiration in rhetoric and approaches emerging from African-American struggles and adapting them to the specific history of racism in Canada.
In 1963, Clarke wrote in Maclean’s, a popular newsweekly, that he would not apply for Canadian citizenship: to do so would be “accepting in theory a status that Canada does not intend to give me in practice—because I am a black man.” Clarke maintained that he needed to keep an “escape hatch” in the event that he could “no longer endure this atmosphere,” and detailed how Canadian white supremacy affected the lives of Black people, notably through restrictive immigration policies and housing and employment discrimination.1
Like many contemporaneous attempts to draw attention to Canada’s racism, Clarke’s essay generated responses denying the very possibility of racial discrimination in Canada being anything more than a personal flaw, and not a structural element of Canadian society.
The essay was an early instance of an emerging radicalism that shaped Black politics in Canada in the 1960s, a tendency inspired and informed by the emergence of Black Power in the United States and profoundly shaped by the ideas and activism of West Indians who had come to Canada either to study or to settle. Canada had always been a site for the development of radical Black politics. Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association had several branches in Canada and Garvey visited the country a number of times. However, Canadian Black activism in the years after the Second World War usually took an integrationist stance, challenging Canada to conduct itself according to the values of fairness and acceptance that were central to its self-imagining. But by the end of the 1960s, many Black activists in Canada were applying radical critiques coming out of the international Black Power movement to the Canadian situation. As opposed to the reformist efforts that defined most Black Canadian activism of the time, Clarke’s refusal to become a citizen was a radical rejection of Canada that spoke to the notion that it was impossible for a white supremacist society to accept a Black person, a position informed in part by Black nationalist ideas coming from African-American thinkers and activists such as Malcolm X. As the decade wore on, Clarke continued to discuss race in Canada through a lens informed by developments in the United States. In 1968, Clarke warned Canadians that while the possibility of a Black uprising akin to those then unfolding in American cities was remote in the short term, if Blacks remained invisible in Canada, they might very well embrace a more militant approach to their fight against racism.2
In 1969, Clarke produced “Death of a Panther,” a CBC radio documentary about the death of John Huggins, a Black Panther who died along with Bunchy Carter in a shooting at UCLA in 1969. A substantial part of the documentary focused on Erika Huggins, John Huggins’s widow, detailing the routine harassment and violence experienced by the Panthers and other African-Americans at the hands of Los Angeles police. Clarke’s sympathetic portrait of Huggins put a human face on the Black Panther Party for Canadians at a time when most Canadian media coverage of the Panthers tended to demonize the organization as a violent threat. Moreover, the emphasis on the violence inflicted by police on African-Americans complicated simplistic portrayals of armed Panthers that failed to address the organization’s roots in the desire of Blacks to defend themselves from violence at the hands of police and white supremacists.
Almost a quarter-century later, police brutality against Black people was again at the center of Clarke’s work against racism. In 1992, Clarke published a pamphlet titled “Public Enemies” as a response to the “Yonge Street Riot,” a protest against police violence in Toronto that ended in physical conflict and mass vandalism and destruction. The protest was a show of support for African-Americans in the wake of the acquittal of the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King, but it took on a distinctly local dimension after Toronto police shot and killed Raymond Lawrence, a 22-year old Black man, two days before the planned protest. It was the eighth police shooting of a Black person in Toronto in four years. “Public Enemies” ties police violence against young Blacks in Toronto to longer and deeper patterns of white supremacy in Canada and warns: while Clarke’s generation of Black people had come to Canada voluntarily, with a “determination to succeed,” Black people in Canada “still can’t find good jobs.” Perhaps hearkening back to his 1968 words, he noted that “this generation will not be as patient as earlier ones.”3
On July 3, a week after Clarke’s passing, Canadian racism was headline news after activists from Black Lives Matter Toronto staged a protest during Toronto’ Pride parade. The activists, who had been invited to march in the parade, took the parade’s theme of “You Can Sit With Us” and transformed it into a protest tactic by sitting down in the middle of the parade route and halting its progress for about twenty-five minutes. They released a list of demands that were focused on getting Toronto Pride to do more to support and encourage the participation and representation of Blacks and other people of color at Pride; they also called for “the removal of police floats/booths in all Pride marches/parades/community spaces.” This demand reflected tensions between Toronto police and the city’s Black and Black queer communities, including Black men in Toronto being disproportionately targeted by police for identification checks and the 2015 police shooting of Andrew Loku, who had come to Canada as a refugee from the Sudanese civil war. After the protest, Janaya Khan, a Toronto Black Lives Matter activist, spoke with Maclean’s about the discrimination faced by Black and Black queer youth in Canada. Khan discussed racist policing practices and also provided a brilliant analysis of how Canada’s Black history, which was profoundly shaped by immigration from the Caribbean and Africa, shapes both the specific dynamics of Canadian racism, which often goes hand-in-hand with anti-immigration sentiment, and Black Canadian identity, which is often seen as an impossibility:
Our experience of being racialized in Canada is: “Where are you from?” “But where are you really from?” … You don’t see that narrative in the States where it’s like: “You don’t belong here.” … African Americans and black Americans have been terms that people have used for decades, but the [Candian] mainstream media doesn’t refer to us as black Canadians. We don’t refer to ourselves as that. So in a way you have the Canadian identity and you have the black identity and they’ve been separated.4
Soon after the Pride protest, the hashtag #blacklivescdnsyllabus began trending on Twitter. As elements of the Canadian media sharply questioned the wisdom and the necessity of the protest, people took to social media to compile a list of resources that addressed Canada’s historical white supremacy and Black resistance to it.
The Black Lives Canada syllabus, which is being maintained by attorney and activist Anthony Morgan, joins the Ferguson Syllabus and the Charleston Syllabus as an example of an important development in the recent history of intellectual activism. It exemplifies how the crowd-sourcing of a reading list offers a way to raise awareness of and contribute to public debates about critical issues facing Black communities and enables people to quickly harness their knowledge as a tool in the fight against racism. The Toronto Black Lives Matter protest and the The Black Lives Canada syllabus speak to how Black people in Canada have historically drawn inspiration from the rhetoric and approaches of the African-American struggle, but in a way informed by, and meant to address, the specific dynamics of racism in Canada.
*Coda: In the hours after I submitted this post, news broke that Abdirahman Abdi, a Somali-Canadian man with a history of mental health issues, died after being arrested by Ottawa police, renewing calls for Canada to confront racist police practices.
- Austin Clarke, “A Black Man Talks about Race Prejudice in White Canada,” Maclean’s, April 20,
1963; Clarke took Canadian citizenship in 1981. ↩
- Austin Clarke, “Summer Is for Killing,” Montreal Star Weekend Magazine, May 4, 1968. ↩
- Austin Clarke, “Public Enemies: Police Violence and Black Youth,” (Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992) ↩
- Zane Schwartz, “How a Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder sees Canada,” Maclean’s, 8 July 2016. ↩
Comments on “Austin Clarke and Canada’s Black Lives Matter Movement”
Thank you for this wonderful piece, Paul. The parallels it draws and the historical connections it makes really demonstrates the many ways that Black Canadians have experienced racism over time and the myriad of ways they have responded to it. Even though Clarke is no longer with us, his work and activism will never cease being a source of inspiration. Here in Toronto, Black Lives Matters is operating in hostile waters but they are boldly continuing to demonstrate that “this generation will not be as patient as earlier ones.”
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