Recent literary perspectives on race in Canada and the United States
Contemporary authors in the United States and Canada frequently engage with the paradox constituted by race in fictional form. While both groups of authors do so extensively, I would venture the hypothesis that, just as race is more openly acknowledged as a decisive factor in the United States and racism was (arguably still is) more openly visible in the United States than in Canada, US American writers' engagement with race does seem more direct. US writers
(both black and white) such as Colson Whitehead with Apex Hides the Hurt (2006), Richard Powers with The Time of Our Singing (2003), Danzy Senna with Caucasia (1999), Joyce Carol Oates with Black Girl, White Girl (2006), and Percival Everett with Erasure (2001), to name but some obvious examples, meet the concept of race head on, explicitly discussing the category of race, its inconsistencies, and its repercussions in the world. In creating within their novels metadiscourses on race, they capture the discrepancy between academic reconceptualizations on the one hand and lived experience on the other, implicitly urging readers to "get real" about race in the contemporary United States. In contemporary Canadian fiction by writers such as Dionne Brand, Austin Clarke, Tessa McWatt, Suzette Mayr, and Andre Alexis, race is, of course, also a constant and indelible subtext. Yet, Canadian authors mostly seem to follow a tendency discernible in Canadian society at large—they are very much informed by race in their writing, just as Canadians are in their actions and thoughts, but rarely address the thing directly.21
This assumed difference in approaching race in a literary context, like the analogous social developments discussed above, may be attributed to several factors. Looking at black Canadian writers, in contrast to those in the United States, in Canada there is a strong "exile tradition" of African Canadian writing. "Haitian and Anglo-Caribbean emigres—specifically from Trinidad, Barbados, and Jamaica—have become major voices in the literature" (Clarke 2002b, 331), as testified to by such prominent voices as Dionne Brand, Marlene Nourbese Philip, and Claire Harris. If one adds African Canadian writers born in Canada and African-diasporic writers (some of whom came to Canada via England) to the mix, it becomes immediately apparent that the African Canadian literary scene, too, is much more heterogeneous than its African American counterpart. In view of this heterogeneity of black Canadian authors, George Elliott Clarke writes: "Because of their varying allegiances, then, African-Canadian writers wrestle with the idea of blackness" (Clarke 2002b, 41). This claim might, taken out of context, suggest an especially rigorous and sustained engagement with race. Yet the contrary is the case: Canadian writers' engagement with blackness is marked by a strong emphasis on diaspora and/or focuses on questions of integration or exclusion and cultural nationalism, rather than negotiating the concept of race as such (with Austin Clarke's oeuvre and the work of Andre Alexis constituting prime examples). Complicating matters is the fact that, "given the gravitational attractiveness of Black America and the repellent force of a frequently racist, Anglo-Canadian (and Quebecois de souche) nationalism, African-Canadian writers feel themselves caught between the Scylla of an essentially U.S.-tinctured cultural nationalism and the Charybdis of their marginalization within Canadian cultural discourses that perceive them as 'alien'" (Clarke 2002b, 73). This particular situation apparently confronts African Canadian writers with different questions about race and blackness than those that African American writers face. Finally, as pointed out above, in the United States a thoroughgoing literary engagement with the concept of race and its repercussions is by no means restricted to African American writers, but includes such well-known white voices as Richard Powers (The Time of Our Singing, 2003), Joyce Carol Oates (Black Girl, White Girl, 2006), Ann Patchett (Run, 2007), Jonathan Lethem (The Fortress of Solitude, 2003), and Adam Mansbach (Angry Black White Boy, 2005). While this might be due to an oversight on my part, I am yet to encounter a Euro-Canadian writer's text that is as invested in exploring the question of race in terms of blackness and whiteness as these texts are.22
Rather than trying to substantiate my hypothesis by discussing a larger number of texts from both national literatures in greater detail—which would obviously require a far more comprehensive study—in the remainder of this chapter I will focus on a text that within itself offers a comparative perspective on race in the United States and Canada, namely Canadian writer Lawrence Hill's novel Any Known Blood (1997). As George Elliott Clarke points out, the heterogeneity of black Canadian writers and the ensuing struggle over a common concept of blackness outlined above create a centrifugal force to which many black Canadian writers respond by "invok[ing] the unifying spirit of history" (Clarke 2002b, 47). Written on the brink of the new millennium, Any Known Blood is a prime example of this tendency. It offers readers a cross-border take on race in a diachronic time frame, and thus in effect "rewrites Canada's history, opening up the possibility to make claims of belonging" (Walcott 2003, 68) in Canada, rather than branding blackness as a US phenomenon.
The novel centers on Langston Cane V23 and his coming to terms with his racial identity and family heritage, a process that is intertwined with his research for a novel inspired by his family's history. The son of a black father and a white mother, Langston V has "the rare distinction—a distinction that weighs like a wet life jacket, but that [he] sometimes float[s] to great advan- tage—of not appearing to belong to any particular race, but of seeming like a contender for many" (Hill 1997, 1). This opening is, in fact, the closest the novel gets to questioning the validity of race as a means of categorization, and it implicitly does so by invoking the established tradition of narratives of passing. Tracing his lineage through five generations of the black Cane family, Langston V passes for whatever minority he wants to defend on the respective occasion—Madagascan, Sikh, Moroccan, "part Jewish, part Cree, part Zulu, part anything people were running down" (ibid., 2). Langston V's passing is, as Jennifer Harris points out, of a "playful" variety (J. Harris 2004, 370), rather than passing for white in hope of economic and social advantages. Nonetheless his racial limbo offends his father, Langston IV, whose assertive blackness is posited against his son's identity confusion (see also Wall 2011, 9-10). Langston Cane IV tellingly hails from the United States and immigrated to Canada only in his twenties to study at the University of Toronto. A prominent civil rights activist, he is actually the black voice to consult in matters of race in Ontario, which makes his son's actions all the more explosive. It is his as well as his ancestors' and son's cross-border experiences and views that showcase alleged and real dissimilarities between the two North American nations' approaches to race and blackness.
Langston's "game of multiple racial identities" (Hill 1997, 2) comes to an end when, on top of having been left by his wife, he is fired from his job as a speech writer for doctoring a minister's speech and thus indirectly leaking government plans to abandon antidiscrimination legislation to an audience of black journalists. As Langston's sarcastic paraphrase of the proposed change in legislation reveals, the Ontario government's racist backlash is based on the presumption that not only has equality in Canada already been achieved, but is in fact a matter of economic necessity: "According to this document, it was now the turn of the human rights commission and the Ontario Human Rights Code. They were obsolete and antithetical to good business practices. They had served a need years ago, thank you very much, but this was the nineties. Minorities didn't require special treatment any longer. Like other Ontarians, minorities knew businesses couldn't compete in the global economy without treating all employees fairly. Or so the document said" (ibid., 13-14). Placing Langston V's discovery of these plans at the very beginning of a novel featuring multiple border crossings between Canada and the United States (in fact Langston V himself leaves for Baltimore shortly after this incident) sets the tone for a critical exploration of alleged US American-Canadian differences. Indeed, it questions the credibility of Canadian efforts toward bringing about true racial equality and implicitly criticizes Canadian complacency in view of the progress already accomplished, a complacency frequently derived from a direct comparison with the status quo in the United States.
Yet Hill's novel does not engage in simplistic finger pointing; rather, it complicates and thus dismantles simplistic stereotypes one nation holds about the other when it comes to race. True, depictions of the United States as more racist than Canada appear numerous times within the novel. They start with Langston I's account of slavery and his escape to Canada via the Underground Railroad and continue, among other instances, with Langston IV's descriptions of racism in the United States in the 1950s when declining his white Canadian girlfriend's request that he join their activist group in "testing" Ontario restaurants for racial discriminatory practices: "If I were so desperate to experience
segregation, I would have stayed in Baltimore____I left that and I'm not going
back" (ibid., 82). Langston V's firsthand experiences of racism in Baltimore yet another forty years later seem to imply that while many things have changed for the better, racism has far from disappeared. In analogy, the US American Canes' (I, III, IV) marveling at the absence of black neighborhoods in Canadian cities like Oakville (272) or Toronto (66-67) is mirrored by the Canadian-born Langstons' (II and V) shock at experiencing the black neighborhoods, or rather black ghettos, of Baltimore, highlighting segregation as a lasting—if no longer legally sanctioned—US reality absent from Canada.24 Finally, the surprise evinced by Langston III and Langston IV at all of a sudden being called "sir" (266) and "mister" (63) when coming to Canada suggests a more respectful approach toward black people in Canada than in the United States, one acknowledging their status as equals rather than inferiors.
The picture of both nations is painted neither without irony nor in an unbalanced way; however, it also "expose[s] the moral lacunae in the north star narrative [ . . . as e]ach successive generation of the Cane family is drawn north and at least partly disappointed at what he [sic] finds" (Moynagh 2005, 21). When Langston I asks the deckhand on the way to freedom across Lake
Ontario what Oakville was like, she replies: "I call it Nicefolksville____They'll
nice you to death" (Hill 1997, 445). Later she adds that in Oakville "nobody beat up on you, or brought out a whip, or threatened to drag you back to slavery. But colored people were still made to feel like outsiders. 'The only talking white people here want to do with me is about how wicked American slavery is, and how I must think I've died and gone to paradise, now that I'm in Oakville'" (ibid., 461). Niceness as a quintessential Canadian quality is therefore satirized and exposed as a hypocritical veneer upheld in Canada's selfdelineation against its southern neighbor.25 That actual differences, regardless of packaging, might in fact not be all that large becomes especially apparent through the searches of Langston IV's and Langston V's apartments in 1950s Toronto and 1990s Baltimore, respectively. Looking for a place to live outside Baltimore's black district, Langston V meets with racial prejudice more than once, one landlord classifying him as "Octoroon" and asking him if he "was clean and had clean habits" (94). This blatant display of US racism is offset by a more intricate earlier situation in Toronto. Dorothy, Langston IV's white wife, has looked at an apartment, agreed upon renting it with the landlord, and returns later with her husband, whose blackness she had up to that point failed to mention. "The coming refusal was as certain as the sunset—but Langston sensed that it would come in a distinct way. This wasn't the United States. Nobody would swear at him, or wave a gun. Langston waited for the refusal, Canadian-style. 'I'm so sorry,' Watson said, looking only at Dorothy, 'and I hope you haven't been overly inconvenienced, but I have made other arrangements" (35, emphasis added). Watson, the landlord, in his entire rhetoric and demeanor, thus epitomizes Foster's idea of Canada's "polite" racism—the nonswearing, smiling kind. Yet the rejection on racial grounds eventually amounts to the same result, revealing Hill's intricate strategy of juxtaposing similar situations such as segregation and discriminatory practices from various eras and two different national cultures26 in order to disclose that neither is racism a US prerogative nor has Canada's adoption of the policy of multiculturalism managed to eradicate it.
As outlined above, Langston V's playful passing and indecisiveness with regard to race is contrasted with the assertive blackness of his US-born father (and may indeed be sparked by it in the first place; see Siemerling 2004, 34-35). Revealingly, having left behind multicultural Canada and its alleged blindness to color for the United States to explore his family's past, upon his arrival in Baltimore's black community, Langston V begins to capitalize on his blackness. Visiting the American Methodist Episcopal church where his grandfather had been a minister, he is "glad that my hair was longer than usual, and combed out into an afro, because I didn't want to be seen as a white visitor. I wanted my race clearly marked" (119, emphasis added). This change of mind can be attributed to his change in (national) surrounding, as the US community he comes into understands itself as exclusively black, no self-questioning allowed. Its young activist members consider "racial identity [as] a happening concept" (243) and question Langston V about his identity as a black Canadian (243). What their slightly condescending interrogation in fact implies is that "Black Canada is . . . removed from any connection with the Black Power and Afrocentric movements so crucial to the Civil Rights movement and the spirit of resistance in middle and late nineteenth-century America" (J. Harris 2004, 372). To put it more polemically: when it comes to true blackness Canada is not on the African American map. On the surface, as Nadine Flagel comments in reference to Langston V's coming into his blackness in the United States, "Any Known Blood might [therefore] appear to participate in a broader tendency of black Canada to construct black America as the origin of true politicised racial identity" (Flagel 2011, 17); yet the novel does so in order to eventually deflate that position. It vividly inscribes black presence in Canada through the Cane family and the communities they live in, and simultaneously demonstrates racial identity to be more flexible than the rigid Afrocentric notions of young black American activists. Rather than presenting readers with clear-cut allocations of "American" and "Canadian" understandings of race, the novel shows how the concept is adapted to varying times and circumstances by members of the very same family. Whereas Langston Cane II ties race and skin color to ancestry, telling his son: "You're an African American. And don't you forget it. Look at your skin. Look at it. Be proud of that color, son. It marks your African heritage" (134), four generations later an identification in terms of descent no longer seems to suffice. Langston IV, a man who has spent most of his lifetime struggling for a greater acceptance of blacks in Canada's white-dominated society, responds to being referred to as "African" by Derek, a young black Baltimore activist: "I'm not an African, any more than you" (248). While his undercutting of Afrocentrism is clear enough, supported by the narrator's reference to Derek as "the man of monologues, the master of diatribes" (248), readers are left to wonder what he does identify as: US American? Canadian? Black North American?
Derek's ostentatious display of blackness and Afrocentrism is further thrown into (comic) relief by contrasting it with the unselfconscious blackness of Yoyo, a Cameroonian illegal immigrant, who ironically deflects Derek's admiration of his "undiluted" Africanness by commenting: "Yes, and I have ten toes and ten fingers, too, but I don't spend much time thinking about how perfect they are" (244). Through Yoyo, who, after his escape from Cameroon had spent time in Canada, now lives in Baltimore, and will return to Canada at the end of the novel, Any Known Blood further unties the frequently collocated concepts of race and nation, triangulating the US fixation on race and the more guarded and critical Canadian engagement with the concept, with Yoyo's comfortable acceptance of himself as a black man in North America. Through the various characters' allegiances and orientations Hill therefore invokes but eventually unsettles nationalist concepts of race and the histories and mythologies they derive from. He "asserts that blackness is not merely a product of the United States, but also part of the Canadian family tree" (J. Harris 2004, 373), thereby defying the way in which Canada tends to erase both a historical black presence and persisting race-based tensions in favor of a celebratory multicultural stance that is adopted not least to set itself off from the United States.