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  • Blackening Canada: Diaspora, Race, Multiculturalism by Barrett, Paul
  • Darcy Ballantyne
Barrett, Paul. Blackening Canada: Diaspora, Race, Multiculturalism. University of Toronto Press. x, 246. $29.95

Paul Barrett's Blackening Canada: Diaspora, Race, Multiculturalism is an important intervention in a steadily mounting body of literary criticism on black Canadian diasporic literature and history. Employing the freighted and seemingly intractable twin Gordian knots of the Canadian Multicultural Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to frame a discussion of black Canadian diasporic writing, Blackening Canada investigates the ways black writers reveal the legislations' inherent biases and contradictions and challenge and rejuvenate the terminological and practical possibilities of multiculturalism by ''generat[ing] an alternative vocabulary of presence and belonging that exceeds the boundaries of the nation'' and ''blackens'' Canada.

The ''blackening'' of Canada occurs, Barrett argues, as the result of the ways black diasporic writers reconceive of, rearticulate, and rewrite the nation. By deploying a shifting sense of time, a complex understanding of space and movement, and different configurations and definitions of ancestry and belonging along with other ''diasporic practices,'' Barrett suggests, the writers under study ''imagine Canada as a space in the black diaspora.'' Their poetry and fiction exposes the tension between what Barrett calls ''Canadian multiculturalism's claim to sever the ties between race and citizenship'' and the persistent DuBoisian ''double-consciousness'' black Canadians experience when the rights, freedoms, and expectations that multiculturalism implies to do not extend to them.

In chapter one, Barrett discusses how Dionne Brand uses ''temporal shifts'' in her long poem thirsty to situate the profound losses occasioned by the Middle Passage, the door of no return, slavery, and the plantation in the present where they become ''the condition of possibility for new conceptions of black diasporic subjectivity.'' Transporting these historical ''fissures and lacunae'' into a present time-space continuum articulates ''a counter-narrative to modernity and history'' and, Barrett contends, ''constitutes an act of blackening.'' Barrett argues in chapter two that, in [End Page 107] his recent fiction, including ''Sometimes, A Motherless Child,'' The Origin of Waves, The Polished Hoe, and More, Austin Clarke also subverts the assurances of equal treatment multiculturalism makes by depicting the various ways the spirit of European imperial expansion and its attendant consequences are present and continue to be felt in the lives of black people living in the diaspora. The shifting mobility-immobility that characterizes Clarke's characters' lives, Barrett insists, ''transforms the nation from a site of arrival and freedom for black people, to one more route within the diaspora.'' Further, Barrett argues, their incessant mobility (and psychic immobility) ''reveals the ongoing estrangement of black people from the nation as they are repeatedly imagined as en-route, originating and belonging elsewhere.'' In the fourth chapter, Barrett suggests that Tessa McWatt also undercuts the fallacy of equality under official multiculturalism in her inaugural novel, Out of My Skin, by revealing ''how the language of heritage functions to exclude black people from the nation'' and by ''challeng[ing] Canadian multiculturalism, citizenship, and nationalism on their own terms.'' Importantly, Barrett notes, ''McWatt's novel extends the project of blackening in new ways by suggesting coalitions between aboriginals, raced, and sexed subjects in multicultural Canada'' through its investigation of the 1990 Oka Crisis.

The third chapter consists of an insightful and rigorous analysis of the 1979 shooting death of Albert Johnson and the subsequent legal system's and national media's documented bias against Johnson and the entire black Toronto diaspora. Barrett's analysis resonates especially loudly given the current escalation in anti-black rhetoric, racism, and violence both in Canada and the United States. Echoes of the '''democratic racism''' that characterized the public discourse around the killing of Johnson and the police officer's acquittal can be heard, Barrett argues, in current ''Canadian public discourse [that] continues to neglect black Canadian histories.''

If, as Barrett argues, ''liberalism's language of equality and individuality enables particular forms of racism to persist because they cannot be identified or understood through liberalism's critical vocabulary,'' these texts propose an alternate language for articulating a different and more hopeful way of being '''here.''' Blackening Canada is an invaluable addition to black literary...


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