The Black Atlantic Reconsidered: Black Canadian Writing, Cultural History, and the Presence of the Past by Winfried Siemerling (review)
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Reviewed by
Winfried Siemerling. The Black Atlantic Reconsidered: Black Canadian Writing, Cultural History, and the Presence of the Past. McGill-Queen's University Press. xiv, 546. $34.95

Winfried Siemerling's recherché appreciation of African-Canadian literature – The Black Atlantic Reconsidered: Black Canadian Writing, Cultural History, and the Presence of the Past – confirms that this canon is a stand-out must-read. Siemerling's study affirms that Black Canadians author erudite, "race"-conscious and cosmopolitan, liberal-minded and "nationalist" (Canadian and/or Afrocentrist) texts that interrogate both "race" and supposed "racelessness" in Can Lit and among Canucks.

Siemerling's surveys and insights are laudable. Yet he's unsure about precursors. Rinaldo Walcott's Black Like Who (1997) is named one of "the first book-length studies dedicated specifically to black Canadian writing." Walcott's focus, though, is Cultural Studies, not African-Canadian letters. Siemerling notes that Lorris Elliott issued Writings by Blacks in Canada [1978, 1988]; yet Elliott's research merely lists works by black writers exhibiting Canadian residency, circa 1954–78. Indeed, the first conceptualization of "African-Canadian literature" occurs in my publication of my historiographical essay and bibliography, "Africana Canadiana" (1996). Happily, Siemerling does cite my pioneering research in his Appendix, but other lacunae abound. Max Dorsinville's pivotal 1974 study of "Black" and "Québec" literature goes unreported. Austin C. Clarke is "the most important early Caribbean Canadian writer," but omitted is the first Anglo-Caribbean Canadian author, namely, Antigua-born Peter E. McKerrow and his History of the Coloured Baptists of Nova Scotia (1895). Also unidentified – inexplicably – are the first African-Canadian novel in English, Amelia E. Johnson's Clarence and Corinne (1890), the first African-Canadian published play in English, Lennox Brown's The Captive (1965), and the first African-Canadian poetry collection in English, Nathaniel Dett's Album of a Heart (1911).

Although debates over ethnic/racial nomenclature are often sterile, regrettable is Siemerling's use of locutions like "black Canadian" and "black Canadian studies." The iterated, typographical diminution of "black" detracts from the high seriousness of Siemerling's readings.

The predominance of "black" over "Black" (and "African") signals Siemerling's engagement with Paul Gilroy's seminal text, The Black Atlantic (1993), with readings of "black writing … in its specifically Canadian and diasporic black Atlantic aspects." Though Siemerling pursues arguments (357–361) I advance in mid-1990s essays, particularly, "Must All Blackness Be American?" (1996), he, too, cannot resolve the ontological differences among African-Canadians: we are a multitude of cultures, languages, faiths, and sometimes only ghostly hints, of négritude, and do not compose, unlike Gilroy's Black Britons and African Americans, a "bloc" of shared experiences. [End Page 184]

Quibbles aside, The Black Atlantic Reconsidered is a considerable achievement. Siemerling canvasses works by Marie-Célie Agnant, André Alexis, Dionne Brand, David Chariandy, Austin C. Clarke, myself, Wayde Compton, Esi Edugyan, Lorris Elliott, Gérard Etienne, Lorena Gale, Claire Harris, Lawrence Hill, Dany Laferrière, Suzette Mayr, Emile Ollivier, M. NourbeSe Philip, Mairuth Sarsfield, and Frederick Ward, etc. This cohort represents both "Contemporary Black Canadian Writing" and "Other Black Canadas," and acknowledges our contexts: regionalist, multiethnic, Métis, biracial, New-Canadian, and "old-stock"-settler, all constituting a polyphonous medley of accents and ideologies.

Yet omissions happen here too. For instance, the reading of Hill's Book of Negroes (2007) ignores the suspension-of-historical-reality of his indefatigable protagonist – a Middle Passage version of the "Unsinkable Molly Brown." And what about David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident (1981) as a scaffold for Hill's Any Known Blood (1995)?

Siemerling's most urgent intervention is his study of nineteenth-century Upper Canada/Canada West/Ontario-based, essentially African-American authors, who are visiting, mainly, Chatham. Figures like Moses Roper, Mary Anne Shadd, Josiah Henson, Martin Robinson Delaney, Osborne Anderson, and Henry Bibb, etc., constitute, wagers Siemerling, "The Black Canadian Renaissance." The label is slippery, for his writers are only transient, tangential, and tacit "Canadians." Too, Siemerling's "renaissance" overlooks Nova Scotia, where "Africadians" (my neologism) were organizing the African Baptist Association as well as inking pamphlets and tracts.

No matter: Siemerling's engagement with the actual, historical, and historic...