- Blackening Canada: Diaspora, Race, Multiculturalism by Paul Barrett
Paul Barrett's Blackening Canada: Diaspora, Race, Multiculturalism interrogates anti-black racism within multicultural Canada via an analysis of black diasporic literature. According to Barrett, the aesthetics of "blackening"—as practiced by authors Dionne Brand, Austin Clarke, and Tessa McWatt—challenge Daniel Coleman's notion of "white Canadian civility" and "[Frances] Henry and [Carol] Tator's theory of democratic racism" found in public policy and news media (104, 106). Building on W. E. B. Du Bois, Rinaldo Walcott, and Lily Cho, Barrett describes "blackening" as both a process of invidious racialization and a set of critical, diasporic practices. In other words, while blackening produces double-consciousness by racially discriminating against non-white subjects as "foreign" or "criminal," its capacities for "process, performance, and strategy" by black authors engender resistance to Canadian [End Page 260] multiculturalism as a colour-blind discourse of inclusion. It does so by re-signifying time, space, and movement in the nation (13), where whiteness is not at the centre and writers can "inhabit [the nation] on their own terms" (190).
Barrett's introduction challenges commonplace assumptions that multiculturalism promotes diversity. Assessing government documents from the 1960s onward, he shows how white supremacy undergirds Canadian multiculturalism by eradicating "questions of race" (4). Arguing that Canadian multiculturalism promotes assimilationist identities premised on "white civility," Barrett rejects diversity discourses as a state strategy for managing and containing difference, emphasizing rather "the significance of diasporic histories in the formation of multicultural identities" (5). Accordingly, Barrett calls for a rethinking of literary criticism and its role in the institutionalization of Canadian multicultural literature.
Barrett's opening chapters discuss the works of Brand and Clarke. Chapter One offers invigorating close readings of Brand's A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes on Belonging (2002), thirsty (2002), and Bread out of Stone (1994), discussing how her activist poetics challenge colonialist notions of national time and unity. Where some critics find Brand's work pessimistic, Barrett suggests that Brand "rejoices … in the unraveling of fixed forms" (64) with a focus on "diasporic time and analepsis" (41). Moreover, he finds that Brand's image of the door and the actions of leaning, delaying, and interrupting in her poetics help innovate the Canadian long poem. Conversely, in Chapter Two Barrett finds Clarke's "Sometimes, a Motherless Child" (1992), The Origin of Waves (1997), The Polished Hoe (2002), and More (2008) to be less optimistic. Focused on locations where blackening has and still occurs, Clarke rewrites "the chronotopes of the ship, the train, and the automobile," revealing "continuities between the spaces of the plantation, the colony, the city, and the nation" (69); Canada becomes "not the site of arrival or origins" but a place "of movement and transition within broader diasporic patterns" (86). Although Barrett is careful to distinguish between the two authors' works, he finds commonality in their commitments to blackening as "voice, accent, idiom, diction, register, and genre" (102).
Chapter Three shifts focus and method to critique the mainstream news media sources that reported on the case of Albert Johnson, a black Jamaican immigrant who was shot and killed by white Toronto police officers in 1979. While such an analysis is a welcome addition to the study, it is not altogether clear why Barrett focuses solely on Johnson rather than a broader history of Canadian racism in relation to policing—except, perhaps, that both Brand and Clarke have responded to Johnson's life in their writing. Nonetheless, [End Page 261] this chapter helps to ground the work of Brand and Clarke in the realities of Canadian anti-black racism. Barrett ultimately credits the black alternative press for examining the Johnson case critically and charges mainstream media with catering to the public's racist sentiments by criminalizing Johnson through focusing not only his blackness but also his status as a Jamaican immigrant.
Chapter Four explores depictions of mixed-race identity and the possibility of a multiracial coalition between black and indigenous communities in McWatt's Out of My Skin (1998). Barrett's...