Mais, qu’est-ce que c’est donc un noir? Et d’abord, c’est de quelle couleur? (Jean Genet, “Pour Jouer Les ‘Nègres’” )
Yesterday I heard El Jones on the radio. The community activist and current poet laureate of Halifax was speaking with Jian Ghomeshi on Q about an emerging controversy surrounding an upcoming concert by Chris Brown, and the building opposition in the city to his appearance there, because of his history of domestic violence. One of the key points she made, both eloquently and forcefully, was that this discussion had much to do with current debates around race and identity, particularly in Halifax, where the cultural politics and the cultural history of blackness has played a significant role in shaping the character of the city and its district (Dartmouth, Bedford and other linked communities).
Her remarks had me think back to the beginnings of my own engagements with the discourse and history of race in this country, how this trajectory of my education was set in motion. I was taught Canadian History in my last year of high school in Truro, Nova Scotia (about an hour’s drive from Halifax), by Wayne Foster, who had designed his course around what must have then been a risky and innovative principle in 1981: the first term presented the emergence of the nation filtered through the perspectives of a number of First Nations, while the second term focused on African-Canadian history. I know we had a textbook, although much of what Mr. Foster discussed came from his own research, and I know that he had us reading on our own, too: finding source material for ourselves, if we were able. But I’m sure I had no idea at the time how atypical and how genuinely provocative this class could prove to be. I’m sure he wanted us to think about the ways in which our own history, the history of our place, had been shaped, about how perspective mattered, and about how the recovery of racially-inflected – that is to say, non-Anglo-Celtic – viewpoints had the potential to radically shake up our senses of the given, of what we were told had really happened as our country was being formed, confederated. And I knew next to nothing about the history of the Black community in my own town. Looking back now, I truly admire Mr. Foster’s courage, and his willingness to take what were then substantial intellectual risks, and to invite his students to do the same: to raise consciousnesses, to make us more fully and carefully aware of who and where we were. At the time, however, as a slightly smug seventeen-year-old, I remember myself not so much being grateful as resistant. For some reason, and this is still a bit hard for me to explain to myself, I didn’t want to hear what Mr. Foster was offering us. I think I wanted to cling to a generic, comfortable and singular view of where my sense of language, place and belonging might have come from. This resistance, this recalcitrance, seems all the more peculiar to me given my reading and my taste in music at the time, which was thoroughly caught up in anti-racist punk, existential political philosophy, soul and post-Coltrane jazz. Really. Somehow, I guess I needed to keep the conceptual and the aesthetic separate from the historical, from the immediate experience of being from small-town Nova Scotia. My reading and my listening were idealized and remote from who and where I was, even though I know I identified powerfully with Miles Davis, with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, with The Clash, with Otis Redding, with Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet. I now realize that, despite my rather artificial adolescent resistance, Mr. Foster’s history class has had a substantive impact on how I have come to think about race, about the collision of the aesthetic and the political, of the representational and the lived, in our social and cultural existences in this country. And I need to acknowledge and to thank him genuinely for that.
El Jones’s radio spot was one of several public interventions she has made in the past few days: she also appeared on The National on CBC television, and published, in a Huffington Post blog entry called “Protecting Canada’s Trayvon Martins,” a list of “some things Canadians can do” in the wake of the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial in Florida. Her work, here and elsewhere, voices itself – advocates – primarily in the imperative; here is the sixth of her eight calls to action:
Educate ourselves and our children about racism. Yes, it is important to tell children they can follow their dreams. But we also must give them information that protects them. This case showed us racism isn’t over, so let’s stop being scared to tell the truth to kids, leaving them vulnerable and confused. Teaching about racism also means teaching them Black Power principles. Don’t pretend race doesn’t exist for them, give them the knowledge to understand themselves.
The “Canadians” she’s addressing in entries such as this sound not like Canadians in general, but like those of us (not me) who identify as black: and maybe even more specifically as east-coast, an identity George Elliott Clarke once named “Nofaskoshan” or “Africadian.” A conceptual fracture emerges in the encounter with such an identity when we put a bit of pressure on what specific practice of education El Jones means to call for – despite the overt claim to candour and directness she makes, and even enacts stylistically in the feel of straight talk here. Educating “ourselves” can’t only mean discovering the presence of blackness in our Canadian midst, although that’s a starting point. That’s what I think happened for me thirty-odd years ago in Mr. Foster’s history class. While that discovery – that re-discovery – appears to have become a necessity again now for many, education also means going a bit further, I think. It means recognizing, and negotiating, our complicity in a general cultural and historical problematic around cultural constructions of blackness. For me, this fracture runs deep, and it’s crucial to acknowledge it and to inhabit it critically, thoughtfully.
Race, in my experience, comes to name not a framework for identity but the ongoing fracturing of identities. Despite its various corporeal and historical materializations, despite its difficult tangibility, despite its challenging lived realities throughout the human world, race – in this instance, blackness, which seems to serve as a synecdoche for race as such – remains largely a cultural and historical construct, a “floating signifier” as Stuart Hall argues. To emphasize the semiotics of race (against its genetics) is not to ignore or to obscure its reality, but to try to find a means – a poetic means, I’d say – to encounter it and to counter its nascent perniciousness, the slippery slope down which race slides into racism. I’m not starting to make a case “against race,” although I find Paul Gilroy’s approach to what he calls raciology both resonant and critically provocative. The pedagogical imperative to “educate ourselves,” as I read El Jones, means learning to face those conflicts, to recognize and to work through the often dire representational fractures that discourses of race tend to frame. But not necessarily ever to be done with that work.
So the imperative, as she recurrently characterizes it, is still a need, but more specifically “the need to have difficult conversations.” (I’m lifting this phrase from one of her Facebook updates, but she uses versions of it throughout the radio spot.) It’s a hard form of language-work, a poetics. That’s not to substitute aesthetics for politics, but to return to the uneasy craft of language a tangibility, an engagement with the what matters: to politicize the aesthetic. The difficulty of conversation, in my view, gets foregrounded in Jones’s return to the rhetoric and ideology of the late 1960s. A disturbing question lurks in and behind this call: that is, shouldn’t we have been done with Black Nationalism by now, more than 40 years on? (As El Jones rightly points out, it’s more like 400 years on. And who, by the way, constitutes this “we” I’m so glibly tossing around?) Perhaps our shame – pointed up by the discursive tangle surrounding Trayvon Martin – is that in North America we clearly aren’t done, and aren’t going to be done with it. I find I can’t accept El Jones’s call to return to “Black Power principles,” because my critique of race – enabled, no doubt, by a personal history of deracinated privilege, of not having to be subject to discrimination on a daily basis – involves challenging what feels like an under-interrogated identity politics; that challenge, for me, is in fact what it means to educate ourselves. Identity politics, in my experience, tends to shut down conversations, rather than to enable them. But the fact remains that my kind of academically privileged and rarefied critique might not be especially timely, not yet. The work of consciousness raising still, still, seems to require identifications, solidarities, nationalisms and ethnocentrisms. Even now. Perhaps especially now.
So, as I position myself here, I remain at least partially excluded from those adhesions and identifications, and necessarily so. I’m still working to find my way back through the resistance I felt in that history class thirty-odd years ago. But I think that’s exactly what I ought to be doing. Exclusions and differences are part of the needful difficulty of talking about race. I’m putting more pressure on El Jones than maybe her words have invited, but I think what she has said in the past couple of days represents an important intervention, and a significant provocation to public discussion and debate. And I’d like to thank her for that, as well.
[Edit: El Jones wrote an excellent article on race, violence and Chris Brown, published in the Halifax Chronicle Herald on July 19, 2013. You can read it here.]