After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing, and Region
November 4, 2013
Review By Karina Vernon
It has been three years since we have seen a major critical monograph published in the field of black Canadian cultural studies. The last was Katherine McKittrick and Clyde Wood’s significant edited collection, Black Geographies and the Politics of Place. Yet in the last decade there has been no shortage of critical black intellectual work published, for in Canada, black poets and novelists do double-duty, publishing creative work that offers innovative methodologies for critically reading the complex space of black Canada. Compton’s two previously published collections of poetry (1999, 2004), along with his anthology of Black British Columbia, Bluesprint (2001), profoundly transformed our inherited understandings of British Columbia by recovering it as a black space. In After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing and Region, Compton brings to the essay form all his gifts as a poet, an archivist, an activist, and an intellectual. The result is a beautiful and intelligent collection of essays—a major contribution to black cultural studies in Canada.
As the title of this collection suggests, Compton is interested in exploring what Canaan— the promised land of African-American spirituals, Canada —means to black people today, 180 years after the abolition of slavery in this country, forty years after the institution of multiculturalism as an official state policy, and two decades after the end of strategic essentialism as a viable cultural politics.
Compton opens by observing, in his characteristically lyrical way, that Canada has always been an ironic space for blackness; it is “the appendix of the epic and the echo of the odyssey” (16) to African America. Canada, once the site and centre of so much longing, quickly diminished in the heroic narratives of the flight north. But what is admirable about Compton as a theorist is that he never seeks to re-centre any form of blackness—Canadian or British Columbian—as dominant. Rather, the author theorizes what the “Afropheripheral” spaces of black Canada make possible. These essays prove British Columbia to be fertile ground for rethinking the orthodoxies of both “race” and anti-racism, and prove Compton to be one of the most important theorists of critical mixed race working today.
The first essay in the collection, “Pheneticizing Versus Passing,” is daringly original and is the essay that will make this collection canonical. The author articulates the problematic of “race” succinctly: “the body of the phonograph, like the racialized body, is never closed” (199). In other words, the racialized body can never blink to interrupt the gaze of those who would arrange a body’s features into a semblance of a pattern, a racialized text. This phenomenon is particularly vexing for mixed-race people whose polysemic features are perennially “open” to scrutiny and racial misperception. Yet the only language available to talk about the ways mixed-race people are mis-seen is “passing,” (a concept developed in the far-off American South after the Civil War) which only reinforces the misperception that mixed-race people are responsible for what others see—or think they see. As Compton lucidly explains:
when a person with mixed Cree and Norwegian ancestry, for example, walks down the street and is seen by someone who assumes she is only white, our inadequate phraseology—that she is “passing for white”—is much like saying that because a man finds a woman attractive, she is flirting with him. Both formulations are dangerous for the way they lift the viewer wholly out of any implication and responsibility. (23)
But Compton does not stop with this insightful critique of the language of racialization. The triumph of this essay is that it offers a new discourse, borrowed from biology, that relocates race from the body to language. Instead of “passing,” Compton suggests the term “pheneticizing,” which he defines as “Racially perceiving someone based on a subjective examination of his or her outward appearance.” This term effectively shifts responsibility for racialization back to the agent doing the looking, and transforms the racialized person from object to subject. In other words, Compton offers a way of allowing the racialized body, the “I,” to blink.
“Pheneticizing Versus Passing” elevates critical writing about race to the level of poetry. Compton’s “Glossary of Racial Transgression” includes this definition of race: “A folk taxonomy; a pseudoscientific demographic categorization system. Like a national border or a literary genre, race is only as real as our current social consensus” (25). Throughout the collection, Compton’s prose is limpid and beautiful, making this not only a necessary but also highly readable collection of essays.
“Seven Routes to Hogan’s Alley,” about the diverse black and multi-ethnic neighbourhood in Vancouver’s East End, is the longest, most wide-ranging essay in the collection, and, like Hogan’s Alley itself, functions like passageway or bridge, connecting the essays about BC’s black history in the first part of the collection to those toward the end, like his essay “Obama and Language,” that speculate about its future. By offering seven “routes” or readings of Hogan’s Alley—including a comprehensive history; a social history; a poem; a visual installation; a “retro-speculative” reading of history; and a found poem—Compton is careful to never overdetermine Hogan’s Alley or reduce its meanings to a single story. The meticulously researched history of the neighbourhood and its production as a “slum” by journalists, city councils and urban planners will be the most valuable to teachers and historians. But for me the most powerful moments of the essay come when Compton shifts into the autobiographical mode to consider why this vanished neighbourhood has become a surrogate imagined home to a current generation of black British Columbians. Compton writes: “I sometimes find my own circumstances strange; that I, a person who has more white than black biological ancestry, have devoted so much of my time to the project of recovering blackness in this place” (109). Ultimately, the essays in this collection reveal that to be black in BC is to occupy a space of irony; we live somewhere between here and history; between absence and the archive. Living in the Afroperiphery, it is no wonder that Hogan’s Alley and its vanished spaces speak to us so seductively.
Several of the essays in After Canaan include such lovely autobiographical moments. But in After Canaan Compton also makes it clear that he considers theorizing black British Columbia a collective, not an individual project. Throughout the book he thinks with and through the work of a wide range of British Columbia writers and artists: Mifflin Gibbs, Isaac Dickson, Melinda Mollineaux, Jason de Couto, Fred Booker and Alexis Mazurin. For these last two writers Compton includes stirring elegiac essays that both analyze and celebrate the cultural contributions they made during their lifetimes. The elegiac mode, is, after all, an aspect of Compton’s poetics, as announced by the book’s epigram from Heraclitus: “Everything flows and nothing abides;/ everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.” It seems true that in black British Columbia especially, nothing abides, but it can nevertheless be archived. By writing careful essays about their work, Compton enters Fred Booker and Alexis Mazurin as important figures into the black British Columbia archive. This is compassionate criticism.
After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing, and Religion.
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010 pp. $19.95