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Writing(s) against 'The Promised Land' : an autobiographical exploration of identity, hybridity and racism Gibson, Chantal N.

Abstract

Canada's continued forgetfulness concerning slavery here, and the nation-state's attempts to record only Canada's role as a place of sanctuary for escaping African-Americans, is part of the story of absenting blackness from its history. Rinaldo Walcott The fact that people of African descent have had a presence in Canada for over four hundred years is not well known within the Canadian mainstream. The fact that slavery existed as an institution in Canada is another fact that is not well known. Within the Canadian mainstream writing of African-Canadian history, Blacks most often appear in historical narratives around the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, as American fugitives or refugees—either as escaping slaves or British Loyalists. Through the representative writing of the "the Black refugee," Canada is often constructed as a "Promised Land," a sanctuary or safe haven for Blacks, a place of refuge and redemption that does not speak to the complex history of slavery that existed well before the American exodus. Many Black Canadian writers and scholars argue that there is a price to be paid for this kind of representation. First, the absence of people of African descent in Canadian historical narratives, prior to the coming o f the American refugees, ignores the long presence of Blacks in Canada and the contributions that Blacks have made in the development of Canada. Second, in focusing on the American Loyalists and refugee slaves, Canadian writers and historians often construct Black Canadians as a homogenous, genderless group, ignoring the diversity within Canada's Black population and, in particular, the concerns of Black women. Finally, the mainstream representation of Canada as a 'safe haven' proves problematic for any critical discussion of racism in contemporary Canadian society, for notions of "Canada the good" and "America the evil" that arose from those crossings North still penetrate the Canadian mainstream today. This autobiocritical exploration examines the representation of the haven and offers alternative readings to contemporary mainstream writings of African-Canadian history. In part one, I track the appearance of Black Canadians, over the past fifty years, from 1949 to 2001, in a survey of mainstream and scholarly texts. Using the results of this survey, which does not see the appearance of Blacks in Canada until 1977, I examine how mainstream texts might use the works of Black writers to offer more critical and complex histories of Black Canadians and, in particular, Black women. In part two, I take up an analysis of George Elliott Clarke's Beatrice Chancy. Seen as a counter-narrative to mainstream writings of African-Canadian history, Clarke's work, which takes up the subject of slavery in early-nineteenth century Nova Scotia, presents an/Other kind of Loyalist story, one with a Black woman at its centre. In this discussion I examine how Clarke's poetic work subverts the national narrative, as he speaks to the diversity within blackness and the complexities in defining racial identities.

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