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Why Clarence Clemons died : power, narrative, and the death of a "Negro Longshoreman" in Vancouver, 1952-53 Porth, Ryan Burnard

Abstract

Knowledge is rarely neutral and the bodies of knowledge that humans create have been responsible for many social inequalities, especially, but not limited to, inequalities based on racial beliefs. For the period before the Second World War in British Columbia, when the dominant white community constructed its identity largely by discriminating against and marginalizing smaller, non-white communities, the historical realities of racial knowledge have been well studied. In this essay I argue that even after the Second World War, as the spirit of liberalism swept across white Canada, the old language of race was merely subsumed within a language largely cleansed of its racial references. Regardless of this shift in public language, in the early 1950s, Vancouver's dominant white community still constructed its identity by marginalizing others. Knowledge, however, as the case of Clarence demons shows, was also used to challenge unequal relations of power. At the coroner's inquest held to look into the untimely death of demons, a black shoreworker from the Strathcona neighbourhood of East Vancouver, two very different stories emerged, demons had been allegedly beaten by two white police officers on July 19, 1952. The first story, told by most of the white doctors and police officers, and accepted by the white jury, demonstrates how Vancouver's dominant (white) community continued to marginalize the City's non-white peoples in the postwar period. The second story, however, told by most of the witnesses from the Strathcona neighbourhood, based on local, intimate knowledge of Clemons, was ignored by the jury's verdict but formed the basis of an increasingly organized and public voice against racial discrimination by the African Canadian residents of Strathcona. The narratives about Clarence Clemons exemplify how complex bodies of knowledge that humans create about themselves and others - in this case, knowledge shaped and influenced primarily by notions of race but also by notions of class and gender - can form the basis of attempts to maintain, and resist, relations of social inequality.

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