Panel considers the role of the academy in black Canadian literature

Marking the release of Donna Bailey Nurse’s Revival: An Anthology of the Best Black Canadian Writing (2006), an interdisciplinary panel on May 29 celebrated and interrogated the meaning of black Canadian literature.

Above: Misao Dean (at the podium) addresses the audience during the McClelland
& Stewart panel on black Canadian literature. Seated are Donna Bailey Nurse (left),
Hyacinth Simpson, Lawrence Hill and George Dei. Photo by Gary Beechey. 

Nurse, a well-known literary critic, moderated a panel consisting of author Laurence Hill, Ryerson University professor and editor of MaComère: The Journal of the Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars; Hyacinth Simpson, York alumna (PhD ’00) and professor of Caribbean literature at Ryerson; and George Dei, University of Toronto professor and associate Chair of the Department of Sociology & Equity Studies and Chair of the Centre for Integrative Anti-Racism Studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).

The discussion was organized by the Canadian publisher, McClelland & Stewart, in conjunction with its 100th anniversary and the 75th Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences which is being held at York University, May 27 to June 3. The panel discussion was hosted by the Association of College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE), one of the member organizations of Congress.

Misao Dean, professor of English at the University of Victoria, introduced the panel on behalf of ACCUTE. In her remarks, Dean acknowledged the role that smaller presses like Sister Vision have played in developing black Canadian literature. Panellists were asked by Dean to consider the role of the academy in the development of black literature in Canada when making their observations.

Nurse launched the discussion by asking whether there really is such a creature as black Canadian literature in academia. Dei responded without hesitation, saying, “Create it and they will come.” Hill, author of Black Berry, Sweet Juice (2001) and Some Great Thing (1992), suggested that institutionalizing the developing literature could serve as a double-edged sword because it would lean towards canonizing more established writers. Hill spoke about the difficulties that young and developing writers encounter when trying to break into publishing.

Simpson, who teaches post-colonial and black Canadian literature at Ryerson, noted that black Canadian literature does not exist as a course of study on its own at the undergraduate level. She pointed out that one possible explanation is that expertise in the field spreads across disciplines. Later in the discussion she clarified her remarks by saying: “Black Canadian literature seems always to be positioned outside the margins of what is unproblematically called Canadian literature.”

Dei spoke of the general concept of Canadian literature. “The whole issue,” he said, “is around the negation and devaluation of race. In the dominant narration, what is missing from the narrative are minorities.” A national literature, in Dei’s view, must address “the particularity” of its various constituent ethnicities. Simpson said that within the black Canadian context, “Canadian experience is inflected by another experience called blackness.”

A broad consensus emerged among the panellists for the inclusion of a formal program of study of black Canadian writing by field and by author. The panelists noted that York University has been at the vanguard by offering black Canadian studies courses in its English and Humanities programs and Faculty of Education at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Simpson, who received her PhD in post-colonial literatures and theory from York, is currently working with Frank Birbalsingh, York professor emeritus of English, on an encyclopedia of Caribbean-Canadian writers. She spoke diplomatically for all when she said: “I’m hoping for a momentum.”

This article was written by YFile graduate assistant Chris Kurata, a PhD candidate in English.