Embrace a vision of omni-culturalism, author Austin Clarke tells grads

Quoting singer Bob Marley, civil rights activist and writer James Baldwin and poet Derek Walcott, author and journalist Austin Clarke called on this generation of graduates to embrace his vision of omni-culturalism.

“I’m certain in the exuberancy of youth you will be encouraged to reach for the skies and you might very well escape the ossuaries thrown to distract your journeys in this new life, for ossuaries are receptacles with the bodies of the dead,” said Clarke, speaking at Wednesday afternoon’s 2010 Spring Convocation ceremony for graduates of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. “You belong, as the inheritors of the omni-culturalism that I envision, to a generation who are alive. ‘How long shall they kill our prophets, while we stand aside and look’ [Bob Marley]. I beseech thee not to stand around and look.”

Left: Austin Clarke

Born in Barbados, Clarke arrived in Canada in 1955 at the age of 21. In the early 1960s, he worked for a time covering the civil rights and black power movements in the United States for CBC. Then, in 1964, his first novel was published. The Survivors of the Crossing (McClelland & Stewart, 1964) examined the life of blacks on a Barbadian plantation, and was followed by Amongst Thistles and Thorns (McClelland & Stewart) in 1965. Since then he has written several more novels, short story collections and non-fiction books, and was awarded the Giller Prize for The Polished Hoe (Thomas Allen Publishers) in 2002. Last Wednesday, June 16, he was awarded an honorary doctor of letters by York.

He told the graduands that “Bob Marley complements this generation and reminds us that in spite of our cultural and social backgrounds, or perhaps because of it, we have achieved some success…. His words illustrate our grappling with the instituting of a multicultural community in Toronto. But I prefer to call it, for the purposes of this address, omni-culturalism or the moral acknowledgement by everyone, white and black in Toronto, in Canada, that the social and economic problems that define Jane/-, Regent Park, St. James Town and Thorncliffe Park are not a sovereign black problem, but are a Toronto problem.”

Clarke said everyone should show their faces to the television camera and the newspaper photographer when violence erupts in one of these black neighbourhoods, “not condemning the black ghettos, but shedding tears that your black neighbours have once again been caught outside the net of omni-culturalism.”

And he wondered at the lack of cohesion in the city. “Why do white neighbours mourn only white victims? Why should black neighbours mourn only black victims? Why are white Torontonians not vouchsafing the character and reputation of their black neighbours? Why do they leave it to the Toronto Star and other media to define the character and the motivation of black violence in black neighbourhoods?”

During the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, “there was a manifestation of true neighbourliness.” It was also the time when black people fought for the right to eat a hamburger beside a white American, to vote, to attend university or to have white barber give them a haircut. “This movement for integration was taken up also by the white Toronto communities,” he said.

Right: Austin Clarke (left) receives his honorary doctor of letters from York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri as York Chancellor Roy McMurtry congratulates him

And it needs to be taken up again to create an omni-culture. “It is your danger of non-commitment, your immorality of silence, that I wish to impress upon all of you. That there can be no separation between you and the visible minority tragedies taking place around you,” said Clarke. “‘For we cannot be free until they are free,’ Baldwin says.”

Clarke spoke of a recent early morning murder of a black man as he opened his apartment door and received one bullet to the face and two to the body. “The tragedy of this act, its meaning, was left to be defined by the newspapers and the radio, which jumped to the conclusion, the raw speculation, that the violence was caused by the rivalries of black gangs. No white neighbours, in spite of their knowledge and experience of living in this neighbourhood, came forward to contradict this generalization,” he said. “We black people living in a ghetto, Baldwin says, are in effect still trapped in a history they do not understand, and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger.”

Like Bob Marley, Clarke said he is singing a song of freedom to the graduates as witnesses of their generation. He recalled the brutality of what was called the “killing times”, the summers when so many blacks died, many at the point of a police gun, in the United States, saying those times are pretty much past, but still there is work to be done, “…that American lack of conscious is still with us.”

He has his own Underground Railroad, Clarke said. "And I shall with characteristic sincerity, offer to all people a first-class ticket on my train bound for glory and for omni-culturalism, greater understanding and harmony between white people and black people in Toronto.”

And that is when he told the graduates they were the inheritors of his omni-culturalism vision and beseeched them not to stand aside and look. “The next opportunity for the practice of omni-culturalism is now, this year, this summer.”

Clarke was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1998, for his contributions as an author, teacher and community activist, and a member of the Order of Ontario in 2002. A mentor to young writers, he has contributed not only to the Canadian literary scene, but to the strong presence of writers of colour. He was awarded the Writers’ Trust of Canada W.O. Mitchell Literary Prize in 1999, which annually goes to a writer who has produced an outstanding body of work and has acted as a caring mentor for writers.

York’s 2010 Spring Convocation ceremonies are streamed live and then archived on the Internet. To view Clarke’s convocation address, click here.