In honour of Black History Month, I have compiled a shortlist of essential writers. Each explores the African American or African Canadian experience in their own way. Some are political. Some are poetic. All are stylistically innovative. And all will make you think.
Canadian: George Elliot Clarke’s Whylah Falls
George Elliot Clarke was the Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate from 2016-2017. Born in Windsor, Nova Scotia, Clarke’s work often refers back to the east coast black community, or what he calls “Africadia”. Whylah Falls is a novel in verse. Set in rural Nova Scotia in the 1930’s, it speaks of love, desire, loss of self, and the spirituality of unrequited feeling. It is composed in fragments: monologues, sonnets, sermons, recipes, and haikus. It was given the Archibald Lampman Award for poetry.
Up and Coming (and Canadian): Aisha Sasha John’s I Have to Live
Aisha Sasha John is a Montreal born writer, poet, and performance artist. Her latest work, I Have to Live, came out in 2017. “I would only make declarative sentences,” says John. “No questions. No speculation. Just things that I could assert.”. Through poetry, John figures herself out, asserts herself within a white, masculine society. “I’m told that I’m not the authority, that I have to seek other authorities in order to know how to live. And that is not what I believe”, says John. Declaring what she is and what she is not, those things that surround her and those that could, John becomes her own authority. Don’t let the simplicity fool you, John’s poems are both philosophical and unusual.
Memoirist: Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Part One of Angelou’s seven-part autobiography, follows a young Maya as she struggles with racism and abuse in small town Arkansas. Childhood experiences conspire to bring her down, to make her feel small and bare. But this is a story of growth and voice. Through literature, Maya emerges. She finds herself in drama and dance, modes that allow her to find a way to speak, to love and respect her voice.
Maya Angelou often credits Shakespeare to be her greatest influence. “Shakespeare must be a black girl,” said Angelou in the context of debates over the bard’s true identity. She was kidding, of course, but saying something big. If this white male author could make poems that resonated so deeply with a black girl from the American south, then we must have faith in the the power of art to unite.
Critic: Hilton Als’s White Girls
Hilton Als is a staff writer and theatre critic for the New Yorker. In 2017, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for his “provocative contributions to the discourse on theatre, race, class, sexuality, and identity in America” (New Yorker). His most recent novel White Girls, hailed by Junot Díaz as “the read of the year,” combines literary criticism with insights on race and gender and seamlessly fuses the personal with the political.
Modern Classic: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
As one of the great American novels of the 20th century, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man should make it onto any good lifetime reading list. It is a story of existential discovery and self-creation, using language to overcome the limits set on identity by the colour of one’s skin. Ellison writes in jazz-toned speak, with dream interludes, improvised speeches, sudden and off-beat scenes. It is a form speech characterized by the productive interplay of voices and histories. It is a riff on tradition. With jazz, the invisible man finds himself; he achieves “a resourcefulness of craft commensurate with the complexity of [his] actual situation” (Ellison, Shadow and Act). He is a “technical master” within a “tradition [that] insist[s] that each artist achieve creativity” (Ellison, Shadow and Act).