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Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada

by Lawrence Hill

With Black Berry, Sweet Juice Lawrence Hill opens an overdue discussion of what racial identity means to Canadians of mixed race. It’s a worthwhile project, but Hill undermines his intentions by trying to address academics and casual readers at the same time. The book falls somewhere between memoir and sociological study, but achieves neither the warmth of the former nor the rigour of the latter.

Hill’s reflections on race are often inconsistent. He pays lip service to the idea that cultures and communities are open-ended, but tends to speak of them as if they were homogenous and closed. He also seems to change his mind several times about whether racial identity is chosen by an individual or something they are born with. He argues that in contemporary Canada people are free to self-identify, but suggests that the person of mixed heritage who chooses not to identify himself as black will find that “his own race [will] take a bite out of his backside.”

There are sections of Black Berry, Sweet Juice that make a valuable contribution to the discussion of identity in Canada. When Hill analyzes specific historical or current events in some detail – the KKK’s attempt to derail an inter-racial marriage in Oakville, Ontario, in 1930, for example – his writing and ideas are engaging and challenging.

Those sections that focus on material gathered in interviews with other people of mixed heritage are less interesting. The chapter entitled “Hair Issues,” in which Hill’s informants talk about their hair, quickly becomes tedious. Hill’s own reminiscences are no more satisfying, mainly because he rushes through them as if they were merely illustrative examples of his thesis. His opinions, and those of his interviewees, would have had more weight if the reader could have put a face to them. To leave one’s subjects faceless in a book about identity is a serious oversight.


Reviewer: Hugh Hodges

Publisher: HarperFlamingo Canada


Price: $32

Page Count: 224 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-00-200020-2

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: 2001-10

Categories: Memoir & Biography