The July 20 issue of Maclean’s magazine features a cover article titled “Get Serious, America,” about the persistent, and apparently intractable, problems with race relations in the U.S. Written by Jonathon Gatehouse, the piece critiques the discourse around the racially motivated murders of nine black churchgoers in South Carolina. Though the article makes some undeniably solid points, it adopts the kind of pontificating, finger-wagging tone we like to employ here in the multicultural Great White North when it comes to the subject of racism. We feel morally justified in telling Americans to “get serious” about race because here in Canada we have the problem licked: our vaunted cultural mosaic affords us the moral high ground to lecture others from the perspective of a happy, postracial society.
Austin Clarke knows how fallacious this attitude is. The days in which the Bajan-Canadian author could find himself denied service in a barber shop because the proprietor refused to cut a black man’s hair (and used a much harsher appellation in making his point) may, for the most part, be consigned to the dustbin of history. But in Toronto, where Clarke has made his home since coming to Canada in 1955, we are embroiled in a debate about racial profiling by police, and a Toronto Life cover article by black journalist Desmond Cole testifies to the institutional racism he continues to face.
Reading Clarke’s capacious and generous new memoir, one thing that becomes remarkably clear remarkably quickly is how little has changed since the 1960s, when the author moved through downtown Toronto “in the atmosphere of great physical fear, of the expectation that a policeman might shoot me – bang-bang, you’re dead, dead – of being refused the renting of a basement room, or an apartment in a public building.” When, in 1963, the author went to New York on spec for the CBC, ostensibly to interview James Baldwin, and returned with a 63-minute-long interview with Malcolm X, the broadcast was sufficient to awaken Canadians – and specifically black Canadians – “to the justification of posing the question, ‘Is Canada as racist as the United States of America?’ even if they did not have the guts and the honesty to answer the question, publicly.”
It is statements like this that earned Clarke the label “Canada’s angriest black man.” If the author has mellowed since the firebrand days of the 1960s, he is still confident in staking a position on the outskirts of the dominant, hegemonic culture. “I have never held a Canadian writer as a model of my own work,” Clarke writes. “I am alone, singular, peculiar, and foreign to the establishment that governs and controls Canadian literature.”
Now 81, Clarke has a lot to remember, and at close to 500 pages, his memoir is long and replete with anecdotes as varied as his expulsion from the cadet corps in Barbados when he was a child to his failed run for the Ontario Progressive Conservatives in 1977. The structure is loose – there is an attempt to impose unity through a somewhat artificial device of imagining the significant events of the author’s life all occur on Friday – and an unsympathetic reader might cavil about the wayward aspect and repetition in certain sections. A more sympathetic reader will see this free-form structure as mirroring the improvisational jazz that is so central to Clarke’s artistic and personal makeup.
But what is most evident throughout ’Membering is Clarke’s voice, which is rich, engaging, and – to use the author’s own word – singular. So entrancing is the conversational tone in the book that one of the set pieces – an extended excerpt from that interview with Malcolm X – feels strangely intrusive, and the controversial civil rights leader’s own voice appears diminished by comparison. Notwithstanding the currency of much of this material, the reader races through it, eager to get back to the pleasure of devouring Clarke’s own words.