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The Great Black North: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry

by Valerie Mason-John and Kevan Anthony Cameron, eds.

A single-thread narrative of the African-Canadian experience has long been sewn into the margins of Canadian history, resulting in a legacy of misappropriated cultures and residual resentments that has left generations of black Canadians voiceless. The Great Black North emerges from this period of reticence to weave an intricate tapestry that is national in identity and universal in scope.

Not since 1976, when Harold Head published Canada in Us Now, has there been such a definitive assemblage of black voices telling their own stories through poetry. The Great Black North avoids the danger of constructing a monolithic narrative of the African-
Canadian experience by amassing a throng of tales that includes Caribbean-Canadians and other diasporic voices.

The anthology is divided into two sections. The first, entitled “Page,” is a collection of poems on various subjects concerning personal and public history. In “The New Chapter,” David Woods tells the story of Africville, a Halifax community that was dismantled in the late 1960s. In “We, Too,” Bertrand Bickersteth enlightens readers on the little-known plight of African-Americans who migrated to Alberta to work on the Athabasca oil sands. Rudyard Fearon’s “Lost Tongue” speaks volumes in its single three-line stanza.

The second part, titled “Stage,” is a hybrid of oral and literary traditions, and includes sub-sections on dub, spoken word, and slam. The dub-poetry section is especially illuminating. Canadian dub poet Klyde Broox defines this subgenre as “the rearranging and shifting of words to create new meanings and new ideas.” Lillian Allen’s “Black Voice Can’t Hide” beautifully expresses a similar sentiment: “Poets turning routine into rituals / resounding sound symbols of language / into language play / un-ravelling the perfect embroidered geometry of the uni-lateral real / with its intricate layers of who, when, where and how to feel.”

“A voice becomes,” Allen writes, “when it stands for something.” The Great Black North stands strong because it gives a voice to a group of people who have been previously silenced, making it an essential contribution to the black Canadian poetry canon.