Must All Blackness Be American?: Locating Canada in Borden's "Tightrope Time," or Nationalizing Gilroy's The Black Atlantic
Contributed by GEORGE ELLIOTT CLARKE*
Until the onset of major black immigration from the Caribbean Basin in the mid-1950s, Euro-Canadians imagined African-Canadians as once-and-always Americans. In a 1956 magazine article, Edna Staebler ventures that some Black Nova Scotians "had a broad Southern accent" (qtd. in Dillard 517), even though the last great migration of African-Americans to Nova Scotia occurred during the War of 1812. Two generations later, Trinidadian-Canadian writer André Alexis complains that "no one, black or white, has yet accepted the fact and history of our [African-Canadian] presence, as if we thought black people were an American phenomenon that has somehow crept north..." (18). American-Canadian literary scholar Leslie Sanders agrees that "The Canadian literary and media establishment ... too often chooses to read race through the American situation..." (2). If Canadians have viewed blacks as misplaced Americans, African-Americans have tended to annex African-Canadians within their dominant, cultural matrix. African-American anthropologist, Arthur Huff Fauset, collecting folklore in Nova Scotia in the mid-1920s, was astonished, then, to find that his black respondents spurned the Joel Chandler Harris-promulgated, Uncle Remus tales, which he identified with echt African-American culture:
Throughout the province I found this reticence of the Negroes to tell a story if they feel that it is below their level, or, shall I say, dignity? I seemed to detect a disdainful attitude toward telling tales which put them in the role of minstrels, let us say. (ix)
These piebald denials of what I will term African Canadianité illuminate the dynamic dilemma of African-Canadian culture. Euro-Canadian critics often consider it as Other, while African-American (and Caribbean) critics read it--unabashedly--as extensions of their own. To complicate matters further, African Canadians utilize African-American texts and historical-cultural icons to define their own experiences (a fact which can seduce the unwary into believing that no uniquely African-Canadian perspective exists1). Examples are legion. In 1912, the African Baptist Association of Nova Scotia heard a proposal to invite famed African-American leader and educator Booker T. Washington to lecture on education in Black Nova Scotian, that is to say, Africadian2 communities.3 In the pages of The Atlantic Advocate, a black community newspaper issued in Halifax, Nova Scotia, between 1915 and 1917, one finds the poetry of African-American writer Paul Laurence Dunbar juxtaposed with surveys of race progress in the United States. In October 1968, Stokeley Carmichael (now Kwame Ture), the charismatic, Black Power orator, toured Halifax, unnerving whites and inspiring blacks to adopt militant stances, a process intensified by the visit, the following month, of two members of the radical, U.S.-based, Black Panther Party.4 Spectacularly, in Toronto, in May 1992, black youths rioted in sympathy with those who had taken to the streets in Los Angeles.
Too, most African-Canadian writers, whether native-born or first-generation immigrant, eye African-American culture with envy and desire. Novelist Cecil Foster, a Barbados native, defends the attractiveness of African-American culture for African Canadians, stressing that, if black Canadian artists have developed African-American sensibilities in place of a strong Canadian consciousness, well, c'est la vie:
Also, I do not have any problem whatsoever in laying claim to black icons from any place in the world. I feel they are all common property and we can use them.... Should I disown a Martin Luther King or a Malcolm X ? Other cultures don't. English writers--even those who are living here in Canada--can deal with Chaucer and the pre-Chaucerian writers, and Shakespeare. (21)
A one-man show, "Tightrope Time" was selected to represent Canada at the International Multicultural Festival in Amsterdam in 1987. Composed of two acts (of fourteen and nine scenes respectively), the drama's printed text features a dozen photographs of Borden playing most of the drama's twelve characters, namely--in order of appearance, the Host, the Old Man, the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Health and Welfare, the Child, the Old Woman, the Pastor, the Minister of Defence, the Minister of the Interior, Adie, Ethiopia (a "drag queen"), and Chuck. "Tightrope Time" does not stage a single protagonist, however, but rather a bizarrie of speakers delivering a pot-pourri of monologues, melding song, poetry, and prose. This bigarré semi-musical, blending Jacques Brel chansons, African-American spirituals and blues, Top 40 pop (circa 1978), and other music, is unified, though, by recurrent discussions of identity and consciousness. These overarching interests are broached and buttressed by felicitously utilized, African-American interpolations.
Principally, Borden sounds the work of celebrated playwright Lorraine Hansberry (1931-1965), both directly and indirectly. While Hansberry's best-known work, A Raisin in the Sun (1958), treats the desire of the Younger family to escape the claustrophobic poverty of their apartment, where "The sole natural light the family may enjoy in the course of a day is only that which fights its way through [a] little window" (12, her italics), Borden veers away from this limited setting to explore "the mansions of my mind" (13). Whereas Hansberry regards the move from a blighted apartment to a hitherto segregated suburban neighbourhood as the record of the progressive amelioration of the Youngers's and, allegorically, the African-American, condition, Borden evades such plain social realism, opting instead for intellectual abstractions. This difference is enunciated immediately. A Raisin in the Sun opens with the preparation of a breakfast of fried eggs, but "Tightrope Time" begins with the Host's recollection of a like breakfast as he launches into a philosophical revery. Borden's first, indirect allusion to Hansberry's work stresses, then, not the nobility- versus-indignity it privileges, but rather the casualness of causality:
Borden's speaker seems disengaged from active, socio-political struggle; rather, he emphasizes, in an almost neo-neo-Platonist manner, the "many mansions / in the complex of my mind" (13). The gallery of speakers in "Tightrope Time" depicts a multiply divided consciousness. The function of the Host is, in fact, to provide the cranial space--a cabinet of Dr. Borden, if one likes--in which the motley'd monologuers can assemble. If Hansberry promotes laudable black bourgeois aspiration, Borden expresses a kind of quixotic black psychoanalysis.
Born on some forgotten FRYday,
Borden imports Hansberry directly into his work in 1.2, where he re-christens the "Hermit"--a character from an early draft of Raisin8--as the "Old Man." Save for this single--and signal--alteration, Borden reprints Hansberry's speech for the "Hermit" with uncompromised fidelity:
And so, to escape time, I threw my watch away. I even made a ceremony of it. I was on a train over a bridge ... and I held it out the door and dropped it. (Borden 16; Hansberry Be 3)The arty speech that Hansberry omitted from her most successful play is precisely (or perversely) the one that Borden feels compelled to use in his own.9 Tellingly, rather than appropriating a discourse from the finished, realist version of Raisin, Borden cribs Hansberry's more philosophical musing on time. Even as he honours Hansberry, Borden dissents from her dramaturgy, scribing a metaphysical stance to her more physical focus on place and race.
Yet, Borden's predilection for intellectual abstraction manifests his Canadianité, for Canadian poets have tended to value an "academic" as opposed to a "popular" ideal of poetics. According to John Matthews, "academic poetry refers to that based directly upon sophisticated ... models of the central [British] tradition, whether the theory and practice of such poetry had university associations..." (113). In contrast, "popular poetry refers to that of folk-literature and to literary adaptations of it, based upon less sophisticated models of the central tradition" (113). Importantly, Borden's verse, though largely accessible, ransacks the Byzantine lexicon of Beat cant as often as it does that of black populist directness: "let emptiness come sneak into my solitude / & ravage all my dreams / & bittersweet rememberings of yesterday / when all my thoughts were young as innocence itself / & love & understanding flowed from me like MAN-AH was completely in control" (62). Not surprisingly then, Borden opts to read Hansberry in academicist terms. He closes his use of her Hermit (his Old Man), then, by calling for the playing of a song, "The Old Folk," recorded by Brel, accompanied by the sound of a clock ticking "in syncopation with the music" (16, his italics). These absurdist touches are Borden's invention. Hence, "Tightrope Time" enacts a revisioning of Hansberry's Raisin, dispensing with a definable, 'real' setting to dramatize, instead, the negotiation of interiority, that is to say, of identity.
Borden's adoption of Hansberry's Hermit hints, too, that "Tightrope Time" is only tangentially about race; or, rather, that it avoids discussing race in any stock sociological-empirical fashion. For instance, the Old Man's pentultimate speech in 1.2 turns on, not explicit concerns about race or racism, but, instead, one concrete and two abstract nouns--piece(s), time, and value--a trinity of tropes that presides over the play:
I am afraid men invent timePIECES[timepieces]; they do notBorden absorbs Hansberry's academic musings and terms, detecting in them corollaries for his interests. This fact is clarified by his use of the word(s) piece(s). Though the term occurs in contexts that can allude to Hansberry, they are wholly Borden's own. In 1.4, the Minister of Health and Welfare relates that his dream "dried up, just like that raisin in the sun" (24), a clear allusion to Hansberry as well as to African-American poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967);10 then the Minister continues on to assert that "painful thoughts rummage through / the few last pieces of my heart" (24) and that he seeks "bits and pieces of love / that I have known" (25). Borden shifts from the specific concerns of both Hansberry and Hughes to anatomize alienation. In fact, the African-Americans are sounded only after the Minister declares that "this celebration is not so much an historical documentation of the quest of a people for a place in the Nova Scotian or indeed the Canadian mosaic, as it is an illumination of the resiliency of the human spirit" (22). An abstract universalism takes precedence, thus, over African-American utterance--even though, paradoxically, Hansberry herself is the source of the notion of "the resiliency of ... this thing called the human spirit" (Borden 80; Hansberry Be 256). This pattern recurs in 1.4, where Hansberry is again directly quoted. This time, Borden seizes a passage from Hansberry's The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1964), uttered by Brustein, a white, ex-fighter for social justice, who feels compelled to re-enter the fray:
I care. I care about it all. It takes too much energy not to care.
Towards the conclusion of the play, Borden utilizes the term pieces one last time, citing Hansberry's rhetorical question, "Life?" and her reply,"Ask those who have tasted of it in pieces rationed out by enemies" (Borden 80; Hansberry Be 256, their italics). Ironically, "Tightrope Time" is itself just such a piece of theatre, just such a "PIECE OF RESISTANCE" (62, his italics), to use an epithet that Borden ascribes to Ethiopia, his transvestite character, for it flouts both racism and homophobia.
This last point necessitates a brief examination of Borden's use of value, another term that he teases from Hansberry, his putative mentor. His assault on prejudice is predicated upon its reduction of the worth of human beings. When Borden utilizes (with slight amendments) Hansberry's comment that time "has a value of its own" (Borden 16; Hansberry Be 4), he lets it follow the Host's act of satiric self-evaluation:
I read the other dayTo Hansberry's insight that time possesses its own value, independent of socially-imposed, ideological criteria, Borden adds the body. He goes on to besiege racial (and, thus, physical) devaluations throughout his play, as in these lines:
A second glance, however,In 1.7, the Host recalls a childhood incident in which his mixed-race heritage resulted in his receiving a 'high', but unsought, racially-inflected, evaluation:
Not only does Borden rescue the devalued black body, he also redeems that of the homosexual. If Act One centres--albeit usually obliquely--on race, Act Two considers sexuality--the repressed side of black self-consciousness. Here Borden revalues, in order, Adie, a female prostitute; Ethiopia, a homosexual cross-dresser; and Chuck, a hustler. Ethiopia disparages hypocritical, bourgeois sexual mores, declaiming, "& HAPPY DAYS / unsanitized for early primetime viewing / meant more than suckin' lollipops out back behind some diner / but no one really thought that we was fuckin' up / TRADITION / cuz / no one saw / no decrease in / the surplus population" (62, his italics). Chuck augments the currency of his Gay body by coupling coitus with money:
The most ostentatious broadside against devaluation in Act Two speaks, though, to race. At the conclusion of 2.7, a "tired and beaten" black mother, whose innocent son has been slain by a paranoid white man,
The passage is a damning indictment of self-devaluation--the manner in which oppression replicates itself.
Indeed, Gilroy promotes old-fashioned nationalism when he announces that "the dependence of blacks in Britain on black cultures produced in the new world has recently begun to change" (86). Gilroy notes, with relish, that "the current popularity of [pop music acts] Jazzie B and Soul II Soul, Maxi Priest, Caron Wheeler, Monie Love, the Young Disciples, and others in the United States confirms that during the eighties black British cultures ceased to simply mimic or reproduce wholesale forms, styles, and genres which had been lovingly borrowed, respectfully stolen, or brazenly highjacked [sic] from blacks elsewhere" (86). Problematically, this inchoately neo-nativist pronouncement denies the truth that, as Borden's work demonstrates, utterances of 'unamerican' blackness often represent deliberate 'deformations' or reformulations of African-American cultural productions (which Gilroy admits when he treats the "hybridity" of black Atlantic cultures13).
1 André Alexis believes, for instance, that "black Canadians have yet to elaborate a culture strong enough to help evaluate the foreigness of foreign [i.e. American] ideas" 20. Nova Scotian historian Allen B. Robertson despairs that "When Black History Month is celebrated in Nova Scotia .., it is Martin Luther King and Malcolm X who appear on the posters, not [Black Nova Scotian heroes and heroines] Viola Desmond, Carrie Best, the Reverend William Oliver or Victoria Cross recipient William Hall" 158. Both of these presumed instances of Americanization overlook this truth: Though African-American culture enjoys wide currency among African Canadians, they remain a distinct group. As Marlene Nourbese Philip points out, "The fact that Canadian Blacks strongly opposed the production of Showboat [the 1927 American musical comedy by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern], while there has been nary an oppositional whisper from the United States, suggests that that there are some very marked differences between the two populations" 2.
2 I term Black Nova Scotia Africadia and its people and cultural works Africadian. A fusion of Africa and cadie, the Mi'kmaq term for "abounding in" (and the probable cognate of the French toponym Acadie [Acadia]), the words Africadia and Africadian serve to stress the long history of Africans (mainly of African-American ancestry) in Maritime Canada. Throughout this essay, I also use four other terms to refer to persons of African descent. "New World Africans," a phrase I have borrowed from Nourbese Philip, refers to all persons of African descent in the Americas. "African-American" applies to those whose homeland is the United States. "African-Canadian" refers to those whose homeland is Canada. Finally, I use "black" as a generic term distinguishing Negroes from Caucasians. See Nourbese Philip, "Absence" 13; Clarke .
3 The Education Committee of the African Baptist Association recommended that the Executive Committee "endeavour to procure, during the year, the services of Booker T. Washington, or some like educator for a lecture tour throughout the Province. See Minutes of the Fifty-Eighth and Fifty-Ninth Annual Sessions [1911-1912] of the African Baptist Association of Nova Scotia 15.
4 See Bridglal Pachai 247-249.
5 Joseph Pivato observes, illustratively, that "Canadian [thematic criticism] has not been open to ethnic texts since it cannot accomodate them into such national myths as the two solitudes, the ellipse with two centres, or the garrison" 72.
6 Dillard also states that "slaves were transferred from one place to another, as from Nova Scotia to Surinam.., quite freely in the eighteenth century" 513. Before the American Revolution, then, there was likely a good measure of black travel--voluntary and involuntary-- between the Thirteen Colonies and Nova Scotia.
7 Philip Brian Harper urges that while "the situation of black Americans [cannot] be posited unproblematically as a colonial one, its historical sine qua non--the slave trade-- can certainly be considered as a manifestation of the colonizing impulse" 253, n.26.
8 See Hansberry To Be Young, Gifted and Black 3-4.
9 Hansberry considered her work "genuine realism," which she defined as depicting "not only what is but what is possible ... because that is part of reality too." She also speculated that "Ours [i.e. Black theatre] ... will be a theatre primarily of emotion" See Be 211 & 228, her italics. Hansberry's adoration of realism and empiricism explains her omission of the Hermit's unrealistic speech from Raisin, but this fact also throws into even starker relief Borden's inclusion of the discourse in his play and his employment of expressionist theatrical techniques and devices.
10 Hansberry reproduces Hughes's famous poem, "Harlem" (1951), as an epigraph to Raisin in the Sun (whose title is derived from a line in the poem) and also in a 1964 letter to the editor of the New York Times in support of the Civil Rights Movement. See Be 20-21. Here is the poem:
See Hughes 123. Borden also reproduces the poem in its entirety, using its hint of menace to preface the Minister of Justice's discussion of the demise of his "dream" which "had something to do with my trying, in quite a humble way, to make this world a better place in which to work -- and play." See Borden 22 & 24.
11In Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987), Houston A. Baker, Jr., finds that African-American "discursive modernism" or, to use his preferred term, renaissancism, consists of "the blending ... of class and mass--poetic mastery discovered as a function of deformative folk sound..." 93, his italics. In other words, African-American artistic supremacy depends on both "mastery of form" and "deformation of mastery" 50 (his italics), that is to say, the assertion of a signifying difference from mainstream European/American forms/norms. Ironically, Borden practices a similar deformation--of African-American styles.
12Borden reprints the whole of "The Prodigal Son," a sermon-poem by African-American poet James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), in 1.11, according this piece to the Pastor. Borden is largely faithful to Johnson's text, but he introduces a few alterations. He increases the stanza breaks, producing sixteen stanzas to Johnson's thirteen. He confers extra articles, pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives upon some lines. For instance, Johnson's line, "That great city of Babylon" 23, becomes, in Borden's treatment, "That great, great city of Babylon" 44. Likewise, Johnson's line, "And he went to feeding swine" 24, is transformed by Borden to read, "And he went down to feeding swine" 44. Such relatively minor redactions are accompanied by three greater interventions by Borden. Johnson's "stopped" (23) becomes "passed" in "And he passed a passer-by and he said" (Borden 44). Johnson's "you've" (25) becomes the more idiomatic "you" in "Today you got the strength of a bull in your neck" (Borden 44). Dramatically, Borden affixes two new lines to the conclusion of the penultimate stanza of Johnson's poem:
You'll have a hand-to-hand struggle with bony Death,See Borden 45, my italics. Borden's revisions of Johnson's already speakerly text intensify its oratorical power. Moreover, the line, "In my father's house are many mansions" (Johnson 24; Borden 45) accents Borden's strategy of presenting the psyche as the 'Host' of various speakers. See Borden 43-45; see Johnson 21-25.
13 This passage has already been cited, but it requires reiteration, for it affirms the contention that Gilroy's text is an anthology of antitheses: "It bears repetition that even where African-American forms are borrowed and set to work in new locations they have often been deliberately reconstructed in novel patterns that do not respect their originators' proprietary claims or the boundaries of discrete nation states and the supposedly natural political communities they express or simply contain." See Gilroy 98-99. This analysis sets forth a vision of the resistive workings of cultural nationalism that Gilroy, elsewhere, seeks to undercut.
14 Sneja Gunew distinguishes between difference and diversity in a vital passage in her foreword to Pivato's Echo: Essays on Other Literatures (1994):
See Gunew 20-21. 15 Further evidence for this position occurs in a recent first-person narrative by Siobhan R.K. Barker, treating the development of African-Canadian women's theatre. One passage merits lengthy quotation:
Barker's reminiscence augments my argument that the construction of any particular artistic tradition requires, as well, the articulation of nationalism, even if merely naïf. See Barker 14-15.
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Nourbese Philip, Marlene. Letter. This Magazine. August 1995: 2-3.
-----. "The Absence of Writing or How I Almost Became a Spy." She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. Charlottetown PEI: Ragweed, 1989. 10-25.
Pachai, Bridglal. Beneath the Clouds of the Promised Land: The Survival of Nova Scotia's Blacks, Volume II: 1800-1989. Halifax NS: The Black Educators Association of Nova Scotia, 1990.
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From: Canadian Ethnic Studies. 28.3 (1996): 56-71.
Please refer questions to Prof. J. Pivato, Athabasca University at firstname.lastname@example.org
*George Elliot Clarke is the E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto. One of Canada's leading contemporary poets, he has been honoured with the Portia White Prize for Artistic Achievement, a Bellagio Centre Fellowship, the Outstanding Writer in Film and Television Award, several honorary doctorates, and in 2001, the Governor General's Award for Poetry for his book Execution Poems.
Six poems by George Elliot Clarke were featured in Shunpiking Magazine's Black History & African Heritage Supplement, Volume 7, Number 41, May 2002.
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