WHERE BEAUTY SURVIVED: AN AFRICADIAN MEMOIR by George Elliott Clarke | Review by Giovanna Riccio

George Elliott Clarke
Knopf, 2021

Renowned poet George Elliott Clarke begins each of his books of poetry with an epigraph on beauty; fittingly, then, the title of his latest book is Where Beauty Survived: An Africadian Memoir. In keeping with the former Parliamentary Poet Laureate’s lifelong preoccupation with the epic, this chronicle of the first two decades of the poet’s life weaves his personal journey with the ongoing odyssey of the Black Nova Scotian communities of his youth.

A seventh-generation African-Canadian of bold intellect, trailblazing scholarship and prodigious poetic achievements, Clarke has authored 23 volumes of poetry along with novels, plays, essays and libretti. He counts the Governor General’s Award for Poetry among his many national and international prizes. As the editor of several seminal anthologies of African-Canadian Literature, he has been instrumental in establishing this field of study and is the inaugural E. J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto.

When George Elliott Johnson was born in Windsor, Nova Scotia, his father, Bill Clarke, was an artistic, urbane Africadian working at the Halifax train station and jaunting about on a flashy motorcycle. Geraldine Johnson, George’s mother, landed in the city as an educated belle, financially secure due to an industrious and persevering Indigenous father. Leaving her rural family to attend teacher’s college, she was one of a number of women Bill courted. In 1959, Gerry became pregnant with George and she and Bill married in June 1960, four months after her son’s birth. Together, they serve as the blueprint for the contrasts peppering this introspective, insightful, coming-of-age autobiography.

An emotionally-charged dream featuring Clarke at age 60 and his father at 70 (the age of Bill Clarke’s death) in the memoir’s foreword frames the raison d’être for Clarke’s literary witnessing. The expectant dreamer anticipates a long overdue apology for the torment his father’s womanizing and eventual divorce brought the author. As Bill Clarke begins to atone, “just as I wished (forever),” Clarke’s epiphany that his books, spread out in front of him, were written “in yearning for his apology and acceptance” comes as he collapses over them. This augurs the author’s personal quest for understanding and resolution through his fraught father-son relationship, as well as Bill and Gerry’s rocky romance and turbulent family life.

From his birth to an unwed mother to his rebirth as a poet, scholar, and social justice advocate, Clarke’s feet are firmly planted on maritime soil as he negotiates the cultural spaces crucial to his development. The book’s subtitle, An Africadian Memoir, spells out this poet’s challenge to linguistic hegemony as he simultaneously “Blackens” his tongue and the English language. As Clarke tells it, he coined “Africadian” to capture the historical and geographical elements that compose the Black societies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, provinces that once constituted Acadia. Hailed for verses that blend musical diction, formalism, and local vernacular, this memoir unfolds in Clarke’s characteristic jazzy prose, activating and pushing language to mirror much-needed social change. Writer Kevin McNeilly dubbed his style “vernacular formalism,” and Clarke embraces the oxymoronic combo declaring, “And if I be a street preacher, an opera singer, what pray tell is ma crime?”

Born in the country and raised in Halifax, as a child Clarke commands “a princely right to the countryside” with “a citizen’s claim to the city,” locales he renders in vivid sensorial sketches of the African-Canadian communities found therein. Here we are on a visit to his maternal grandparents’ bucolic home where plenitude and pleasure abound, where Nature grants spiritual, economic, and physical well-being. Despite being classed as poor, folks could thrive because “they owned countryside houses and land, and so had access to slaughtered hog and pears, and so could feel—as I did—wealthy.” Clarke enchants with the fairy tale quality of his birthplace, but is unsentimental about the importance of land ownership to personal independence and communal well-being.

From houses in more prosperous neighbourhoods, the family eventually moves to Halifax’s North End, joining the largest congregation of Africadians who abide, work, create, and conjure Black joy despite the daily drag of low wages, inferior services, and police violence. Bookish, curious, painfully shy, and resourceful, our protagonist applies his budding authorial gifts and geeky “Perfessor” persona to surviving the school’s toughs. His entertaining stories about juveniles who love the ego-strokes of celebrity transform verbal bullying and physical threats into “begging for mention in my stories, which teachers would let me recite to the rapt classroom.”

Shattered by his parent’s dramatic, drawn-out divorce, Clarke suggests that Bill and Gerry were too incompatible for happiness. An autodidact intellectual and accomplished artist, the dark-complected, well-groomed, eloquent Bill displayed a European sensibility in books and music and a “fetishized enunciation of English.” A figure of probity, courtesy, and refinement in public, Bill’s suppressed rage “unfurls” privately in bouts of family violence: “I respected him for his art and intellect; I dreaded him for his ready violence, which the most miniscule faux pas could detonate.”

Intellectually curious and compassionate, Clarke’s memoir consistently makes politics personal. Expanding his scope to stirring everyday tragedies, he analyses the social humiliation, exploitation, and disempowerment African-Canadian men must swallow to hold a job, and doesn’t shy away from describing the explosive rages he experienced at home. Bill embodies harsh beauty, walking alongside the poet as a role model and Janus-faced muse.

Art is demystified by a father who could, at will, execute a portrait of his son or the pet cat, and a public career is made viable through family pride that stems from Bill’s maternal lineage, the White family. Clarke is great-grandson to the illustrious Reverend William Andrew White, the first African-Canadian non-commissioned officer in the British Army and a man of many firsts. Minister to the Cornwallis Baptist Church for 17 years, he fathered many notable progeny including Portia White, the internationally famous classical singer, composer and activist Bill White, and is grandfather to former Senator Donald Oliver, to name a few. In stark contradiction, the Clarke clan—with freedom-loving flapper Nettie as the unwed matriarch—were banished to live an impoverished existence in a barn, until the good reverend arranged a marriage of convenience to make an honest woman of his wayward daughter.

Such disparity led to competitive feelings of inferiority in Bill Clarke, who commanded his firstborn to match one great uncle by garnering The Order of Canada (which he achieved in 2008). Initially, Clarke balks at the high-achieving White family who offered “triumphant success in white society,” viewing them as white wannabes who abandoned the community. Uneasy with simple judgements, he considers the personal trauma and cost to individuals, appreciating the “special Black burden of the Whites” whose public success denounced the fantasy of “alleged Black inferiority.”

Bill’s counterpart, Gerry Clarke, is “Caucasian in look but profoundly Coloured in all her tastes.” After acquiring a teaching certificate at Nova Scotia Teachers College, she studied Maria Montessori’s philosophy and pedagogy and founded three early childhood centres to provide Head Start programmes for underprivileged children. Believing that education pointed the way out of dead-end poverty and social stagnation, she started a business, learned to drive, and purchased a shiny new car. Sadly, her about-face into a liberated woman threatened Bill and led to growing marital discord.

Under the sway of a culturally diverse environment enhanced by “boy-wonder smarts” and cat-killing curiosity, the fourteen-year-old Clarke tries his hand at becoming a musician. To improve his songwriting skills, he starts to write poetry and produces four pieces a day, foreshadowing his work ethic and prolific output. At 17 he encounters Black consciousness via Malcolm X, who personified and preached “the innate majesty and congenital equality of Black peoples.” His mind-blowing encounter with The Autobiography of Malcolm X leads him to seek out Halifax’s community activists, keeping company with the likes of Walter Borden, Rocky and Joan Jones, Sylvia Hamilton, and Jackie Barkley, mentors who educate and guide Clarke to embrace political activism, pursue a life of the mind, and a life in the arts. He arrives at The University of Waterloo as an undergrad with the radical bent of Malcolm X and as “a tyro bard, Poundian in poetics, Dylanesque in politics, and African-Baptist in faith.”

Clarke has commented that individual or family victories often do not result in improved conditions for the community, but also tells the tale of 100 North Enders coming out to fete his Ph.D. as a notable achievement by someone from the neighbourhood. In the end, the people and landscapes he enlivens are parallel protagonists with the author himself. A Scotian at heart, a seeker and east coast golden boy, Clarke has lived much of his adult life in the U.S., Toronto, and Ottawa, and thus the theme of exile haunts his writing. Resounding with longing and echoing the polyphony of voices animating a poet devoted to beauty as stubbornly alive, this gritty, vibrant love song to Black Nova Scotia adds another volume to the exile’s odyssey home. This absorbing read is of crucial significance for anyone who wishes to appreciate how communities often dubbed underclass nurture and inspire their own organic intellectuals and artists.

Reviewer’s Bio

Giovanna Riccio is a poet, teacher and independent scholar. She is the author of Vittorio (Lyricalmyrical Press, 2010) Strong Bread (Quattro Books, 2011), and Plastic’s Republic (Guernica Editions, 2019). Her poems and other writings have appeared in national and international publications and in numerous anthologies; translations of her work have been published in six languages. Giovanna’s poem, “The Archivist,” won first prize in the 2021 Venera Fazio Poetry Contest.