Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wayde Compton, After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing, and Region

The essays herein speak to multiple issues: the fallacious language of mixed-race; the historical scrutiny of black discourse; the experience of a hostile urban renewal; elegies to cultural producers who resisted racial categorization; the literary potential of hip hop; and an examination of the Obama phenomenon as it transforms language. These essays were originally written between 2000 and 2010, often for various journals and conferences, but some specifically for this volume. The common spirit binding them is, I hope, a cultural recovery and advocacy that is, in Paul Gilroy's phrasing, “the restoration of political culture” as opposed to “raciology's destructive claims upon the very best of modernity's hopes and resources” (2000, 30). Rather than the old narratives of escape, uplift, and redemption—which need to be re-thought and freshened—I hope to contribute to the projects of multiculturalism-from-below and counter-canonicity. Where I am agnostic about the spirituals—that golden inheritance—what I put my faith in here is the empowerment subject formation that comes after strategic essentialism and unreconstructed identity politics. (“Introduction”)
From Vancouver poet and editor Wayde Compton comes his first non-fiction title, a collection of essays titled After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing, and Region (Vancouver BC: Arsenal Pulp, 2010), an continuation of more than a decade of work exploring Black history and culture in and around Vancouver, from his poetry collections 49th Parallel Psalm (Vancouver BC: Arsenal Pulp, 1999) and Performance Bond (Vancouver BC: Arsenal Pulp, 2004), the anthology Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature (Vancouver BC: Arsenal Pulp, 2001), and his work as founder of Commodore Books and the Hogan's Alley Memorial Project. Compton's work as a whole can be seen as expanding and continuing, and even rediscovering, a rich conversation about writing and history, focusing on exactly what the subtitle of his essays suggest.

Through seven engaging and thoughtful essays, Compton works through various conceptions and misconceptions, and opens up whole layers of discourse with strict attention on his immediate region, spotlighting differences in Black history not just between Canada and the United States, but in British Columbia and Vancouver specifically, compared to the rest of the country. In “Seven Routes to Hogan's Alley and Vancouver's Black Community,” Compton explores the lost history of a predominantly Black Vancouver neighbourhood deliberately erased through secret schemes in local government a few decades back, and of the work currently being done to acknowledge that history, nearly erased in every possible way. In the essay, he recovers a lost space, and humanizes a tarnished and scattered community, writing:
For example, in “Hogan's Alley Fate at Stake,” journalist Jack Stepler introduces his subject by writing, “To the average citizen, Hogan's Alley stands for three things—squalor, immorality and crime,” and he goes on to describe some of the neighbourhood's most sensational and gory murders (1939, 29). The presence there of honest labourers, small business owners, families, and a church community that would last for more than six decades was swept aside in this sort of crime-obsessed journalism.
After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing, and Region is an important work, and possibly even essential reading, as Compton delves into territory that for so long has been pushed aside, ignored and deliberately overrun. Wayde Compton writes some damned intelligent and thoughtful explorations on the conflux of various points along historical and cultural lines. If you haven't paid attention to his work so far, this is where you need to begin. But one wonders, what is it about Vancouver, considered even by itself a relatively young city, that causes so many of its literary residents to explore such levels of critical exploration, from Compton to Michael Barnholden to Sachiko Murakami to Roy Miki to Douglas Coupland? And why aren't other cities pushed to do the same?
This Canadian/mixed/black/white witness views the spectacle and sees in Obama a US version of Pierre Elliott Trudeau—the youth cult, the charisma, the aura of a personality containing his nation's contradictions. In Trudeau's time—national unity; in the Obama pehnomenon—the embodiment of a possible American answer to division. In this comparison, Obama's “A More Perfect Union” speech was Trudeau's 1968 St Jean-Baptiste Day parade, the one where separatists threw bottles and rocks at him and his entourage, and he refused to move, somehow never getting hit by the volleys, forming an instant media myth of a leader who might similarly will the nation through the social crisis. It is sympathetic magic—electing leaders who seem to personify compromise, regardless of their actual policies and the material roots of the conflict—but there is the shape of truth within the illusionists' tricks. Both moments, Obama's speech and Trudeau's parade, were spectacular disavowals of their identification with perceived radicals of their own minority ethnic backgrounds. Obama's speech, and its remarkable polyvalence, suddenly made both American cable news and hip hop seem even clumsier in their handling of race than we already knew they were. An era of dispassionate consideration regarding identity seemed surprisingly at hand. Then he won. Then he ceased to speak about race. Then the backlash whipped the discourse back to 1961 standards—or thereabouts.

No comments: