Dr. George Elliot Clarke
received an honorary doctorate (to be added to his real one) from the University of Alberta today, and if you'd like to hear him perform some of his poetry (he's the celebrated talent behind Whylah Falls
and Beatrice Chancy),
he'll be at the U of A Humanities Centre in Room 4-29 at 3:30. You can watch a clip of him here,
and below you can read part of what I wrote about him for See Magazine
"The man is George. You could call him the whole bit: Dr. George Elliot Clarke, internationally renowned writer, academic and literary historian. But I can only think of him as Brother George, the Black man from a little strip of cold, wet land called Nova Scotia, Canada’s Alabama, home to centuries-old Black communities and the racist response against them.
"Brother George has made it his life’s work to map the literary history of those African-Canadians and their kinfolk across the country, to weave a luxurious verbal tapestry about Black folk in the Great White North
so glittering that no one could turn away from its elegance and beauty and pain.
"I first met Brother George at a rally in Ottawa, 1991, when I was a verbally blasting the police after the Montreal cops shot and killed a brother for Driving While Black
. George introduced himself to me, and I got my first taste of his personality, his corn-popping, hot-buttered laugh, his intense intellect, his next-door decency. I had no idea he’d end up one of the leading figures in Can-Lit, a poet, screenwriter, lit-historian and multi-award winner who’s now teaching world literature at the U of T.
"When I meet him again at a recent community dinner, everybody is charmed by him. One brother says that within five minutes of him entering the room, George seems like an old friend who’s come home. So how does brilliant, accomplished, defiantly pro-Black Brother George come to be writing an opera called Beatrice Chancy?
“'Opera has a reputation for being an elitist form,'
he explains. 'But we have to remember that opera was originally a poor-person’s art. That’s where all the so-called élite art forms came from—performances for ordinary, everyday people. Including poetry. And Black arts such as the blues and jazz came about for the poor working person who wanted to relax. It was Black people who made Bessie Smith
a star. They went out and bought her records even when they didn’t have record players, because wanted to make sure she’d be a star because they recognised the significance of her voice.'“'A condition of being a Black artist in Canada is that unlike in the US,
our audiences are guaranteed to be racially mixed,' as opposed to exclusively Black. But while Clarke is committed to African-Canadian audiences, 'in attempting to write an opera libretto, I couldn’t afford to think of it as being something that only White people are going to see. But why should opera be considered outside or not appropriate for Black issues, experience or history? According to Harold Cruse in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual
, the only original stage art that African Americans created is the musical. So operas are just a shade different, one step removed.'”