The New Black

The New Black

The National Post
Toronto, Canada
The Afterword: Postings from the literary world

Donna Bailey Nurse

The day after the Giller Awards I had breakfast with a friend at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto. The ceremony had been held there the night before and as I savoured my bagel and lox we discussed Esi Edugyan’s thrilling win for Half-Blood Blues.
“She seemed genuinely surprised,” said my friend, who was describing the event, for she had attended the gala and I had not. “She looked gorgeous. Her dress was amazing. Oh look,” she broke off, “there she is!”
I turned in my chair to see Edugyan and her husband, Steven Price, being seated at the table behind me. What good luck. I had been hoping to catch up with her at some point to congratulate her in person. Happily, here she was…

Half-Blood Blues, like Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, has become a bestseller. Some critics are surprised by the wide appeal of these two books, but it makes sense to me. Black stories are popular because they touch on two concerns close to every human heart: the desire for acceptance, to feel as though we belong; and the desire to be free to be who we are meant to be. Black Canadian stories feel quintessentially Canadian. The early novels of Austin Clarke, for example, started a vigorous discussion of hyphenated identities — the idea that we are either Irish-Canadian or Italian-Canadian or black-Canadian or Asian-Canadian, and that being Canadian means being two things (at least) at once.
As a literature of the diaspora, black Canadian novels are destined to make their mark: They articulate a language for black experience in an ostensibly post-racial world. Currently, African-American writers and black British writers — and black writers practically everywhere — are attempting to express what it means to be black in a world that claims race doesn’t matter. In this, black Canadian writers have been given a huge head start: Canada has always professed colour blindness…

…Bi-racial heritage is emerging as this literature’s dominant theme. Half-Blood Blues, Lawrence Hill’s Any Known Blood and Kameleon Man are all titles that allude to its significance. Even The Polished Hoe concerns a heroine that is black but looks white. Nearly every major character in Half-Blood Blues is mixed race; not only Afro-German Heiro, but also Sid, who is undoubtedly descended from a slave woman and her master. Chip, as it turns out, may possess Native-American blood.
Mixed heritage proves a wonderfully fruitful symbol. It is sometimes used to scrutinize the bi-racial dilemma of being caught between duelling cultures. Or it may address the anxiety fair-skinned blacks may feel about whether or not to pass for white. It can symbolize the struggle of black Canadians to reconcile the African and European aspects of their culture. A turbulent interracial romance may represent the overall challenges of race relations. Bi-racial anxiety and alienation lie at the heart of Half-Blood Blues. Altogether,  the title refers to a song the band records, the characters themselves, and a world where few accept that we are all at least two things at once…

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