At this year’s Ottawa Writers Festival’s Lament for a Nation featured a duo of prolific intellectuals in Dr. Anthony Stewart and David Austin on a Sunday evening tête-à-tête moderated by the magnetic presence of CBC Ottawa’s own Adrian Harewood.
It has become an outright expectation at functions attempting to discuss race that inflamatory emotions run high and sensationalist voices dominate. En revanche, the subject of identity politics can be merely treated in an "objective" fashion, akin to a cerebral exercise amongst an elite group. In short, my past experiences in these spaces lead me to forecast an indimidating, uninviting milieu mired in liberal-progressive speak.
Sunday evening happily proved me wrong.
Harewood as the poised, probing inquirer, created an ethos of comraderie with the standing room audience. This rapport lended a forumla of ease as Stewart, Austin and Harewood were gregarious in their interaction with each other, with the air of a reunion of old friends over a meal.
Both Stewart and Austin were promoting literary projects that complimented one another in stunning ways yet also offered distinct approaches on the subject of race and identity politics. For Stewart, the evening was an elated homecoming with Visitor: My Life in Canada, which payed homage and offered a stern critique to the city (and country) of his birth. Unfortunately for Stewart, the old adage "a prophet is not without honour, but in his own country" is apropos consideringVisitor is a prophetic polemic deconstructing Canada’s national image as a liberal and tolerant society.
In the style and tradition of Cecil Foster and Dany Laferrière before him, Stewart was not reserved in his reflection as a visible minority in the Northern Lights country and the unsuing dilemmas it brings to racialized groups. In addition, Visitor picks up where Stewart left off in his masterfully titled You must be a Basketball Player: Rethinking Integration in University. The most striking episode inVisitor, which Stewart made a point to emphasize in his lecture was outlining the motivation that led to his transition from Dalhousie University to Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennslyvania. Stewart testifies that his departure from a high profile adjuct position on the Faculty of English at the prestigious Halifax institution was a form of protest against the racial anathema he and many others continue to face in Canada regarldess of status, relative achievement and especially in light of thefaux-narrative Canadians uphold of a post-racial society. Though the audience was left to ponder Stewart’s contradictory decision for departing to a nearby nation still haunted by its own racial history, it was either an intended or unintentional marketing tactic which led many racing to purchase his book by event’s end.
Meanwhile, David Austin was invited to re-introduce the festival’s audience to his chef-d’oeuvre from 2013 titled Fear of a Black Nation. Austin offered the festival audience an expanded findings from his research while plunging into the germane topics du jour in the racial discourse; either from the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri to the chasm between President Barack Obama’s policies and the marginal impact it has on the lives African-Americans.
Austin recounted the period of the 1960s Montreal overarched by Quebec’s Quiet Revolution but also at the height of the potent Black Power movement around the world. Austin also explained the meaning of the black politic within a Canadian context, which was cultivated at the Congress of Black Writers in 1968 at McGill University which gathered illustrious Black thinkers and activists from across the world in C.L.R. James, Walter Rodney, Miriam Makeba, Stokely Carmichael, and Rocky Jones. Unbeknownst to many, Montreal had become the place for Afro-Canadian self-determination but unfortunately it led to severe concern from the state apparatus to which Austin suggests continues until this day.
In Lament for a Nation, both authors sought to communicate a the sense disenchatment and loss for an interreptation of Canadian history. A version of Canada which was once deemed as the mythicalCanaan for many escaped African-American slaves finding refuge north of the 49th parallel; but today from Afro-Canadians, South Asians, Aboriginals and many other minority groups, many are excluded from Canada’s social contract and often omited from Canada’s grand narrative.
And yet, Austin and Stewart would be quick to remind us that the arduous problem of race in Canada is not to be solved like a mathematical equation rather it is to be wrestled through with intellectual vigour and integrity because only there lies the hope that lingers when the lament recedes. One can only hope that conversations like these lead Canadians to aspire to become the mosaic our society founded to be.