Reading about race

Author George Elliott Clarke, PhD ’93 , gives talk tonight

Alumnus George Elliott Clarke credits his late dissertation supervisor John Matthews for helping him finish his paper in just one short month.
Alumnus George Elliott Clarke credits his late dissertation supervisor John Matthews for helping him finish his paper in just one short month.

On an English class syllabus full of contemporary Canadian authors, only one stood out to me.

It was George Elliot Clarke’s Execution Poems that I remember most from the course. The letter press edition of the book, which is as beautiful physically as it is linguistically, found its way onto the syllbus less than 20 years after Clarke attained his own degree from Queen’s.

“I’m very pleased!” he told me.

Clarke, PhD ’93, will deliver a talk tonight, the next in a line of alumni from a range of disciplines to participate in the Queen’s Student Alumni Association speaker series.

His talk at Queen’s, titled “The Originality of African-Canadian Thought,” will focus on African-Canadian literature, a topic that’s become integral to his teaching.

“The simple comparison that I spent 300 pages exploring between African America and English Canada is that they’re both minority cultures — period,” Clarke said.

He was approached to speak by the Queen’s Community of Black Intellectuals and his visit has been planned to coincide with Black History Month. African-American and English-Canadian writers have both contested American ideals from different vantage points, according to Clarke.

“African-Americans protested their exclusion from mainstream America, white English-Canadian poets basically argued that they didn’t want to be a part of America,” he said.

Clarke took these ideas to Queen’s, where he completed his PhD in only three years. He credits his late supervisor John Matthews for being able to finish his dissertation in just one month.

“He saw that I was so busy being a writer that he was worried I would never finish my dissertation,” he said. “He basically forced me to … rent a room in the graduate residence and bring most of my portable belongings to Queen’s and stay there for one month and meet with him every single day until I got my dissertation written.”

From Queen’s, Clarke went on to teach at schools like Duke University and the University of Toronto, and will spend next year teaching at Harvard University.

Clarke’s own work, including nine books of poetry, four plays and a novel, often focuses on the African-Canadian communities of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

He said many of the African-Canadians of the Maritimes — whom he has dubbed “Africadian” — formed their own communities.

“It may be impoverished, there may be a great deal of illiteracy, it may be segregated, and in fact all three of these conditions existed for all these communities in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia,” Clarke said. “But it also means that for a writer like myself, you’ve got a lot to talk about.”

Dr. George Elliott Clarke speaks tonight in Dunning Hall Room 11 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

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