The Black Canon


 That word, canon, re-sounds its in/famous homophone, cannon! I was not thinking of a gun, wheeled or not, when I use the word canon! And to juxtapose the qualifier ‘black’ against it might actually cause a minor explosion in certain circles since it presupposes a ‘white’ ‘superior’ canon somewhere. It reminds me of the debate a few years ago in the UK on how not to refer to literature produced by writers who were not ‘white’. One first thought of course was ‘black literature’ but there was nothing like ‘white literature’. So the argument of course would be that black literature was being shot into the ghetto much like a cannon ball, where it could hit some sensitive nerves or start all kinds of racial conflagration. So the critics went back to the drawing board and drew up politically correct apologies like ‘commonwealth literature’ and so on. But then there is the need for differentiation and for a political empowerment in that unfortunate phrase, ‘black literature’. It is in the same sense that I deploy ‘the black canon’.

Nevertheless it is worth noting that the modern mind trapped in dualist thinking, as it is, is truly primitive! This is a result of what Anna Maria Carusi refers to as that “endless duality of the subject-object relation, an effect of the empirico-transcendental doublet posited by Foucault as being the condition for the modern concept of man. [...] The naming of the Other as “Other” can be seen as a thetic and logocentric gesture on the part of [for example] post-structuralism whereby otherness is foreclosed.” Colourism or racism is a stupid idea in the 21st century, after the mapping of the human Genome, which makes it clear to us that colour is merely skin deep; that there is only one human race, no ‘white’ or ‘black’ race as two opposing camps as insisted upon by that modern binary mind-set, schooled carefully by Hegemon, who makes political capital through division of people into black, white yellow or any other unholy gradation. Besides other skin hues, ‘white’ or ‘yellow’ are only mutations of the original black or brown tint as Homo sapiens sapien migrated eastwards 50,000 years ago. What differentiates people would be culture and environment. And that is exactly why I am talking about a black canon, that is, a black canon within the political, cultural and existential experience of a people, who happen to have retained an original brownness of skin and who have had to be subjected to certain traumatic historical experiences because of it. So ‘the souls of black folks’ is not really black or white or ochre but simply human – apologies to W.E.B Du Bois. This is not to make light of the historical upheaval that necessitated that cultural cry of a book. That seminal work was important in setting the tone of the literary and cultural ferment called the Harlem Renaissance in African America of the 1920s. It was an important and necessary seminal thesis.  I will be restricting myself to black poetry, of course – that word ‘black’ again! Let us simply accept it as a political marker of difference and of a relative powerlessness only.

But before we proceed, one question. Why does the black history month concentrate itself only on African America? Should this be seen as a case of ‘racism’ against other black folks in the Caribbean, in other parts of the Diasporic world or in the Africa that was left behind in the middle passage? It is an open question. I will simply answer it by enlarging the arena of culture in the Diaspora as far away as Russia. I am thinking of Alexandr Pushkin (1799-1837), considered the father of modern Russian literature, and a great poet. According to wikipedia online encyclopedia, “Pushkin's father descended from one of the Russian gentry's oldest families who traced their history to Khutyn Monastery in the 12th century, while his mother's grandfather was Ibrahim Petrovich Gannibal, an African who was abducted and enslaved when he was a child. He was brought to Russia and became a great military leader, engineer and nobleman after his adoption by Peter the Great”.



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Sentinel Poetry (Online) #40


ISSN 1479-425X     March 2006