Evelyn White Reviews Memoir Showcasing George Elliott Clarke’s Trademark Exuberance
Where Beauty Survived
George Elliott Clarke
During an online tribute earlier this year, George Elliott Clarke extolled Charles Saunders (1946-2020)—a Black American speculative fiction writer who’d settled in Nova Scotia—with a righteous zeal. Those who’ve heard interviews with the self-proclaimed “Africadian/Afro-Metis” author or attended one of his readings know thatGEC always trends full-tilt boogie.
Indeed, my copy of Clarke’s Execution Poems (2009)—autographed by the writer after a 2016 lecture—boasts an inscription that evokes the gyrating moves of Soul Train dancers.
The recipient of numerous literary awards and a former parliamentary poet laureate of Canada, Clarke brings his trademark exuberance to Where Beauty Survived: An Africadian Memoir. About his teacher mother, Gerry (“could pass for white”), and his “mahogany” father, Bill, a gifted painter who toiled for the railway (and later as a taxi driver), Clarke writes: “My parents seemed types of the Gershwin line (somewhat amended): ‘Your daddy’s smart, and your mama’s good-lookin.’”
“My father’s life suggested that one could be a worker and an artist,” he continues. “Given his humble job … I little doubted that he cherished those moments when some white passenger would look at him, incredulously, and say to his ‘Negro porter,’ ‘How is it that you’re whistling the Kreutzer Sonata?’”
The eldest of three brothers who delighted in his status as “a Junior Know-It-All,” Clarke delivers absorbing reflections on a childhood accident. En route to a convenience store near his family’s then North End Halifax home, the future author “got knocked down by [a] turning car,” he writes. “And I hit the blacktop hard enough that I blacked out.”
Clear-headed by the time an ambulance arrived, Clarke, age six, persuaded the attendants to let him “sit up front with them as they turned on the siren and carted me to the hospital Emergency.”
He continues: “I had the gaiety of … watching other vehicles pull over to let us go by, our roof-light swirling cherry-red and our siren blasting. … I’d learned something about the power of words. That my boyish interest in sitting almost in the driver’s seat … as opposed to being stretched out in the back—had been agreed to by … professionals who’d decided that an articulate Coloured boy—despite bumps and cuts—should command their acquiescence.”
By contrast, Clarke, in disquieting passages, recounts the abuse he suffered at the hands of a man who, demoralized by racism, routinely beat his wife and children. “[His] love always seemed tentative,” Clarke writes about his dad. “Maddeningly, the same hand that could draft a portrait of me … with something like tenderness … was also the hand that could shellac me, or any of us.”
Reproduced on the frontispiece of the volume, Bill Clarke’s drawing adds a poignancy to the entire narrative.
Always a stellar student, GEC took refuge from domestic strife in books and movie dates with his mother, whom some “compared to Elizabeth Taylor,” he writes, noting that his parents later divorced. Among other films, Clarke revelled in James Bond thrillers and, at age seven, the steamy Valley of the Dolls. “What we have here is a dirty soap opera,” scoffed movie critic Roger Ebert.
Clarke’s take? “The feminist ending and the West Coast scenery enabled me to imagine my mom surviving all tempests and tantrums.”
Rendered at a fast clip, Where Beauty Survived also explores Clarke’s alliances with African Nova Scotian notables such as filmmaker Sylvia Hamilton, opera singer Portia White (his great-aunt and no relation to this writer), and actor/playwright Walter Borden.
Now 61, GEC ends the book when he reaches his early 20s.
In his essay collection Directions Home: Approaches to African Canadian Literature (2012), Clarke alludes to his intellectual skirmishes with Toronto scholar Rinaldo Walcott. Readers desiring more info on the matter need await another memoir. Ditto for the national firestorm that surrounded Clarke’s mentoring of a white man once imprisoned for his role in the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of Pamela George, an Indigenous woman.
In a January, 2020 Halifax Examiner article about the controversy, journalist Stephen Kimber ventured: “That his reputation was cast into any doubt at all is, in part of course, George Elliott Clarke’s own loose-lipped fault.”Stay tuned.