Troy B Bailey* Reviews George Elliott Clarke’s J’Accuse…! (POEM VERSUS SILENCE)
J’Accuse…!(POEM VERSUS SILENCE)
George Elliott Clarke
Imagine a state where you can be punished, as if a criminal, for a crime that has not occurred or even been planned, or wasn’t even a crime. This is not science-fiction, this is the actual experience of George Elliott Clarke as recounted in his new book J’Accuse…! [Exile Press]. It is an “essay-in-poetry,” crafted as a response to his experience of being incriminated for merely thinking aloud, about how to, or if to, address in a public forum, the critical issue of racialized violence.
Clarke shares the ordeal of being scapegoated by a hungry media and trigger-happy twitter-verse in preparation for the Woodrow-Lloyd Lecture at the University of Saskatchewan aimed at “Truth and Reconciliation vs The Murdered and the Missing: Examining Indigenous Experiences of (In)Justice in Four Saskatchewan Poets.”
More than a decade earlier, in 2005, Clarke was approached by a ‘stranger,’ to review his poetry. Two of these ‘stranger’s’ poems eventually made their way onto the parliamentary poet laureate’s website. However, this mentee failed to disclose his egregious past, that of a murderer who extinguished the life of an Indigenous woman and mother of two in Saskatchewan years earlier. He was now living under a new name. We learn in J’Accuse…! how Clarke’s care and expertise in poetry, which he freely offered up to those who approached him, would be his terrible ‘future crime.’
In lead up to his lecture, while questioned about the inclusion of the felon’s work, he said to a reporter; “I have to read and research. Then, I can decide.”
His “Then, I can decide” phrase turned into the infamous “flippant sound-bite — Maybe he will and maybe he won’t.” Thus setting up a firestorm of twittered, lateral, psychological violence and extreme agony, both against the author and for the family of the victim of those Saskatchewan killers.
In an anvil of public scolding the “Kancel Kulturalists” relentlessly ripped Clarke raw. But we also learn clearly, by reading Clarke’s work, of the media’s complicity in nurturing lateral violence between historically brutalized people. That the said ‘scapegoating’ was enabled and perpetrated against an Afro-Indigenous Canadian author, who is of the historic and mixed, African Descendants of Slavery community in Nova Scotia, was a point entirely lost upon those whose job it was to get it right.
To be clear; Clarke is not a murderer, doesn’t support murderers and had nothing to do with a murderer! He did have something to do with a man who presented himself claiming only to be ‘a poet,’ though Clarke had no intent to celebrate his work once he learned of his true identity.
Clarke succeeds in the use of euphony in his flow of words here, in attempting to explain how this apparent ‘set-up’ and attack upon his significant writing career occurred. To at least let those perpetrators who are bright enough to care or see, how they lashed upon Clarke’s head, the historical ‘scold’s bridle/iron bit’ (Slave Mask Image Reference, NW0192. Source: Thomas Branagan, The Penitential Tyrant; or, slave trader reformed New York, 1807, p. 271). in a brutal attempt to silence his voice.
Clarke’s “Trigger Warning: Message to the Grass Roots” exposes the methods of violence used against oppressed peoples (both in Indigenous North American slavery and Indigenous African slavery) to maintain a cycle of conflict within groups. Here he discusses that he too was an ‘ally’ of those historical populations who went through similar conditions, for example, as many forget, it was Indigenous people in the Caribbean who were one of the first enslaved in North America:
“a child of Struggle —
We learn in his work that Clarke was not afforded the respect of an original Indigenous person ‘of account,’ and a descendent of Slavery, by the journalists who reported on this situation, despite the long history of Afro-Metissaje in North America.
The “Kancel Kultur Kampaign,” Clarke notes, was a brutal “persecution” device on him, never-ending, and permanently damaging to the innocent individual. As well, to the entire body politic in terms of freedom of speech, which Clarke challenges the reader to consider numerous times throughout this work.
We will now never know due to the ‘Frenzy’ of scapegoating, carefully presented in chronological order, what insights could have come, to prevent real future crimes against Indigenous Women.
Clarke pays respects in this work to the life the Indigenous Matriarch victim(s), as much as is reverentially possible. He lets the reader clearly know that the psychopathy of the killer[s] who hailed from Saskatchewan, moved through life with incredible privilege.
However, even their privileges impacted even Clarke’s life experience, for which he was ‘tarred’. These crimes happened. But it was Clarke who became the transference object, the fall person for all the pain and suffering of the family and friends of Indigenous victims.
Through J’accuse…! Clarke claims his right to speak in his place and space of the experiences that were unjustly heaped upon him. This monumental composition is a vade mecum that the modern writer leaves behind at their own hazard. Clarke clarifies the serious subject of ‘trial and conviction’ by media.
It is too, a fable and a warning, referenced with points of study of interest to the Canadian African Descendant of Slavery. This valuable work of a Canadian poet laureate belongs on the syllabus of courses in Poetry, Critical Pedagogy, African Slavery studies, and Creative Communications, each of which would be enhanced by having this work to study.
*Disclosure statement from Troy B Bailey: My name and a professional exchange of ideas with the author George Elliott Clarke through ‘general discourse’ of the Afro-Métif (mixed) Diaspora … have made their way into the work J’Accuse…! I do not consider the inclusion of my words on this particular poem where I am mentioned a collaboration between the author and I.