It's a big day for literature, or course, with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows launching at midnight. My guilty pleasure of the weekend will be reading and enjoying the last book of the series -- we can debate literary merit all day long, but there's no debating having a good time.
Execution Poems: The Black Acadian Tragedy of "George and Rue"
by George Elliott Clarke
Crown: I warrant you speak almost perfect English.
Rue: Should I utter pitted and cankered English?
Bad enough your laws are pitted and cankered.
Crown: Admit that, for a Negro, you speak our English well.
Rue: But, your alabaster, marble English isn't mine: I hurl
insolent daggers at it like an assassin assaulting a statue.
Crown: Your lordship, instruct this witness to speak civilly.
His Lordship: Accused, do your duty, as we must do ours.
Rue: My duty is to make narrative more telling,
Yours is to make malice more malicious.
Execution Poems by George Elliott Clarke tells the story of George and Rufus Hamilton, two Africadian men from Nova Scotia who were hanged in 1949 for the murder of a Fredericton taxi driver. The Hamilton brothers were cousins of Clarke, dead a decade before he was born, and in retelling their story through these poems Clarke weaves for us a story of family, cyclical violence, and racism. The art of this collection is Clarke's ability to create for the reader blurring lines between guilt and innocence, and right and wrong. For the most part, the reader wavers between being horrified by the crime and sympathetic to the perpetrator, shocked at the murder and sickened by the actions of law enforcement officials. As such, we are forced to confront ideas of socially constructed representations of innocence (white lawyers and judges) and guilt (black accused criminals). The effect is especially strong because Clarke acknowledges no awareness on the part of the system for the inherent racism it fosters. And in the end, blindness to this is Clarke's purpose. He never suggests that the crime doesn't occur, or that the Hamilton brothers are innocent, but he is careful to show the roots of violence, its motivations, and the assumptions of the court officials in the case.
An important issue in Clarke's retelling of the murder case and trial is language -- particularly the English language. As you can see in the excerpt above, the issue of "proper" English is a major one for the courts; how can a black man who commits crimes speak "white" English so effectively? In "Child Hood II," Rufus tells us about his desire to embrace the "secretly Negro authors" like Alexander Pushkin, who had Ethiopian heritage, and Alexandre Dumas, with Hatian origin; these authors who denied parts of their heritage to succeed in a white world are of particular interest to Rufus, and he is especially interested in the power of language for these men who have harnessed the dominant discourses of their times. He compares them with his own ability to express himself, referring to himself as "a poor-quality poet crafting hoodlum testimony, / my watery storytelling's cut with the dark rum of curses." He fears that he cannot fully defend himself or express his feelings about his actions because he lacks the proper words, but the book itself, written in the voice of him and his brother, shows that they have more power and aptitude in their English than the entire town of Fredericton. This comes across in the poem, "To Viscount Alexander of Tunis, Governor-General of Canada," where "A Citizen of the town of Fredricton NB," billing himself as "Anonamus," demands that the Governor General deny George's request for a stay of execution as "they is no different neggars & they both look a like in this cryme," and that "wee the peepul of Fredericton feel they must hang fore the bluddy homaside they did." Where it is amazing to the judge that two black men can speak "his" language, the good "white" residents of Fredericton, as they are represented by the writer of this letter.; The question Clarke asks us to consider is this: who owns and posesses the language? Does a white man with access to education and the birthright of the "mother tongue" automatically deserve to be seen as more capable than a black man, even when his ability is unquestionably superior? We are given two documents here: the letter, which represents the town, and the book of poetry itself, which represents the Hamilton brothers (because we are expressly told when their voices are being used). We question our own assumptions as a result of the juxtaposition and inversion of expectation.
Clarke also forces the reader to think critically about the roots of crime. We learn as we read the poems about the Hamilton brothers that they observed a lot of violence between their father and their mother; with their mother being partially Mi'kmaq, she becomes the target of racialized violence. "Pop" sees her as impure and worthy of his scorn, because "he thought her being mulatto / was mutilation." The boys are exposed to highly sexualized and disturbing violence as children, until one of the boys attacks his father and their mother dies of her injuries. They move from this life of violence into one of poverty, and Clarke seems to ask us: What did you expect them to do?
There's an interesting last note in the book, in a reproduction of the newspaper page announcing the completed execution of the Hamilton brothers:
In an article on dead poet W. B. Yeats in last week's Casket, we erroneously attributed to Mr. Yeats the book Cane, which was in fact written by the Negro American writer Jean Toomer. Yeats is, however, the author of the best-selling book The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats. We regret the error.This is interesting because it is an example of appropriation of voice -- the writer of the article assumed the high modernist poetry he encountered was written by a white man, instead of by an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance. The black man's voice was papered over with a famous white poet. What do we make of this in relation to the issues of language and ability in the text? It's interesting that the paper was willing to deny poetic ability to a black writer, feeling more comfortable with assigning it to a famous white writer instead. Again, it's about the assumptions we make about ability based on someone's skin colour rather than our own experiences of ability. I wonder also if it's a gesture to retelling the story -- the Hamilton's have only ever been written about by white newspaper reporters and white historians, whereas Clarke is re-appropriating the story for the Africadian people.