Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Review: The African Diaspora in Canada

[Wisdom J. Tettey and Korbla P. Puplampu, editors. The African Diaspora in Canada: Negotiating Identity and Belonging. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2005.]

The most important thing about this book is its very nuanced and sophisticated approach to understanding identity.

As with most things I review on this site, I obtained this book as a source of background information for my slowly advancing project on Canadian social movement history. I was unclear from the title how exactly the book intended the label "African Diaspora" but thought it looked like a source worth having regardless. In fact, the introductory chapter by the editors goes through an extended discussion of the various ways that the phrase "African Canadian" can be defined, with a detailed look at four different approaches, which they label "(1) The Immigration Authorities Approach; (2) The Black equals African/African equals Black Approach; (3) The Self-Exclusion Approach; and (4) The Authentic African Approach." These four end up defining four populations with non-trivial differences among them. The approach that would have restuled in a book of the most use to me -- number two -- is not the approach that the book takes, as it turns out. Rather, the book focuses on the one population that can be uncontroversially understood to be African Canadian in all four of the schemes that were outlined: people whose racial background would be understood as Black in North America and who themselves moved here from continental Africa or whose parents did so.

In some ways, this focus is quite a bit less useful for my purposes because none of my participants are part of this demographic. The book's content and approach made it quite a worthwhile read for me nonetheless. Many works acknowledge the complexity of identity but end up treating it fairly simplistically for the sake of, well, simplicity, but this book simply could not do that because those people that it talked about have had their experiences shaped by all of racialization into Blackness (as understood in North America), migration, and struggles around culture. Along with more specifically useful material mentioned below, just the fact that it gives sustained attention to socially and politically significant diversity within the category "Black" has been good for me, I think -- I certainly was not unaware of this tendency before reading this book, but it can still be a long process to unlearn the ways in which we white people are taught to see the Other as being far more homogeneous than is ever the case, and this book was a useful concrete tool in the journey of taking some of that apart in my own head.

As well, some of the ideas used in the book will be useful to me even when some details differ. A number of the chapters, for example, focus more on the racialized aspect of the identity at the heart of the book. It includes a brief history of Black people in Canada and discussions of context and current conditions relevant to all Black Canadians, not just those who immigrated from Africa, as well as several very insightful analyses of racism in various Canadian contexts. A number of other chapters discuss various aspects of being a racialized newcomer to Canada, including some with an explicit gender lens, that are very relevant to me building an understanding that will help me frame chapters that focus on the experiences of participants who came to Canada from parts of the world other than Africa. There were also a couple of fascinating chapters on education that will be useful supplementary references for my chapter that focuses on indigenous struggles in Canada related to education. I thought the complexity of identity was particularly well recognized in the essay from which this quote was taken, on the experiences of Oromo (an ethnic group based in Ethiopia and surrounding countries) youth in Toronto -- their particular experience contains added complexity because of their status as a subordinate group within Ethiopia, differences within the Oromo population along religious lines, and differences based on diasporic destinations, among many other things.

I also have two observations with respect to the production of the book, one positive and one negative. On the down side, the book follows a pattern I have occasionally seen in other academic work and makes choices about italicization that make no sense at all to me -- it seems to have something to do with the words in question being seen by the author or editor as representing concepts fundamental to the chapter in question. As someone who is used to the convention of italics being used to provide emphasis and help guide the rhythm and flow of sentences, it can be quite distracting for italics to keep popping at apparent random. On a more positive note, the cover of the book is beautiful. I was originally not going to mention this since I don't tend to trust my own aesthetic sense as much as I should, but my partner spontaneously asked me what "that beautiful book" I was reading was. The image is a couple of leafless dark trees with branches covered in frost in an otherwise empty snowy field, with the background that would have been the sky replaced by a somewhat faded black and white design of African origin.

In any case, I'm very glad I read this book. I am becoming more and more convinced, however, that my search for detailed histories of social and political struggle based in Black Canadian communities of diverse backgrounds in the second half of the twentieth century is going to have to be satisfied with many overlapping partial successes rather than a handful of definitive works.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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