A Haunting Call for Redress

M. NourbeSe Philip, Bla_K: Essays and Interviews (Toronto: Book *hug, 2017); 348 pages; ISBN 978-1771663069 (paperback)

• February 2020

M. NourbeSe Philip’s latest work, Bla_K: Essays and Interviews, is a collection of essays and interviews that revisit her most profound insights into antiblack racism. The first half of the collection draws on out-of-print essays from her 1992 publication Frontiers, with emphasis on art and literary scenes, black collective consciousness, and black social movements.1 The previously published essays are renewed through an analysis of the contemporary moment in the codas that follow the original offerings. Philip suggests her purpose in Bla_K is to demonstrate the continuity of issues of racism in Canada that morph into different contexts. She meticulously recollects incidents of systemic racism, which she had addressed in the various reprinted essays, paying special attention to the creative sector (writers, musicians, the arts).

Please be advised that, in its very form of reprint and coda, Bla_K insists that the admonishments of the past twenty-five years still bear repeating. Bla_K serves as a necessary haunting that directly addresses antiblack racism: “Haunting . . . is an animated state,” as Avery Gordon describes, “in which a repressed or unresolved social violence is making itself known. Haunting alters the experience of being in time, the way we separate the past, the present and the future.”2Philip’s orphic critiques, past and present, disrupt our presumed progress on antiblack racism with nuanced interrogations of perceived advances. Her refusal to allow the evasion of antiblack racism is coupled with demands for redress, restitution, and repair. Bla_K chronicles Philip’s years of activism that have cast a sustained spotlight on racism with notable victories won at both personal and professional costs.

Her treatment of these prolonged transgressions is nuanced through different forms of interventions: essays, letters, and ruminations. While Bla_K is described on its cover as a book of essays and interviews, interspersed among the essays are also letters that expose the vulnerabilities of black relationality. The import of this exercise in epistolary practice is usefully exemplified in “Letter to Haiti,” an emotive lament that stamps survival onto despair. Philip reconstructs a proud nation amid postquake rubble, recalling Ayiti’s (Haiti’s) legacy of resistance, its insistence on African retentive spiritual practices, its establishment of equitable institutions, its colonial noncompliance and uncompromising independence. In this letter Philip proclaims Ayiti as the site of material, psychic, political, insurrectional, and intellectual gestation for the African diaspora in the Americas, with an origin narrative in the folds of C. L. R. James’s seminal work, The Black Jacobins.3

Bla_K is also anchored by two interviews. In “Interview with Empire,” Philip responds to the charge that her poetry is opaque, complex, and inaccessible and asserts that complexity is integral to her poetic production and should not be a deterrent. She further explains in “Nasrin and NourbeSe” why she uses opacity to represent the fragments in the archives that produced her seminal work, Zong!4 These interviews bookend pieces that deal with the vexing relationship of the black poet to canons that do not recognize divergent modes of production as formative and foundational to black art.

Bla_K is a must-read for anyone who is invested in the eradication of racism. Philip is a proponent of transverse solidarity that on native land begins with reverent relations with First Nations people. In “Race-Baiting and the Writer’s Union in Canada,” she offers a trenchant rebuke of Write magazine’s promulgation of an “appropriation prize” in the very issue it devoted to indigenous writers (105). In “The Disappearing Debate; or, How the Discussion of Racism Has Been Taken Over by the Censorship Issue,” Philip traces how the well-intentioned interventions by the Women’s Press, which rejected submissions from white writers using the voice of others, devolved into a firestorm of accusations over censorship. According to Philip, subsumed in this debate is the precarity that threatens publication opportunities for the voiced other. Philip suggests that if writing the other is necessary, humility, affinity with the community, and extensive research are minimum prerequisites.

Black artists, especially those whose work is informed by decoloniality, will appreciate Philip’s instructive approach to questions of audience, community, and markets in “Who’s Listening? Artists, Audiences, and Language.” Philip navigates these concerns as they inform audience reception and funding opportunities in Canada. Citing dub poetry as a prime example of the growing popularity of black expression among black and white audiences, Philip debunks dated assumptions about the lack of audience and markets for black cultural production. Philip’s ruminations here delve beyond relationality to the ambivalence and vulnerability of black interiority. She further uses this essay to interrogate the influences of two archetypes in her work: the first, John from Sussex, is the epitome of “white colonial tradition”; the second, Abiswa, is the subdued “other” of African Caribbean traditions (69). Philip posits Canada as a frontier through which her writing and explorations can increasingly adhere to an episteme informed by Abiswa that affords the capacity to “trust the body which, together with the mind, forms one intelligence” (70). Philip’s development of Abiswa’s mind/body intelligence in a Canadian context is linked to her ideological commitment to “writing as a different way of being in the world” (14). In addition, it suggests a poetic tradition in Canada informed by Caribbean epistemes, seen in the work of emerging poets such as Charlotte Henay and Canisia Lubrin, who also stake claims in the Caribbean and in Canada.5

Bla_K speaks not only to poetic and artistic traditions but also to activist histories in Canada. In “Six Million Dollars and Still Counting,” “Disturbing the Peace,” and “Museum Could Have Avoided Culture Clash,” Philip records an exuberant subversionary history of black activism in Toronto that serves to embolden contemporary efforts that are producing monumental strides. In Bla_K, Philip declares that a luta continua (the struggle continues), detailing former and current organizing efforts involving legislative bodies. These accounts lay bare precedents for social change. Bla_K in the hands of contemporary activists will potentially propel the text from cautionary tale to manual for progress, challenging Philip’s disappointment that though much has changed, too much remains.

Some will receive Bla_K as a sobering reminder of the work left to do in order to assure the right of black people to thrive. For others, the indictments levied will prove too much, thus damning Canada to its legacy of amnesia, negation, and culpability on issues of race. Bla_K as retrospective evinces the accuracy of Philip’s cultural commentary on racism for over a quarter century, serving as a mirror for a society that must see blackness in order to realize the totality of itself and its potential.

Bla_K is instructive for those invested in black futures and self-fashioning as well as those invested in writing histories. Philip bequeaths a tenacity to the African diaspora in the Americas in the space left vacant in the book’s title, Bla_K (read blank). This neologism theoretically and linguistically insists on the multivalent pluralities of black futures. Writing from the frontier and in conversation with cultural critics such as Rinaldo Walcott, Philip personalizes Walcott’s theory of the absented presence of blackness in Canada through an exorcism in the folds of Bla_K that will no longer render her an “unembedded, disappeared” writer (13).6 Philip has filled in the blank, so to speak, by attending to systemic racism, black relationality, and black interiority, with haunting calls for restorative justice that are the hallmark of her long-standing contributions to black uplift. Bla_K gifts us a space to register black potentiality and fill the lacunae it historicizes with prescripts for redress.

 

 

Janice Anderson is a PhD candidate in the Department of Humanities at York University in Toronto. Her doctoral research, “Being Otherwise: Black Women’s Literary Interventions into Radical Being, Knowledge, and Power,” considers self-fashioning and world-making in black women’s intellectual traditions and literatures in the Americas.


1. M. NourbeSe Philip, Frontiers (Toronto: Mercury, 1992).

2. Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), xvi.

3. C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1989).

4. M. NourbeSe Philip and Setaey Adamu Boateng, Zong! (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008).

5. See Charlotte Henay, “Spirit Is Collaborative,” Culture and Pedagogical Inquiry 10, no. 2 (2018): 178–81; Canisia Lubrin, Voodoo Hypothesis (Toronto: Wolsak and Wynn, 2017).

6. See Rinaldo Walcott, Black like Who? Writing Black Canada (London: Insomniac, 2003).