bluesprint-black british columbian literature and orature- ed. wayde compton

“As a person of mixed black and white ancestry who grew up in B.C., I, like many others, grew up knowing more about black culture from elsewhere than I did about the black cultural legacy of my own province. The powerful and widely disseminated black cultural products of the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa are imports that every Canadian is at least passingly familiar with, and black Canadians like myself often draw first inspiration from these cultures, which are also sometimes the source cultures of our immigrant families. In high school, I knew about Public Enemy and Bob Marley long before I’d heard a single word about Sylvia Stark or Mifflin Gibbs. But eventually the realization that my experience and the experiences of my friends and family were not exactly represented by the images imported from afar began to take hold. I began to pay close attention to African-Canadian history and literature, first discovering writers such as George Elliot Clarke from Nova Scotia and Dionne Brand from Ontario. Spiraling still closer to the local, I desired to know about how other writers like myself had responded to this place specifically-these cities, mountains, islands, and streets.

I hope the gathering of these writers, and the tracing of a sort of phantom lineage-a succession of black B.C. writers who did not necessarily know they had ancestors or would have descendants, but which I regard as a lineage nonetheless-will create a long overdue conference of sorts; that the pioneer writers, the orators of Hogan’s Alley, and the writers of the seventies and later will all sit side-by-side within these pages, meeting and speaking to each other at last. Another reason for this project is to “rescue,” so to speak, some of the texts herein, meaning, at the very least, to bring them into the public consciousness, and into the Canadian and African-Canadian literary canons.” (14)

“After the victory of the North in the American Civil War-or, more correctly, after the defeat of the South, and of slavery-more than half the blacks in B.C. returned to the United States. Suffrage had not been granted as easily as was as was promised them, and their efforts to prove themselves loyal had been routinely rebuffed; these facts, together with the hope that the abolition of slavery in the U.S. would signal an age of greater racial equality, made repatriation attractive. The desire to reunite with extended families, and the solace of lie in larger and more established black communities, also motivated their return. So, the first black population of B.C. had dwindled to fewer than 500 people according to the 1871 census, just six years after the end of the American Civil War (Kilian 147).

In the late nineteenth century and on into the twentieth, blacks continued to come to B.C. from the United States, Britain, the Carribbean, Africa, and other parts of Canada. The blacks who came here in the early-to-mid-twentieth century seem to have arrived as individuals from their respective homelands rather than part of larger exoduses, but have at least formed a community here at one historical point. For a time, the East Vancouver neighborhood of Strathcona-east of Main Street, and between Hastings Street and Terminal Avenue-contained “Hogan’s Alley,” an inner city black neighborhood which lasted from the 1910s until the 1960s. The orgins of the community might be explained by the location of the train station at Main and Terminal, many of the black arrivants to Vancouver being porters who worked the railways across Canada; when stopping over in Vancouver, they found themselves in Strathcona, and a number of them made it their home. Civic rezoning together with a gradual defrosting of Vancouver’s unofficial but notoriouslyde factosegregation resulted in many blacks who had lived in Strathcona moving to various neighborhoods of the Lower Mainland by the mind-1960s. Since the decline of the community in Strathcona, Vancouver has never had another centralized black community-a wholly unusual thing for a North American city of its size. Perhaps it can be said that the disbanding of Hogan’s Alley as a black locus in Vancouver mimicked the dissolution of the pioneer community of the nineteenth century, except that these blacks drifted to other neighborhoods within the Lower Mainland, and continue to come together for cultural and familial events, but live with neither a commercial nor residential centre.” (19)

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