George Elliott Clarke, OC ONS (born 12 February 1960) is a Canadian poet and playwright. His work largely explores and chronicles the experience and history of the Black Canadian communities of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, creating a cultural geography that Clarke refers to as “Africadia”.
Born to William and Geraldine Clarke in Three Mile Plains, Nova Scotia, Clarke has spent much of his career writing about the black communities of Nova Scotia. Clarke worked as a parliamentary assistant to Howard McCurdy, MP in Ottawa. He also taught for a time in the African-American Studies department at Duke University.
Clarke earned a B.A. honours degree in English from the University of Waterloo (1984), an M.A. degree in English from Dalhousie University (1989) and a Ph.D. degree in English from Queen’s University (1993). He has received honorary degrees from Dalhousie University (LL.D.), the University of New Brunswick (Litt.D.), the University of Alberta (Litt.D.), the University of Waterloo (Litt.D.), and most recently, Saint Mary’s University (Litt.D). He is currently an English professor at the University of Toronto.
Clarke is a sought-after conference speaker and is active in poetry circles. He is currently promoting his latest book, I & I (January 2009). It delves into layers of spiritual meanings involving a couple traveling from Halifax to Texas and encountering tragedies of racism and sexism.
He currently teaches at the University of Toronto.
Clarke was recognized for collecting and promoting stories of African writers and poets. Clarke lives in Toronto and began teaching Canadian and African diasporic literature in 1999 at University of Toronto where he is currently completing a second volume of essays on African-Canadian literature.
He views “Africadian” literature as “literal and liberal—I canonize songs and sonnets, histories and homilies.” Clarke has stated that he found further writing inspiration in the 1970s and his “individualist poetic scored with implicit social commentary” came from the ‘Gang of Seven’ intellectuals, “poet-politicos: jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, troubadour-bard Bob Dylan, libertine lyricist Irving Layton, guerrilla leader and poet Mao Zedong, reactionary modernist Ezra Pound, Black Power orator Malcolm X and the Right Honourable Pierre Elliott Trudeau.”Though flawed, Clarke found “as a whole, the group’s blunt talk, suave styles, acerbic independence, raunchy macho, feisty lyricism, singing heroic and a scarf-and-beret chivalry quite, well, liberating.”
Clarke’s literary emphasis is on the perspectives of the African descendents in Canada and Nova Scotia, focusing on the African American slaves’ descendents who settled in the East coast of Nova Scotia, whom he calls “Africadian.” He writes that it is a word that he “minted from “Africa” and “Acadia” (the old name for Nova Scotia and New Brunswick), to denote the Black populations of the Maritimes and especially of Nova Scotia”.
Clarke maintains that Africadians originated in 1783 and 1815, when Black Loyalists and refugees arrived in Nova Scotia.
Clarke continues to address and challenge the historic encounters with racism, segregated areas, discrimination, hatred, forced relocation and a loss of a sense of identity and a sense of belonging experienced by the Black descendents though they had settled in Canada for hundreds of years. Black immigrations to and within Canada have been compared to a biblical journey beginning with Lamentations and ending with Exodus.
Similarly, Clarke explores specific beliefs, longings and experience of oppression and resistance, the desire for safety, freedom, equality and other basic human rights, shared among the immigrants, historically and contemporaneously. In his anthology Fire On The Water Clarke uses biblical timeline, Genesis, Psalms and Proverbs and Revelation to present Black writings and authors born within a specific period. These names reflect the Africadians’ and other Black peoples’ forebears and the first singers’ own preferences for singing “the Lord’s song in this strange land.”
Clarke is known for his lyrical style, and his other intellectual contributions involve both his ability to combine literary criticism and theatrical forte and his continuance of the themes of cultural inclusiveness and Canadian iconic symbolism. In his 2007 play Trudeau: Long March, Shining Path, Clarke features his Liberal hero Trudeau (1919–2000) describing him as “the Shakespearean character: … He’s a figure about whom it is almost impossible to say anything definitive, because he is encompassed by so many contradictions but that’s what makes him interesting.” In presenting a multicultural Trudeau on the international stage, Clarke seeks to capture the human dimensions, the personality of Trudeau rather than his politics so as to emphasize the dialogues among key characters to “show the people as people not just exponents of ideas”.
Clarke is a great-nephew of the late Canadian opera singer Portia White, politician Bill White and labour union leader Jack White. Clarke is a seventh-generation African Canadian and is descended from African American refugees from the War of 1812 who escaped to the British and were relocated to Nova Scotia. Clarke is the great grandson of William Andrew White, an American born Baptist preacher and missionary, army chaplain, and radio pioneer, who was the only black officer in the British army worldwide during World War I.
Awards and Merits
Clarke has received several awards. The most recent (2009) was as co-recipient of the William P. Hubbard Award for Race Relations from the City of Toronto for his outstanding achievements and commitment in making a distinct difference in racial relations in Toronto. Clarke was cited for “his local and national leadership role in creating an understanding and awareness of African and black culture and excellence in his contribution to redefining culture.” He was a featured writer/instructor at the 2007 Maritime Writers’ Workshop & Literary Festival in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
On 16 January 2008 Clarke was made an honorary Fellow of the Haliburton Literary Society, the oldest literary society in North America, at the University of King’s College, Halifax. He was also inducted as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2008.
In 2001 Clarke won the Governor General’s Award for poetry for his book Execution Poems.
Clarke’s Whylah Falls was selected for the 2002 edition of Canada Reads, where it was championed by Nalo Hopkinson.