Professor's prize-winning book offers new insights on black history and literature in Canada

Friday, February 24, 2017

When Winfried Siemerling begins his undergraduate courses in black Canadian Literature, he asks his students whether they’re aware that slavery is part of Canada’s history. Of twenty-five students, about five say yes.

Winfried Siemerling
Siemerling, a professor in Waterloo’s Department of English Language and Literature, isn’t surprised. Not many Canadians, he says, are aware of the depth and breadth of the black experience in Canada. He’s aiming to help change that with his most recent book, The Black Atlantic Reconsidered: Black Canadian Writing, Cultural History, and the Presence of the Past, which received rave endorsements from Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill and Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.. The book won a 2015 Gabrielle Roy Prize from the Association for Canadian and Quebec Literatures.

“Everybody has heard about the underground railroad. But not many know that there was slavery in New France, slavery in Toronto. That is less known,” says Siemerling. “And here in Kitchener-Waterloo, there were black settlers in the nineteenth century in the Queen’s Bush settlement just north of Waterloo. Very often students don’t know about that.”

Book examines slave testimony

book cover with title and abstract painting
The book collects and analyses a wide range of documents that trace the centuries-long history of black literary culture in Canada, from slave testimony in New France, to the Book of Negroes from 1783, to the testimonies of black pioneers—who were also roughing it in the bush—and writings of the 19th-century black Canadian journalist Mary Ann Shadd. These older documents provide a foundation for Siemerling’s examination of more contemporary Canadian black authors’ work—authors such as Wayde Compton, Lawrence Hill, Esi Edugyan, Lorena Gale, and former University of Waterloo student George Elliott Clarke— which often calls back to those roots: hence the “presence of the past” in his subtitle.

Siemerling worked hard to keep his book accessible. He pulled his manuscript from the major academic publisher Routledge because the book would have come out as a research series hardcover— “They told me it’s $80!”—destined for library shelves, not classrooms. So he declined, insisting “This is for students.” Instead, he negotiated with McGill-Queen’s to put out a paperback version.

Black Atlantic Reconsidered taught around the world

That move has paid off. His book has already inspired a seminar at the University of Ottawa. It’s proven popular in Europe, where the field of black Canadian Literature is even less well known—it’s been taught at the JFK Institute for North American Studies in Berlin, for example, and it’s on the Black Lives Matter Canadian syllabus. For further accessibility, Siemerling also created a detailed website with links to original sources and research aids.

And for the casual reader who wants to know more about black Canadian literature, Siemerling is brimming with recommendations. “Anything by Dionne Brand, of course, and Esi Edugyan’s lesser-known book, The Secret Life of Samuel Tyne; Wayde Compton should be read more, especially his book of essays, After Canaan, and his short story collection The Outer Harbour; and David Chariandy’s Soucouyant, he is a wonderful writer and we will hear much more from him.”

Story written by Heather Bean, University Relations.