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If the pen is mightier than the sword, then the reception of some of Canada’s most esteemed Black writers is surely influential. On Feb. 26, the National Reading Campaign hosted an evening of performances, readings and panel discussions in celebration of Black literary achievement.

The event, held at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, was arranged in partnership with TD Bank to help proliferate Black Canadian literature in the lives of every citizen. ‘Black Works Matter: Celebrating Black Literary Achievement’ was also done in parallel in Ottawa at the National Gallery of Canada earlier in the week.

Considering the Art Gallery as its venue, the event’s artistic vision did not fall short, with a special spoken word performance by Faduma Mohamed of RISE Poetry and a live painting by Camille Lauren.

Black Words Matter also featured a number of distinguished African Canadian writers who shared excerpts from their works and engaged in a dynamic discussion with the audience. The panelists included a diverse range of writers such as Canada’s Poet Laureate George Elliot Clarke, internationally renowned poet Lillian Allen, novelist and children’s author Pamela Mordecai and award-winning playwright Djanet Sears.

George Elliot Clarke spoke up regarding the frustrations of Black Canadians being underrepresented in literature. “Growing up, I didn’t really see myself reflected in literature until I read African-American poetry. African-American poetry was about police harassment, poverty, racism, all things I recognized in Halifax. It was bizarre connecting to African-American literature in Halifax and not connecting as much to Canadian Literature, so that told me that I needed to have Black Canadian Literature.”

To help fulfill this niche, Clarke went on to writing numerous works in poetry and plays to narrate his experiences as a Black Canadian, such as his Execution Poems (2001), Beatrice Chancy (2009) and Black (2006).

“What really made me recognize myself as a writer,” noted Clark, “was reading about other Black people, reading books by Black authors, books with Black characters and relating this to myself.”

Despite the heightened emphasis on literary achievement for the evening, Clarke makes the careful distinction between awards and literary merit. “There doesn’t have to be an easy one-to-one correlation between talent, creativity and the winning of awards. We are in a market that is fueled in part by popularity and prizes which may be richly deserved. At the same time, writers cannot write merely for prizes, writers write for readers and for the joy of expressing ourselves,” he said.

Bridging the topic of reading to the McMaster student body, Clark is supportive of the role that post-secondary education plays in fostering a critical perspective on society. “Because it is only with [education], that the citizens at large can be empowered to make positive decisions about the direction they want to take their society in.”

“I would like to reinforce the idea that reading is a democratic duty of citizens, and on top of all that, it is a very radical act. It is a link to the material, a link to the author. It connects the authors to our own souls, our own body — very richly, deeply and organically.”

Photo Credit: Karim Bassiri/ Photo Contributor

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