THIS IS THE first part of a two-volume anthology of Black Nova Scotian writing edited by the Nova Scotian poet and academic George Elliott Clarke, and it wears its heart on its sleeve. Fire on the Water is a much needed collection of spirituals, poetry, sermons, speeches, and oral and written histories. Its passion -both the passion of the collector and the collected - is difficult to ignore, and its righteousness is compelling. It is instructive, teaching those of us who know little or no Black Canadian history about the unique blend of suffering, dignity, faith, eloquence, and anger that ha's been an all too invisible thread in the broad weave of Canadian culture for generations.
For all that, Fire on the Water is not an altogether cogent collection, and Clarke's editorial hand is, at times, a little heavy. There are disappointments: the celebrated 1914 defence by a Black Nova Scotian lawyer of a man accused of murder turns out to be an abbreviated report of the trial that appeared in the Evening Mail, and not the eloquent and ingenious defence itself, some of the more modem poetry included, however heartfelt, is dreadful; a few of the spirituals - "Go Tell It on the Mountain," for instance - are so well known their inclusion seems unnecessary. Clarke's introduction, with its lengthy "Dedication," its "Confession" (dated in roman numerals), and its somewhat selfcongratulatory "Declaration," has the offputting zeal of an overly enthusiastic graduate student's essay. (This editor could have done, I think, with an editor.) Still, the context Clarke provides is informative and useful, and by the time a reader wades out of the shallows of the editor's prefaces and into the depths of the book itself, the effect of the pieces Clarke has chosen takes over. They have a pace and a dignity of their own - indeed, Clarke's introduction seems rather less precious when re-read after reading the anthology -and Clarke is to be commended for unearthing them.
And some of the selections that Clarke has drawn together are stunning. John William Robertson's mid- 19th-century recollection, for instance, of his decision to run away from a master in Virginia has a majestic poetry to it that stirs a reader's soul:
... but I knowed one thing that God has declared unto all men, I desire the righteousness which is of the law. The men which doeth those things shall live. I am now on my way to a land of liberty. Under divine Providence I proceeded to the sea side, and I saw the sky was darkened and clouded for rain, but I felt that heaven was shining in my heart, saying away, and I made up my mind.
Some of them are at once heartbreaking and infuriating, revealing to those of us who think of Canada as a fair and uncruel place how unfair and cruel it has been - and, no doubt, continues to be to its so-called visible minorities. "The Rejection of Black Volunteers," an essay by the historian Calvin Ruck, is a case in point. The irony of young Black men eager to show their patriotism and pride by volunteering for what would prove to be the slaughterhouse of the First World War, and being rejected by the pompous idiots who were masterminding it, is almost unbearable. One hardly knows whether to laugh at the good fortune that saved some of these young men from the fate of the Somme and Passchendaele, or whether to cry at the indignities they had to suffer:
On November 25, 1915, Lieutenant-Colonel George W. Fowler ... wrote to the Acting Adjutant-General... requesting approval to discharge the twenty Black soldiers, primarily on the basis of race. "I have been fortunate to secure a very fine class of recruits," he wrote, "and I did not think it fair to these men that they should have to mingle with Negroes."
The voices of contemporary Black Nova Scotians - "Africadians," as Clarke would have it - are drawn from a rich cultural heritage. This first volume of Fire on the Water may not be extraordinary literature, but it is an extraordinary glimpse into a culture that should be better known to Canadians than it is. Perhaps now, thanks to George Elliott Clarke, our short-sightedness is beginning to be corrected.