C Magazine


Issue 135

On Walcott’s Black Like Who?
by Katherine McKittrick and Rinaldo Walcott

Katherine McKittrick and Rinaldo Walcott re-visit Black Like Who? (1997), Walcott’s seminal examination of Black culture in Canada, at a time when it continues to resonate loudly.

This issue of C Magazine focuses on voice, so I would like to begin there. As you know, the question of voice is central to Black Studies and practices of liberation: the longstanding histories of racial capitalism and racial violence have generated different kinds and types of Black voice; the question of being unheard or illegible is underpinned by different modes of speakability. In Black Like Who?, you analyze a range of Black voice – enunciated through film, poetry, fiction and more. In many ways, the book theoretically voices Black Canada. Can you talk about your work in relation to Black voice, Black voices and what Toni Morrison calls “unspeakable things unspoken”?1

In Black Like Who?, I was attempting to demonstrate what a Black Canadian voice might bring to the table of diaspora. In the 1990s, the diaspora conversation in Black Studies moved between the USA and Britain, and occasionally a nod to the Caribbean or some other place would occur. I was interested in exploring what would happen to diaspora discourse and claims when the unique Black Canadian voice intervened into it.

Do you think quietness, or the unsaid, is relevant to this intervention?

Black Like Who? needed to be loud. To be, even at times, wrong – so that it could penetrate circuits of empire. Nonetheless being loud does not mean that you will necessarily get heard. Some folks in Black Studies are discovering Black Canada now, as if we are “new” here. What I was trying to do was reveal a little of our connections. And, more boldly, I was suggesting that there is no such thing as a Black world without coming through us. You can’t be quiet about that when both Canada and others would mildly ignore you and more viciously deny you. You have to kick, shout and scream. Black Like Who? is my Black Canadian scream!

Screaming is a breach of sorts, I think. It is a refusal of respectable talk – a kind of shouting of the possibilities underpinning un-belonging. A Black Canadian scream is disquieting precisely because black in/and Canada is here in such impossible ways. To think about Black Like Who? as a scream maps this! Thank you for that. This speaks – loudly! – to what you term “grammar for black.”2 Grammar points to sentence structure, language rules – syntax and all of that. The authors you engage in Black Like Who? – I am thinking specifically of M. NourbeSe Philip, given her wonderful work on “languish,” but most of the other folks you discuss, too – are interested in the overlapping workings of colonial knowledge systems and the ways Black diasporic communities navigate these systems. How are you thinking “grammar” – in relation to colonialism, anticolonialism, diaspora, whatever? Can you talk about grammar in relation to Queer Returns, too?

I was first inspired to use the idea of grammar from Gayatri Spivak.3 I think grammars are really important. I think grammars drag history with them but also orient us to the world. I think grammars are central to voice, too. For me, grammars are how we imagine the world: the kind of structure we want to give it, a kind of flow we want to have. That is, grammars are ethical for me. Grammars function to help us imagine what is possible – and that includes the fullness of Black life, including queer and trans people. Queer Returns functions as a grammar of memory, a return to debates not yet resolved, so that we might use our histories more effectively in these newly brutal times.

As you know, one of the things I love about Black Like Who? is your deep and very nuanced engagement with Jamaican intellectual and essayist Sylvia Wynter. Can you talk a bit about her influence on your work? And to keep with the theme of voice, maybe you can share a bit about Wynter’s voice! You and I interviewed her in 2007, and when I think back on the time the three of us spent together, I hear her generous brilliance, the sound of redoubled urgency as thought. For me, the sound of her voice brings a different kind of joy than her written words. We can think of David Scott’s recent book Stuart Hall’s Voice.4 I saw him give a paper from that book at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York a few years ago, and he talked about Hall’s voice as intellectual style, with an emphasis on intellectual praxis. So, the voice is the project. Of course, Wynter and Hall are two very, very different thinkers, but I like the possibilities Scott offers in his discussion. What does it mean, for you, to hear Wynter’s voice?

Both Sylvia Wynter and Stuart Hall have and had some of the most beautiful speaking voices I have ever heard. Their tones, measures and pitches are just extraordinary. I had been reading Wynter since my undergraduate education at York University in the ’80s and Hall in my graduate education in the 1990s. I did not realizehow much impact Wynter’s work had on me until my first job at York University. All of a sudden, I found her work necessary for framing my attempt to teach across national boundaries about Black life. I did not realize the ways in which her ideas influenced Black Like Who? until you pointed it out to me. Wynter’s voice is utterly unique and challenging; you live with her for a long time, internalizing her and then repeating and living her without even knowing that is what you have done. In essence, once you engage Wynter, you always return to her in some fashion. Her voice inhabits yours.