The Black Prairie Archives: An Anthology Edited by Karina Vernon Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2020
by Safia Siad
The Prairies are my home. The Prairies are not my home. I am from the Prairies. I am not from the Prairies. It has always been like this. Although I, a Black woman of varied origins, have spent a significant portion of my life living in Alberta, my relation to the Canadian Prairies has been complicated and fraught. The Black Prairie Archives: An Anthology, edited by Karina Vernon, was an illuminating, affirming, enraging, revelatory, exciting, and daunting read. Thoroughly dense, this 580-page anthology serves as a mere introduction to the myriad of Black lives in the Prairies. We are here. We have been here. We have histories here. We have futures here.
Through a comprehensive introduction, Vernon lays the groundwork for a “recovered [B]lack archive”; many of the pieces and excerpts were published for the first time in this anthology, an incredibly important detail underscoring the reality that the Canadian literary and publishing landscape historically has not made space for these voices. Vernon respects and brings attention to the specificity in handling Black oral histories and Black community building, emphasizing the care necessary not to replicate or reproduce colonial archival methods in preserving and sharing these stories. As she states, “A [B]lack archive is a network of social relations forged slowly and carefully, on the basis of trust.” This is not only an archive, but a living document of firsts.
Vernon’s introduction comes with the promise that “this is not the timeless, homogeneously unraced microcosm of the Canadian regional imaginary.” That pervasive and simply incorrect imaginary is precisely why taking in this anthology is like a cool refreshing drink of water, a shock to the system, life-giving and real. Vernon recalls thinking of herself and her family as anomalies in ’80s Alberta, rather than what they actually were, which were members of the third wave of Black migration to the Canadian Prairies from across the African diaspora. How many of us thought and felt that very same thing? Anomalies, exceptions, exceptional, the only ones, the very few.
Sharing the catalyst that began the whole editing process, Vernon recounts a chance encounter in the library stacks two months into her doctoral program with the English department at the University of Victoria. Drawn to a shelf containing writing on the region in Alberta where she had grown up, Vernon found a brief, matter-of-fact passing sentence written about a Black person in a travelogue from April 20, 1873, by William Francis Butler, proving that we have, in fact, been here all along: “one fine day a canoe came floating down the lonely river; it held a solitary negro—a pioneer, cook, trapper, vagrant, idler or squatter as chance suited him.” Having never seen anything like this in a historical document from that time myself, I can only imagine the weight of such a moment. “Reading this passage, I was stunned,” Vernon shares. “The image of a [B]lack paddler inside a canoe places [B]lackness inside the very icon of a particular kind of Canada, one that sentimentally links the nation to the wilderness and to the fantasy of white settler Indigeneity, but rarely, if ever, to [B]lackness.”
Vernon works “with an understanding of the prairies not as a natural geographic location, but as an ideological and ‘ideation space’” in which we exist, whole worlds fleshed out under expansive Prairie skies. In this anthology, we are introduced to 145 years of Black writing on the Prairies from 1872 to 2019 by Black settlers, migrants, and refugees. As I slowly take in their stories, I can’t help but think about how wildly different my formative years would have been if I had known that they existed, that all these people existed. I will forever be thinking about this gaping erasure.
Arranged chronologically by author birth date (where known), “The Repertoire” portion of the book includes the archival records and contributions of 61 Black Prairie dwellers across time. Throughout a multitude of verses, plays, and stories is the almost sci-fi feeling of belonging and unbelonging at once. Cheryl Foggo, journalist, screenwriter, poet, playwright, and writer, shares her memories growing up in Calgary, and has been lovingly unfolding, reframing, and sharing the story of legendary cowboy John Ware. In an excerpt from her recent play John Ware Reimagined (staged in 2014 and 2017), Foggo’s “representation of John’s quietude, his many hurts, and Toronto-born Mildred [Ware]’s homesickness for urban life looks beyond the stereotype of John as a Paul Bunyan-like giant and Mildred as dutiful wife.” In “sum of the parts that can be named,” multidisciplinary artist Deanna Bowen details her meticulous and patient research of personal family histories, marked by and intertwined with Canada’s violent anti-Black histories. With “Djinn in Saskatchewan,” writer Nehal El-Hadi connects over here to over there, Prairie dust to desert dust. There are offerings by Esi Edugyan, Lawrence Hill, Tchitala Nyota Kamba, Kaie Kellough, Bola Opaleke, Marika Warner, Claire Harris, Roland (Rollie) Pemberton (Cadence Weapon), Dawn Carter, Nduka Otiono, and Ahmed Ali, among many others. I believe that this anthology should be required reading for all who live across the Prairies and beyond. This book is a portal. An opening to the many more stories to be told from our past, our present, and our futures.