Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada
By Lawrence Hill HarperFlamingo Canada, 243 pages, $32
Race is just about the trickiest topic to write about with any measure of objectivity, and only brave men or fools should try. Anyone who wants to walk the minefield of race should invest in a thick skin with chameleon-like pigment. A wry sense of humour wouldn't go amiss, either. A keen eye for the absurd and the clinical detachment of a bomb-disposal expert are musts. Because the trouble with race is that there are black and white and a kaleidoscope of shades in between.
Lawrence Hill is probably better qualified than most to tackle the job. He has written extensively on race, both in fiction and non-fiction, interrogating and dissecting a subject that is essential and fundamental to a man who has spent his life trying to unravel the riddles of his mixed ancestry.
His latest work, Black Berry, Sweet Juice,is an inventory, an investigation of what it means to be both black and white in Canada. Although it is informed by Hill's personal struggle to come to terms with his dual identity, with a black father and a white mother, Black Berry, Sweet Juice attempts to "reach beyond" Hill's own world and include the "voices and observations of other people who had one black and one white parent." In the course of his investigations, Hill interviews a number of people of varying age, sex and sexual preferences, and claims at the outset that the process of finding those voices had a "profound effect on the way I have come to understand identity."
But if Black Berry, Sweet Juice was intended to be a journey through these voices toward this self-discovery, then it sells itself, and us, a little short. The stories and other voices wander in and out of the narrative, interrupting what turns out to be a riveting account of the Hill family. Lawrence Hill is an engaging storyteller, and his family's dramatic history is interesting enough to stand up as an eloquent testimony to the bitter ironies and cruel agonies of being both black and white in Canada.
Hill's father, Daniel Grafton Hill III, was a human-rights pioneer, the first chairman of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. He married Donna Mae Bender in 1953 and left race-obsessed Washington, D.C., for Toronto, as his son writes, to "forge a life on their own terms -- a life in which they would be free to be themselves and to be together."
Growing up as a child of an interracial couple in spartan, sterile Don Mills, Ont., in the 1960s was psychologically harrowing. Hill recalls that he "never felt any sense of belonging in Don Mills . . . no sense of community. . . . Because I looked so different from everyone else, I feared I was terribly ugly. . . . None of the people I admired, respected, or found attractive looked the least bit like me."
Anyone who has grown up as an outsider or foreigner will identify with those words. Some are crippled by it and others strive to rise above their circumstances. Whatever it was, the Hill genetic makeup or the need to escape, the creative muse took flight in the Hill children. Dan Hill, the eldest, ran away to Los Angeles, where he became an accomplished, chart-topping musician, while Lawrence Hill has built a reputation as a respected writer and thinker on race.
Hill recounts his racial awakening. He read The Autobiography of Malcolm X at 15, encountering Malcolm X's assertion that the white woman was the devil. He became aware that "not every black person in the world would look with benevolence upon the union of my mother and father." Eldridge Cleaver's visceral Soul on Ice (in which Cleaver admits, or claims, that he had deliberately raped white women as an act of ethnic vengeance) had a profound, "disturbing" effect on the teenaged Hill, and the memories of the "anger and accusation" never let go, prompting him to revisit the "age-old, emotionally charged issue of black men loving white women."
Although he promises the reader to "start by looking at my own family and at myself," Hill only makes good on one half of the promise. We get an insight into the history of interracial marriages through Hill's ancestors, but he stops short of taking us into his own psyche and describing how he has fared on that score. His reticence is understandable, given that he has children and, I assume from the text, an ex-wife. The problem, as I think Henry Green once said, is how to be frank without being indiscreet. Race is an unforgiving topic and strong opinions are not for the faint of heart.
Hill neatly sidesteps the problem, zeroing in on the very public custody battle between Theodore "Blue" Edwards and Kimberly Van de Perre, instead. Edwards, you might recall, was the former Vancouver Grizzly basketball player whose affair with a white, frequently unemployed groupie produced the son at the heart of the custody battle in British Columbia. In an excellent and devastating piece of reportage, Hill unravels the scandal, lays out the moral and legal arguments of the case, teasing it out into a polemic and a searing indictment of race relations in Canada.
"In this country," Hill fumes, "racism is like a fleet-footed bedbug that runs for cover under a sweet-smelling duvet stuffed with politeness and tolerance for multiculturalism." If that sounds harsh, then you only have to read Hill's account of the legal wheretofores of the custody case to appreciate where he is coming from.
But, as Hill swiftly adds, he is not one to point the finger of blame, merely asserting that "the best way to deal with problems is to focus on solutions, but first you have to name the problem."
The arguments in the custody case came down to a debate about how a mixed-race child is perceived in Canada: Is he black or white? Hill is merciless in targetting the ignorance of the media and the legal experts marshalled by both sides to ascertain the boy's race. After trawling through the sordid history and indicting the pseudosciences of racial classification, Hill emerges with a familiar conclusion: "Race, my friends, is a social construct. Our obsession with mulattos, quadroons, and octoroons has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with society."
Black Berry, Sweet Juice is a short book full of pointed, poignant and powerful observation that left me exhausted. It jolts you out of any smug apathy you may want to feel about race in Canada, and reminds us that W. E. B. Du Bois's statement that race would be the defining issue of the 20th century remains pertinent in the 21st century. Ken Wiwa is a father of mixed-race children. He recently published his memoir In the Shadow of a Saint .