God bless the Queen's majesty, Her sceptre and her throne, She looked on us with sympathy, And offered us a home. Far better breathe Canadian air, Where all are free and well, Than live in slavery's atmosphere And wear the chains of hell. Priscilla Stewart, 1858 I n the spring and summer of 1858, 600 black people from San Francisco emigrated to the colonies that would eventually become British Columbia. They were invited by the governor, James Douglas, the son of a Scottish planter in British Guiana, who was rumoured to have African ancestry. A few hearty souls formed a settlement on Saltspring Island, but most remained in Victoria. Within a few years, the new black pioneers formed a large and visible presence in the colonies, accounting for nearly one in 10 people there.
In the late 19th century, the black migration to British Columbia continued to trickle in from the United States, Britain, the Caribbean and Africa, as well as other parts of Canada. And for the first half of the 20th century, they formed a vibrant community called Hogan's Alley in the east end of Vancouver, where Jimi Hendrix's grandmother once lived.
Today, if you walked along the streets of Vancouver or Victoria, you would be hard-pressed to find one in 20 black faces. Where did they all go?
Wayde Compton, the Vancouver poet who has edited a new book, Bluesprint: An Anthology of Black British Columbian Literature and Orature, published by Arsenal Pulp Press, has been mulling these questions for many years -- ever since he was a kid, actually, growing up in the city's east end, not far from the former Hogan's Alley, and realized that there was barely a smattering of other kids like him at his school.
The black population of B.C. isn't that small, notes Compton, a soft-spoken, biracial 30-year-old. "But," he says "it's scattered."
According to figures from the Black Cultural Association of B.C., there are approximately 50,000 blacks in the province. "Whenever there is a community event, everyone will come out, and there will be a whole roomful of black people," he says. "You know they're here, but then they just disappear back to wherever."
Bluesprint, which is being released this week to celebrate Black History Month, offers a treasure-trove of historical photos, lost writings and rare transcribed recollections (including an interview with Nora Hendrix). A welcome collection for any black British Columbian who has ever felt culturally isolated, it's also a valuable historical reference work that attempts to trace a cultural lineage for a population that has always been in flux.
O James Douglas, Our own quadroon Moses, Should I place a violet on your grave Or hawk a little spit For your betraying ways? -- Wayde Compton, 49th Parallel Psalm, 1999 Compton was inspired to produce the book, which he did for his MA thesis at Simon Fraser University, while he was an undergraduate studying English and history. He had always strongly identified with his black heritage, but like many radical young students, he became politicized around issues of race only in his early 20s.
Devouring whatever black literature he could find, he soon discovered that the most easily accessible writers hailed from the U.S. or the Caribbean. And while he was able to track down a handful of black Canadian writers from Nova Scotia and Toronto, he couldn't help but wonder, "What about here?"
In fact, Compton couldn't find any writers from anywhere in Western Canada -- not a single one. So he began researching B.C.'s black history, and came across a book by Crawford Kilian, Go Do Some Great Things: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia.
That's when he first learned about the 600 original settlers from San Francisco who had been invited to British Columbia in 1858 by the enigmatic governor of the British colonies. Although he never confirmed nor denied the rumour, James Douglas, the son of a Scottish planter in British Guiana (now Guyana), was commonly believed to have had African ancestry.
"I was fascinated by him," recalls Compton, who later discovered that Douglas's grandmother had indeed been registered as a "free coloured woman" in British Guiana.
Douglas's journals, however, which are excerpted in the anthology, didn't reveal any clues.
"I spent long hours gazing at pictures of him," says Compton, "trying to see if people could see it."
That personal obsession inspired Compton's first book, 49th Parallel Psalm, a narrative collage of poetry, prose and typographical experiments that jump back and forth through three time periods: Compton says he was trying to reconcile and connect his own contemporary experiences to those of Douglas and Compton's father, who had arrived in Vancouver in the 1950s, and brought that era alive with his personal reminiscences.
"With both of these books, what I've been doing is trying to create the text I wish was there when I went to look for it," says Compton, noting that there really is no comprehensive history of the black experience in B.C.
In another conversation, my forger-friend asked rhetorically, "Who really cares if we know that there was a black poet writing in late-19th-century Vancouver/ Their work was probably shit anyway?" -- Peter Hudson, Natural Histories of Southwestern British Columbia, 1998 The lack of black identity in the province, Compton posits, can be traced to the San Francisco settlers. Seven years after they arrived, soon after the end of the American Civil War, nearly half returned to the United States. As a result, they felt an ambivalence to British Columbia that can be read in their poems, letters and newspaper commentaries.
It's a theme, says Compton, that has recurred in black B.C. writing ever since. The province never experienced another major mass migration of blacks, and the population has continued to wax and wane.
But Compton believes that survival of any group is bound up with "a literacy of the local." So he decided to collect in one volume the various writings he had dug out of the archives, and found scattered through other publications, and to create, as it were, a literary lineage.
Then he stumbled into a huge, empty hole.
Compton was able to draw on the pioneer period he had researched. And he was familiar with several younger published writers from his generation. But to his amazement, he couldn't readily find any literary works published by black writers in British Columbia from 1904 to 1969.
"Sixty-five years of publishing silence," Compton exclaims. "It was freaking me out through most of the project. This just wouldn't work if I couldn't find writers from that period."
Luckily, there were documentaries and oral histories he could draw on. Compton has included several interviews from the book Opening Doors: Vancouver's East End, edited by Daphne Marlatt and Carole Itter. Among them is one with Nora Hendrix, a former showgirl and one of the first Americans in the neighbourhood who had come "crow-flying" over the border to escape segregation laws in the United States, and lived there until she died in 1984.
Chinatown was just a real dull place then. It wasn't built up and lights all around like it is now. I used to go down there lots to buy different things, especially when I want to get some black-eyed peas. Oh yes, I used to go down there and trade, sure. But sometimes, some of the Chinese would look at you so funny, you feel kind of funny when they look at you. 'Course, I couldn't blame them for looking. That's what their eyes was for. -- Nora Hendrix, quoted in Opening Doors: Vancouver's East End, 1979 Hendrix's interview doesn't refer to her famous rock-star grandson, who was born, and raised by his father, in Seattle.
But Compton does recall hearing through his own family that Jimi did live with his grandmother for a brief time in Vancouver, and came back semi-regularly in the early sixties to jam with Tommy Chong and other musicians on the local scene.
The publishing vacuum was finally filled in 1969, when Christopher James published his first poetry chapbook, Rhapsody of the Satanic Dancers. Compton's anthology also includes self-published poems by Fred Booker, and an excerpt from the first black B.C. novel, by Truman Green, A Credit to Your Race. Green's is the story of a young porter's son who falls in love with the white girl next door. The novel details the frosty reception the young interracial couple receive when she becomes pregnant.
Compton found a reference to the self-published book, which had been turned down by Anansi Press, and tracked down one of only two publicly available copies in the library. Green, who still lives in Surrey, and Booker, will both be reading at Compton's book launch next week.
"These three writers, they were all writing about being black men isolated in Vancouver in the seventies," he explains. "Some of these writers in the seventies were writing about the gold-rush era. And even back then, they had this desire to link things up.
"Now, after 30 years, they'll finally find each other," adds Compton.
"You know, Dickie, there just ain't no way I can get out of it." "Why not, Bill?" " ' Cause I'm coloured." "Aw, come on. You just think everybody's picking on you. You ain't the only one who ever knocked somebody up, you know." "I'm not saying that. I mean -- it's not fair. If I was white, I'd just get of bunch of guys to say they mighta done it. But that baby's going to be a coloured guy. And I'm the only coloured guy in this part of Canada. Boy! Talk about discrimination." -- Truman Green, A Credit to Your Race, 1973 Compton can't fully explain the years of silence. The residents of Hogan's Alley weren't wealthy, he notes, but neither were the new pioneers.
Noting that most of the writers who broke out in the 1970s were self-published, he suggests that "the dearth of books in this interim may not have been due to a lack of writing, but rather unwillingness or disinterest on the part of professional presses to take on black writers."
Although we occasionally saw other black people in the city and would always smile and say hello, it was not until Bill's third year in medicine that we actually became acquainted with any members of the British Columbia black community. During a hospital rotation at the Vancouver General Hospital, Bill met a patient named Dolores Collins. He was so excited that he phoned me on his lunch break that day to tell me of this first meeting with a real live black Canadian in Vancouver. -- Rosemary Brown, Being Brown: A Very Public Life, 1989 Assembling the anthology, says Compton, has been a validating experience. "When I actually put the manuscript together . . . it really hit me," he says. "This theme about isolation comes up again and again. I was reading their letters and poems and thinking 'Hey, that's not just a weird thought I had. These are real issues, not just my personal neuroses.' "
Compton is glad he didn't leave Vancouver after university, as did many friends and young writers he knows. He watched them head off to Toronto or some place that had a large black community, "so they could finally have a normalized black experience and not have to worry about going to get a haircut and getting it all screwed up."
He may have stayed, says Compton, but he, too, has been looking for somewhere to feel at home.
"They're trying to find a place for themselves and hook up with established communities," he says. "I'm just trying to do the same thing here, through history."