Nations and Nègres: An Interview with David Austin

Incendiary: Marie-Joseph Angelique © 2012 Kit Lang.

THE PUBLIC ARCHIVE. Educator and writer David Austin is among the foremost chroniclers of Pan-Africanism, Black Power, and West Indian intellectual and political history in the Americas. He has three books to his name: A View for Freedom, an oral history of the late St. Vincents-born, Montreal-based cricketer and organizer Alphonso Theodore “Alfie” Roberts, You Don’t Play with Revolution, an edited collection of CLR James’ Montreal lectures and talks, and Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Security in 1960s Montreal. The winner of the 2014 Casa de las Americas Prize in Caribbean Literature in English or Creole, Fear of a Black Nation was recently translated into Spanish as Miedo a una nación negra: Raza, sexo y seguridad en el Montreal de los años sesenta and into French as Nègres noirs, Nègres blancs: Race, sexe et politique dans les années 1960 à Montréal.

Fear of a Black Nation is a book of burning relevance to our times. Its analysis of surveillance, sex, and the security state, on one hand, and race, revolution, and repression on the other, provides a historical perspective on modern-day, state-sponsored regimes of anti-Black terrorism and crypto-fascist intelligence gathering — from carding to Bill C-51 and from stop and frisk to the NSA. Austin does not stop there, however. He also documents the transnational and cross-racial Black-led political and literary movements of the 1960s and unearths the fervent connections between Quebec and the Caribbean and Montreal and the Black world. An extended interview with Austin titled “Research, Repression and Revolution: On Montreal and the Black Radical Tradition” was recently published in the CLR James Journal. Here, The Public Archive happily offers the unpublished outtakes of that interview – including Austin’s thoughts on CLR and Selma James, on Blackness and the politics of nationalism in Quebec, and on the connections between Montreal, Haiti, and the greater Caribbean.

It has been noted that CLR James wrote almost nothing on Haiti’s political world post-1804. Following this, I’m wondering if you could say something about the relationship of the Anglophone Black World to Haiti and Haitians in Montreal during the late 1960s. In Fear of a Black Nation, you briefly mention individuals such as Elder Thébaud and Philippe Fils-Aimé, but was there a connection between West Indians in Montreal and anti-Duvalier Marxists?

This raises some interesting issues. First, although the book was released in the late spring of 2013, if I had a chance to do it over, and with more time, I would have benefitted from more recent work on the Haitian left in Montreal and would have had more to say about Montreal as an important home of Haitian intellectuals and political figures, many of whom worked alongside Anglophone Caribbeans. There is, for example, historian Sean Mills’ impeccably researched work in the Canadian Historical Review on the Haitian deportation crisis, and his forthcoming book examines the presence of Haitian political and literary figures in the Quebec. What I did in a very limited way is touch on the links between members of the Haitian and Anglo Caribbean and Black left by alluding to individuals such as Max Chancy, Elder Thébaud, and Philippe Fils-Aimé, but this is far from sufficient. They all worked closely with people from the Anglophone Caribbean in Montreal. I wish I had known more about the Chancy family. As Désiree Rochat has researched, Adeline Chancy was very active within the Haitian left (see Rochat’s La vie caribéenne au Québec: L’histoire des années 60, 70 et 80 en photos/ Caribbean life in Quebec: A pictorial history of the 60s, 70s and 80s, published by CIDIHCA). Chancy played a major role in establishing institutions that served the Haitian community, including La Maison d’Haiti, when Haitians were migrating to the city in large numbers in the sixties and seventies. She was one of a number of Haitian women who were active in Haitian community politics, and she also assisted James in preparing the presentation that he delivered during the Congress of Black Writers on Negritude. Max Chancy was a well-known Haitian Marxist who also fled the Duvalier regime in Haiti and made a home in Montreal where he continued to be politically active as a Haitian exile while teaching. He and Adeline were part of a tradition of the Haitian left, a long intellectual tradition of thinkers, writers and organizers that also left a mark on Quebec society through their intellectual-political and cultural presence, and as educators and builders of institutions.

At the risk of romanticizing the past, which is always a danger, it has become apparent that there was a lot more integration in the 1960s and 1970s between the Caribbean communities, but that this has changed quite dramatically in more recent times. This may have something to do with Quebec politics, which has become largely divided along linguistic lines (English and French); and as a result of the human geography of the city in which Francophones largely live in the east and north of the island and Anglophones largely in the west and south. Language, culture, and one’s sense of community – including what media a person accesses – largely determine which Quebec and Montreal we experience. There are middle grounds where cultural and linguistic groups meet, and today the definition of who is an Anglophone and Francophone is shifting, as is the definition of what it means to be a Quebecer. For example, I teach in a English college in Quebec, but many of my students are Francophones and I often have Indigenous students in my classes, alongside people of African, Caribbean, Asian, and Middle Eastern descent, all of which makes for interesting conversations at times about memory, history, and national identity.

Continuing on this theme, one of the striking features of Fear of a Black Nation is your mapping of the connections between Antillean, African-American, French Canadian, and Anglophone Caribbean literary and political movements. It recalls the evocation of what Brent Hayes Edwards has termed the “practice of diaspora” yet while Edwards focuses on the discursive lags occurring during cross-Atlantic acts of translation and interpretation, you present something altogether more dynamic and eminently more political. Can talk about the challenges and difficulties you faced in writing across the Anglophone-Francophone divide? And can you say something on the role of Aimé Césaire and other French West Indian writers within the French Canadian literary and political imagination?

I think Brent Edwards notion of diaspora as a practice represents an important step in thinking about diaspora in a more dynamic way, and allows us to think about this practice and its politics in different contexts. This said, the Quebec context is unique in that not only were Caribbean women and men reading the three Martiniquan theorists you mention, but so too were French Quebecers. Quebec is such an interesting province. In addition to Indigenous peoples in the territory, it consists of migrants: the French who colonized and displaced Indigenous peoples and forced them onto reserves and residential schools, and the English who later colonized the French. The French majority is now the dominant power, but following the conquest of 1760, the British assumed power in the province and its French majority became a kind of “lost tribe” of France and treated like an inferior minority by the English in Quebec. The period of the “Quiet Revolution” in the 1960s, which in so many respects was everything but quiet, began a process of making French Quebecers master “chez nous” as they put it, in their own homes. As a result, over time the English minority that once dominated Quebec economically and politically have become a lost English tribe among the Quebec majority, a tribe that often harkens back to the good old days like in Gone with the Wind. But French Quebecers, or at least many among the power-elite, still project a fear English Canada’s political and cultural domination. In the meantime, Montreal Anglophone’s Black community has become a lost tribe too in relation to Blacks in the rest of Canada, though it is true that Francophone Blacks (and these categories can be quite fluid) do not fair much better in Quebec. All of this, plus the contrived fear of the cultural and religious values and practices of growing numbers of people of Asian and Middle Eastern descent embodied in the Quebec Charter of Values that is being promoted by the Parti Québécois government – all of this has made for a very peculiar, tense, and volatile situation within the current context of Quebec nationalism.

Quebec nationalism has become increasingly parochial and exclusive. Today official nationalism has assumed xenophobic forms in which the presence and authenticity of non-French Quebecers is constantly being called into question. This is not simply a linguistic issue in terms of preserving the French language in Quebec in relation to English Canada, or about preserving French Quebec culture. These are important considerations, but it is obvious that, as the French Quebec population continues to decrease in relation to the rest of the population, there is a fear, especially in Montreal, that it will both be outnumbered and be absorbed or racially mixed out of existence. In other words, Quebec nationalism also operates on the level of biology and biopolitics.

The late Hubert Aquin is arguably Quebec’s most important writer, and he was very influenced by African independence movements and was involved in the production of several films on the subject in the 1960s. But in addition to African struggles, Aimé Césaire along with Édouard Glissant and Frantz Fanon played a very important role in Quebec in the sixties and seventies. This role has essentially been forgotten or omitted, and is very instructive in terms of understanding the selective nature of Quebec’s recent nationalist history. French Quebecers read these thinkers in the fifties and sixties in French before their writing was widely available in English in North America. Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to My Native Land [pdf] was profoundly important to some of French Quebec’s most important writers and poets such as Gerald Godin, Paul Chamberlain, Andrée Ferretti, Yves Préfontaine, and Pierre Vallières. Vallières authored the famous book Nègres blancs d’Amerique (The White Niggers of America), a book that was very much influenced by Fanon’s writing on decolonization and race. Like other members of the Quebec Liberation Front (FLQ), the leading nationalist organization of the sixties, he was also profoundly shaped by the Black Power movement in the U.S. and anti-colonial struggles in Africa and other parts of the world. Part of Fanon’s appeal as Quebec attempted to free itself from control of the English elite and the Catholic Church in the province was his critical analysis of nationalist leaders and how they betray the majority of the population once they assume power. The FLQ was also attracted to Fanon’s analysis of violence and they carried out a series of bomb attacks and kidnappings of a British diplomat, James Cross, and a Quebec Liberal politician, Pierre Laporte (Laporte was eventually killed in their custody). I would suggest that the FLQ misread Fanon’s analysis of violence as, although Fanon does not disavow it as part of anti-colonial struggle, he also discusses how colonial conditions make forms of violence, including fratricide, inevitable as colonialism itself is a violent process.

Glissant’s influence in Quebec was different because he actually had a physical presence in Montreal and was a close friend of Gaston Miron, one of French Quebec’s most important poets and literary figures. Miron was a Quebec nationalist and Glissant engaged Miron and other French Quebec Writers in discussions about the use Joual, French Quebecers version of Creole, in literature, comparing it to the use of Creole in literary circles in Martinique, both languages having roots in rural regions. Glissant understood French Quebecers as an oppressed group, but was fully aware of the conditions of Indigenous peoples in Quebec who had been colonized by the French and British and stopped short of referring to the French in Quebec as a colonized people. When we add this to the fact that Quebec nationalism was also very much influenced by anti-colonial movements in Africa and other parts of the world, along with the Black Power movement in the U.S., it is obvious that there clearly needs to be a new narrative about the history of Quebec and Quebec nationalism. French Quebecers came to see themselves as nègres blancs, or the white niggers of America. But this raises the question of the invisibility of actual nègres in Quebec at this time, at least prior to the Congress of Black Writers and the Sir George Williams protest.

During your interview with Selma James at her home in London in 2004 you discovered you were the first person to interview her about C.L.R. What came out of the interview in terms of her personal reminisces of James, about their relationship? And given Selma James’ commitment to the wages for housework campaign, did she speak of CLR’s relationship to feminist organizing and the politics of gender?

I think that it is a shame that she has not been interviewed more, or at least that was true at the time. I know that there is a tendency to write without conducting interviews with individuals but in this case, this tendency also has something to do with gender and race. Selma James is a woman, and is white and she perhaps does not fit with the perception of James the autonomous Caribbean, Black, Marxist intellectual. We know that James was a brilliant theorist with extraordinary intellectual gifts. But it is also true that he had collaborators, and his chief collaborators in the U.S. during what was in some respects his most fertile intellectual period were women, including Grace Lee Boggs and Raya Dunayevskaya with whom he was in constant dialogue. As James’s wife, Selma James is seen as less of a collaborator. This, coupled with her no-nonsense political outlook, have perhaps made potential interviewers leery, but to the detriment of understanding her, her work, and James’s historical legacy. Selma James was very important to C.L.R. James in terms of encouraging him to think seriously about gender and power relations between women and men. As much as she was devoted to C.L.R.’s ideas, her work and ideas also informed his and she is obviously an important thinker in her own right. Walter Rodney understood this and in Walter Rodney Speaks he made a point of discussing her importance to the London study group in the James home in the early sixties.

It is worth noting that Selma James’s work played a role in Canada, collaborating with former CLR James Study Circle (CLRJSC) member Anne Cools who had become quite close to C.L.R. James and who had helped to raise funds for her legal fees after she was arrested for her role in the Sir George Williams protest. Cools was essentially the only women who played an active intellectual-political role in the small CLRJSC group. She later became an important feminist in Montreal, collaborating with French Quebec feminists and women across Canada. She is also said to have established the first or one of the first women’s shelters in Canada. Anne Cools did not write much and has been largely written out of Canada’s feminist history, in part because she became quite conservative. But you cannot un-write history. In a short article, “Womanhood,” (published in the February 1971 “Black Spark Edition” of the McGill Free Press) she discussed the unequal relationship between Black women and Black men and argued that there could be no genuine liberation without addressing this issue. I think this essay is a critique of her male peers in the Caribbean Conference Committee and the CLRJSC, of Black and Caribbean politics in Montreal in general.

Within the parameters of what I was writing about in Fear of a Black Nation, I tried to very consciously address the gender imbalance in my own writing and to seriously think about the roles that women played in that historical moment (1960s and 1970s); how both women and men understood their roles and the roles of the opposite genders; and without dismissing the reality that gender and sexuality exist on spectrums or represent gradations of being as opposed to fixed anatomical or sexual categories. Several theorists were very helpful as I worked through this. The work of Carol Boyce Davies, especially Black Women, Writing, and Identity: Migrations of the Subject, was helpful in terms of thinking about the relationship between feminism, gender, and black identity. So too was the work of Audre Lorde; and Angela Davis’s book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billy Holiday, which framed these singers as important women’s voices, feminists in their own right, but without the title. The work of Saba Mahmood was very helpful, especially her book The Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject which argues that women are able to exercise degrees of agency and autonomy despite male dominance within Islam in Egypt. All of these theorist, including Natasha Barnes, Belinda Edmondson and Patricia Hill Collins, whose Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and Politics I had read as a university undergraduate. I also have to add Afua Cooper’s The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal and Katherine McKittrick’s Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. These books and authors were important, not only in terms of attempting to understand male dominance and how women have been historically been pushed into the background of social movements, but also why, for example, women who played active political roles in movements or groups often minimized their involvement when I interviewed them, deferring to the roles that men had played in the movement. I was also very fortunate to have a loose circle of friends and colleagues in Montreal who were also thinking about these questions and with whom I could discuss these ideas. I don’t think we can overestimate the importance of that kind of discussion.

Over the years, you have become close to the economist and former New World Group member Kari Polyani-Levitt. What is the nature of the influence that she has had on you, personally, and how would you assess the legacy of Silent Surrender: The Multinational Corporation in Canada in Canada?

I have known Kari for nine or ten years now but have known of her for much longer. Her name would come up in conversations about the Caribbean left and Caribbean thought in Montreal and economic policies in the Caribbean in the sixties and seventies, and in relation to Lloyd Best and other Caribbean economists that lived or sojourned in Montreal during that period and with whom she collaborated. I sought her out in relation to her work on the Caribbean and her involvement in the New World Group. In fact the essay that developed into the book Silent Surrender was first published in the New World journal. Lessons from the book have definitely been lost or ignored by economic policymakers in Canada. Silent Surrender argued that Canada was essentially capitulating to U.S. economic interests and that this practice would have dire consequences for Canadian autonomy. This was written long before Free Trade and today Canada’s economy is more embedded than ever with the U.S.’s which now relies on Canada’s oil reserves in the Tar Sands of Alberta, as an example, for much of its oil, and the oil is extracted using the hazardous fracking or hydraulic fracturing method that is threatening water supplies and the general natural environment.

Kari’s reflections on the Caribbean and Canada in the sixties and seventies have been helpful for me in terms of understanding that moment in Montreal and in relation to the Caribbean where she spent a good portion of academic and professional life. After a while, we began talking about other issues, including her father, theorist Karl Polanyi, and economics. Kari serves as a constant reminder of the importance of economic questions and her most recent book, a collection of essay entitled From the Great Transformation to the Great Financialization: On Karl Polanyi and Other Essays, is very helpful in terms of understanding the historical context that has brought us to the current juncture in global economics and neoliberalism. So much of what is written today in the social sciences speaks about social phenomena as if it is divorced from economics. Slavery and the transatlantic slave trade become about race in-and-of-itself, ignoring the fact that the slave trade was part of an economic system for which Black labor assumed a central role. This is why today there is so much difficulty accepting that Black labor and Black laborers do not simply produce surplus labor, but in the post-plantation and post-plant era, have become surplus laborers in many respects, many of whom live behind prison bars or are tied up in the judicial system because the labor force cannot absorb them and because, as the Civil Rights and Black Power demonstrated in the 1960s and 1970s, they represent a potentially transformative force and catalyst. This represents a modern crisis, but not a new one, and it is part of the afterlife of slavery in the Americas, Du Bois’ unresolved problem of what to do with manumitted Black labor whose physicality is sometimes desirable, but whose overall presence by-and-large is seen as an unwelcome threat. This is not without contradiction as Black popular culture is embedded in the culture of the Americas; but even then, the writing is perhaps on the wall in terms of White surrogates whose emulation of Black popular culture demonstrates that the Black reign in this domain potentially has an expiry date.

For you what is most relevant in James’ writing and thought for understanding the situation of Blacks in contemporary Canada?

“Allow me to say once that this recognition of my work and of all of it by a group of West Indians centred in Canada seems to me to have political implications of far more than a merely national significance.” ~C.L.R. James to Robert Hill, December 31, 1965.

That’s a hard one. From the quote, James obviously had some sense that interest in his work in Canada was significant, but he doesn’t elaborate. I think James’s belief in the underclass and the ability for ordinary people to organize themselves for change as shapers of history is important. This is what happened in Canada in the 1960s, but I mention Montreal in particular because James was connected to people that were involved in both the Congress of Black Writers and the Sir George Williams protest as a result of his sojourn in Canada in 1966-1967. Rinaldo Walcott has written an insightful unpublished paper, “Within the ‘archipelagos of poverty’: CLR James, Sylvia Wynter and ‘wasted lives,’” in which he applies Sylvia Wynter and James’s work to the Canadian context. He draws on a 1971 statement by James about the indelible presence of Blacks in England, a country whose fate is tied to that of a growing Black population that refuses to accept second-class status. Rinaldo then suggests that James’s remarks can be applied to Blacks in Canada. James thought about Caribbean people as a new people – I am trying to avoid the word modern and the implications of the word modernity – who, shorn of certain cultural-historical “baggage,” engendered the possibility of creating a new Caribbean society. But I think we can say that of the Black diaspora in general and this notion of the Black “modern” is akin to what Richard Iton suggests about the political implications of diaspora precisely because of its essential homelessness in In Search of the Black Fantastic. Blacks in Canada live in a kind of liminal space in which, despite an over three hundred-year presence in this country, are yet to be acknowledged as full citizens. But, as Iton and Walcott’s more recent work suggests, and James’s work implies, we need to think beyond conventional notions of citizenship entitlements and inclusion and towards how our experience can be channeled in ways that encourage us to work toward creatively recreating society, refashioning it through our own self-activity in ways that radically transform its current destructive social and environmental course, and with a vision that extends beyond nation states. This is part of what the diaspora’s history tells us – that our struggles have often been at the forefront of human struggles for emancipation, or at least cast light on human possibilities, even though this is rarely acknowledged.

*It should be noted that a historical error creeps into the CLR James Journal interview that was missed by editor, interviewer, and interviewee. Austin states that CLR James co-wrote Facing Reality with Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee Boggs. In fact, Facing Reality was co-written with Cornelius Castoriadis and Grace Lee Boggs. We thank Professor Robert Hill for bringing this error to our attention.

Image: Incendiary: Marie-Joseph Angelique © 2012 Kit Lang.

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