From When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks
American academic Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989 to describe the overlapping effects of race, class, gender, and other social identifiers that combine to contribute to inequality or oppression. It’s not a term one would immediately associate with the late Barbadian-Canadian writer Austin Clarke – and certainly not a term Clarke would have used himself to describe his work – but for those who wish to apply the term to a critical reading of novels such as More or the Scotiabank Giller Prize winner The Polished Hoe, there is opportunity to do so.
Those who accuse Clarke of sexism or anti-Semitism in work such as the stories in his 1971 debut collection, When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks, might be hard pressed to find a progressive philosophical underpinning in the fiction, but it is there if one cares to look; Clarke was one of the few voices in the first wave of CanLit to anticipate the academic and social movements around race and class that would flower in the following four decades.
One point of contention for critics and readers approaching the stories from a 21st-century perspective is likely to be the bravado with which Clarke’s male protagonists present themselves – there is a strain of machismo running through the men in the stories and a type of masculinity that today cries out to be modified with the adjective “toxic.” It‘s a pose that does not go unacknowledged: the protagonist of “Four Stations in His Circle,” one Jefferson Theophillis Belle, is explicitly identified as “not a likeable man.”
What makes him so unlikable, in the eyes of his friends and acquaintances, is not just his “ascetic” or “pensive” qualities, but the motives that underpin them. Jefferson Theophillis Belle wants to own property. And not just any property: he wants a house in Rosedale, one of the toniest old-money neighbourhoods in his adopted city of Toronto.
An immigrant to Canada from Barbados, Jefferson considers himself an educated man who knows “two and two is four, that the world round, that Columbus discover it in 1492.“ He disdains the 15th-century explorer for travelling to the Caribbean islands and mistaking the people there for Indians, thinking, “if it was me make that mistake, my boss would fire me, tomorrow!” He looks down upon his fellow Blacks and even resolves not to interact with them for what he perceives as crassness and vulgarity; he imagines himself bestriding the city’s streets like “one of the European immigrants“ whose lifestyle he aspires to.
What attracts Jefferson Theophillis Belle is the accoutrements of wealth, which he imagines epitomized by owning a house in Rosedale. Of course, the society in which he finds himself is structurally canted against a Black man achieving material prosperity; Jefferson works two jobs, a full-time day job as a janitor at a paint factory and a night job at the post office. He is industrious, having squirelled away $10,000 in savings and $900 that he carries with him in his pocket – though that pocket is held together with safety pins and the money is rolled up in a handkerchief. When he goes at night to look longingly at the Rosedale house he has his eye on, he is arrested as a suspected burglar; he resolves afterward to return to the neighbourhood only during daytime.
Jefferson does end up buying a house in Rosedale – not his dream home, but the one next door, which he is unable to furnish having spent all his money on the property itself. He is repeatedly mistaken for the gardener by his white next-door neighbour, who asks when the owners are expected home, and he spends his nights dressed in his finest attire, wandering the empty rooms and sleeping on an old cot (which he eventually replaces with a mattress but no bed frame or box spring).
As may be readily apparent, “Four Stations in His Circle” is a story in a comic mode, though the comedy is bitter and tinged with undercurrents of disaffection arising from the social stratification that is built in to the city’s composition. Jefferson purchases a Jaguar as a symbol of conspicuous consumption and leaves his house each day in a three-piece suit, with his work overalls secreted in a briefcase. He begins to hyphenate “Theophillis-Belle,” assuming it gives him an air of greater social sophistication, and he draws bookcases on his bare walls that must suffice “until he could get some real books from the Book-of-the-Month Club.”
Jefferson’s ambitions are blatantly materialistic; his tragedy – if one can call it that – is his inability to overcome a system that is so patently stacked against him. Speaking to Quill & Quire, former parliamentary poet laureate George Elliott Clarke pointed out that Austin Clarke was not condemning capitalism in his fiction; rather, he was contending that capitalism in Canada is not equally available to everyone. “What he’s arguing in his stories is that Black people, people of colour, ethnic minorities have the right to aspire to the same degree of wealth and power that they see white folks wielding,” says George Elliott Clarke. Or, as Rinaldo Walcott puts it in his introduction to the 2020 reissue of When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks: “Read between the lines of these stories, and one begins to see that the only difference between the Black Caribbean characters and their white Canadian counterparts is the latter’s access to material goods and other resources.”
It’s a disconnect that Jefferson recognizes and can’t help but feel ashamed by. When the wife of his white neighbour comes to the door to invite Jefferson to a high-society party, Jefferson is eating a peanut-butter sandwich and is besieged by a ghostly voice that calls him a “sweet black motherfucker” and inquires in astonishment, “where is all the blasted furnitures, man?” The ironic disjunction between Jefferson’s aspirations and the reality of his experience provides much of the story’s dramatic tension and acerbic comedy.
Though “Four Stations in His Circle” is nominally a comic piece, there is undeniable poinancy in the final scene, in which Jefferson’s friend Brewster comes to Jefferson’s house to tell him his mother – whom he has casually neglected while undertaking a dogged pursuit of material possessions in his adopted land – has died back home in Barbados. Brewster finds Jefferson wandering the empty halls of his house “muttering greetings in whispers to his guests, and answering himself, himself.” It is a heartbreaking image of a Black immigrant who is driven to a kind of madness by his confrontation with the cultural inequities embedded in the society of which he is a part.