George Elliott Clarke, George and Rue, and Execution Poems

Geroge Elliott Clarke was born in Windsor, Nova Scotia in 1960.  He is a Canadian poet and playwright whose work largely explores the experience and history of the Black Communities of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, creating a cultural geography that Clarke refers to as “Africadia”.  He believes that Africadians originated in 1783 and 1815, when Black Loyalists and refugees arrived in Nova Scotia.

George Elliott Clarke has a Ph.D in English from Queen’s University, and has received honorary degrees from several other universities.  He belongs to both the Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada.  Among many other distinctions, Clarke won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 2001 for his book Execution Poems, and his novel George and Rue was longlisted for the IMPAC Award in 2007.

All the information above (and more) about George Elliott Clarke can be found at Wikipedia.  I was fascinated while reading about him, his relatives, and the work he has done.

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Execution Poems and George and Rue are books Clarke wrote about his cousins who were hanged for the murder of a taxi driver in 1949.   At the end of George and Rue, Clarke tells us:

Though repelled by the Hamiltons’ crime, I embrace them as my kin.  They were born where I was born- in the Africadian settlement of Three Mile Plains, Nova Scotia- and George Hamilton and I were named for the same gentlemen, his grandfather and my great grandfather, George Johnson…. Too, the Hamiltons were- like so many of us from Three Mile Plains, Five Mile Plains, Windsor Plains- part Mi’kmaq and part African.

The story of George and Rue is tragic.  It tells us about where desperation can take us, and opens our eyes to how we see others.  Do we see everyone we meet as an equal, or are there prejudices and biases still there that should not be?  This story takes place in 1949, and we have come a long way since then, but the messages still hold true for many people in many parts of the world.

George and Rue were brothers, born to poverty and desperation.  Their father was angry and desperate, and he took it out on his wife and children.  They began thieving at an early age, and were often left to their own devices.

Polluted by their Papa’s mean drunkenness, the boys grew like poisonous weeds.

Clarke describes their mother’s marriage:

Her marriage was an orchard of rotten fruit and dry, snapped branches, a wormy atmosphere.  Not to mention cold winds, chilly rooms, cold gruel, and a bed frozen in frigidity.

And the descriptions of the community’s poverty:

Folks had to take hard rocks for pillows- and be happy.  It were a starvation kingdom of consumption and cod.

Folks’d spend half the winter doubled up in pain from cutting ice for water or doubled up in fear of flu or bill collectors.  When flu hit, people die faster than they can be buried…. There was tuberculosis set right in the snow, and cholera too.  Or polio and rheumatism in how the rain fell.  Or arthritis communicated by ice…. You awoke with snow frosting your face because the window’s like a gap between mountains.

Despite all the hardship they had to contend with, the boys grew up.  After the death of both of their parents, the brothers went their separate ways, but they were faced with a world full of barriers and limitations for anyone of colour.  They both suffered from bad luck and bad choices.

George eventually married and moved to Fredericton, New Brunswick for a fresh start.  He was determined to provide a good life for his wife and family.  In fact, George was feeling so good about his life at this time that he decided to invite his brother, Rue, to come visit.  That was probably his biggest mistake.  I wonder how his life would have gone if Rue had stayed away.

The whole time I was reading this book, I was rooting for them, hoping I could change the ending that I knew was coming.  Especially for George, who now had two babies and was trying his best to make an honest living.  But times were hard and they were desperate.

Face the facts: cold’d left the two lads uncomfortable and shit out of luck.  Winter was leaning mean, loud, and bitchy against the walls of their drafty castle.  It stank of hunger.  The boys’d hunker by some fossil of a fire, its flames shivering worse than they was.  Ice in their bathwater now injected itself into their blood.

… the boys became solid idols for popular fury… Letter writers to opinion pages cried for blood…

The two Hamiltons appeared as black as sin.  No one could whitewash their atrocity into a mere mistake.  Two scions of Three Mile Plains had to perish, suspensus per collum.  They had to die at the speed of light, shadowed.

Yes, the brothers killed a man for his money.  Whether is was accidental or not, it is still a horrible and inexcusable thing.  But who was there for them when they needed help?  Who ever cared for them so they could grow up to care about others?  And, even if they did grow up to care, would it have made that much difference in their lifestyle, since they still would have been two black men in the 1940s?  And, what might the verdict have been if they had been white?

The boys were not hanged; they were felled./ They were not conquered; they were quelled./ Their deaths will last as long as life itself.

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I would never have read Execution Poems if I hadn’t read George and Rue.  For me, they emphasized all the feelings the book had already created.  They are not easy poems to read, but that is the point, I think.  Here is one called Prosecution:

Prosecution

Crown:  God-glorifying, Bible-backing people/ don’t do what you boys did.

Your faces are ochre;/ your thought mediocre.

Unanimously/ pusillanimous,

you have abolished a father;/ you have annihilated a husband.

Starting with the first majuscule letter, that sturdy “H”,/ you have made a gallows of your surname.

Your not earth-stained, not ink-stained,/ but, yes, blood-stained, hands/ must be legislated into grass.

The Crown demands green slime scum over your black souls.

(The grass already surges, insolent as whips.)

Also, consider the quote by Thomas Jefferson that George Elliott Clarke put at the beginning of his novel, George and Rue:

If something is not done, we shall be the murderers of our children.

 

 

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5 thoughts on “George Elliott Clarke, George and Rue, and Execution Poems

  1. ebookclassics says:

    Very interesting that George and Rue is based on the true life story of his cousins. I find this part of Canadian history so fascinating, but you don’t hear that much about it.

    • Naomi says:

      You don’t even hear about it right here in Nova Scotia! I didn’t know much about any of this until I read the book. I’m so happy to have read it, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to find similar books to read. I guess people are reluctant to talk about/share stories about the parts of our history that are not to be proud of. They tend to concentrate more on the good stuff.

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