George Elliott Clarke - Biography

Of African-American and Mi'kmaq heritage, poet, dramatist, anthologist, academic, and novelist, George Elliott Clarke has roots in Nova Scotia going back to the early nineteenth century on his mother’s side and to the late nineteenth century on his father’s side. Clarke was born in Windsor Plains, Nova Scotia in 1960, but grew up in Halifax. He earned a B.A. in English from the University of Waterloo, did a Master's degree at Dalhousie University, and completed his Ph.D. at Queen’s University. He taught at Duke University in North Carolina from 1993 to 1999 before moving to the University of Toronto, where he is the inaugural E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature. In his literary and academic writing, Clarke has been a vocal proponent of the history and culture of African-Canadians in the Maritimes. His promotion of the African-Canadian community in the Maritimes is evident in his editing of the two-volume Fire on the Water: An Anthology of Black Nova Scotian Writing (1991) and in many of the essays collected in Odysseys Home: Mapping African-Canadian Literature (2002), and it infuses his poetry and fiction as well. Clarke has published five volumes of poetry, including his debut collection, Saltwater Spirituals and Deeper Blues (1983), and the highly acclaimed Whylah Falls (1990), a lyrical portrait of a fictional Black community in Nova Scotia during the Depression, which won the Archibald Lampman Award for poetry. His play Beatrice Chancy (1999) is a reworking of the story of Beatrice Cenci in Nova Scotia in the early nineteenth century, when slavery was practiced in the region. In 2001, Clarke won the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry for Execution Poems, a collection based on the hangings of two of his cousins, George and Rufus Hamilton, for the brutal killing of a white Fredericton taxi driver in January of 1949. The murder was also the subject of Clarke's first novel, George & Rue, published in 2005. In 2006, Clarke was awarded the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Fellowship Prize, and in 2008 was named an Officer of the Order of Canada for "his contributions as a poet, professor and volunteer who has brought his original voice and his perspective on the Black experience to contemporary Canadian literature," amongst other achievements.