National roots and diasporic routes: tracing the flying African myth in Canada
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This thesis analyzes the presence and progression of the Flying African Myth in Canada— a myth which originally reflected the desires for escape and cross-Atlantic return shared by generations of Black slaves throughout the Americas. While related West African themes of spirit flight and human transformation do suggest a historic relationship, it was only in the New World that human powers of flight emerged. Thus, a new mythology sprung from the desires to transcend the bonds of slavery and return to an African home. However, despite being well documented as Pan-American, this myth has gone largely uninvestigated in its Canadian context thus far— an omission which follows an extensive pattern of Black cultural erasure in Canada as well as the exclusion of Canada in much Black diasporic scholarship. These absences lead to my exploration of the unique circumstances in Canada that continue to influence this myth, including the constant "struggle against erasure" and the “fragile coalition of identities” that constitute the Black diaspora in Canada, as well as federal legislation that protects the nation’s self-image as a multicultural “mosaic.” I argue not only that the myth exists more extensively in Canadian oral and written literatures than may be expected, but that the myth may be alternately interpreted as a method of preserving Canadian national roots as well as navigating Black diasporic routes. I suggest that these two opposing functions of the myth, to pronounce both fixity and fluidity, reflect the tendencies of critics George Elliott Clarke and Rinaldo Walcott to articulate differing approaches to Black identity and culture in Canada. This thesis also embraces the aims set forth in Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness, demonstrating how the image of human flight further challenges the oppressive ideologies of Western modernity as well as reimagines the possibilities and implications of the Black diaspora. Indeed, the myth has literally contributed to the formation of the Black diaspora in that it is a cultural artefact shared throughout the Americas and associated with the desire for African return. But the myth also offers a means by which to reconceptualise the structure of the Black diaspora. That is, as the medium of flight, the sky offers an alternative, though equally flexible and more ubiquitous, space for locating the Black diaspora beyond the Atlantic basin. Moreover, the notions of impossibility, immateriality, and imagination which are embraced by this myth circumvent Gilroy’s implicit affirmation of individualism, rationalism, physical mobility, as well as static and bounded geographic space— elements which compromise his productive critique of nationalisms, ethnic essentialisms, and particularly of modernity.