From sit-ins to love-ins, Austin Clarke recalls life in 1960s Toronto


The Star presents excerpts from Austin Clarke’s new memoir ’Membering [see previous post New Book: Austin Clarke’s “‘Membering”.] ‘In this excerpt from his book ’Membering, award-winning author Austin Clarke describes the fraternity of “artists-to-be” who congregated in the jazz bars and taverns of an often intolerant city.’

In Toronto at this time, in the firmament of the civil rights movement in America, and which spread throughout the world, there was an easier, and closer relationship between black people and Jews. This relationship has its historical roots in the days of the Depression; and apart from the predilection of the two groups toward a socialist and Marxist philosophy, this closeness was fostered significantly through the profession of writing. Jews, such as Saul Bellow, encouraged black American writers through the various creative writing programs paid for by the American government during the Depression.

The bond was formed, and it became stronger, with the publication of such black American novels as Native Son by Richard Wright and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. In the vanguard of this African American/Jewish literary brotherhood was the leading literary critic, Irving Howe. This alliance suffered, from time to time, by the exigencies of the nature of the civil rights movement, juxtaposed by the rise of black cultural nationalism. And it found its weakest links toward the old brotherhood, with the popularity of Malcolm X.

[. . .] I joined the happy band of artists, or “artists-to-be,” mainly painters and sculptors, some of whom were still attending the Ontario College of Art, in those days a magnificent, desirable place to study; and a handful of actors; and an even smaller handful of writers, men and women, playing they’re serious writers, musicians who are always there, whether following the social footsteps of the artists, which was the name we called painters — nobody called me “a black man playing I am a serious writer!” — for those days were days of love, and “love-ins,” of nights of “paint-ins,” days when we welcomed the dramatic huge influx of German immigrants, whom I did not know, or could not at that time, have known, why they were all Jews; and these women — we ignored the men! — were all blond and beautiful, and spoke English with a sensual sweet destruction of the language, sometimes ignoring the fundamental laws of syntax.

But who cared? They knew their jazz. And we who accompanied them to the First Floor Club on Asquith Ave., where I lived opposite; or to the Town Tavern, just east of Yonge St. on Queen, in a toned-down lighting atmosphere, seductively soft, because we were listening in these sweet times, “when we were free and young and we used to wear silks,” to cool jazz. “Dear Old Stockholm,” “’Round About Midnight,” where the music was more American and international; or to the Colonial Tavern on Yonge; and this riff-raff of souls, wearing blue jeans, professionally daubed with the oils and charcoal and crayons of their specialization, aiming to be the new Picassos, or another member of the Group of Seven … abstract art and cool jazz … we the riff-raff in the most pleasant sense of that term, were dressed in thick homemade sweaters, deliberately torn in places to appear casual, and “artistic”; and Clarks desert boots, or black leather boots, and scarves like the one given to Dylan Thomas when he was a child in Wales, “that could be tug-o’-warred down to the galoshes.” [. . .]

So, you would not walk all that distance from the entrance on Yonge St., and presume, because this was a public restaurant and bar, to be able to sit where you chose. Certainly not in the company of the artists. The artists ruled the waves of beer, draft and bottled, and the economical sips of the rare glass of Scotch, or Canadian Club, or dark rum from down East, Nova Scotia, since many bars in Toronto, in these days, had not yet discovered Barbados Mount Gay Rum, or Jamaican Appleton. There were drops of Cuban Bacardi, and that terrible rum from Puerto Rico.

But what did we talk about? Books, and plays, and roles in plays for the stage or on CBC television; and advances for a story not yet written, for the Tamarack Review; or the coming exhibition at the Isaacs, or the Dorothy Cameron, who took a chance with the paintings of Robert Markle, and had the Toronto vice squad close down the exhibition, to the rage of protests raging in the Toronto Telegram and the Toronto Star. [. . .]

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