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Black Images – An Essay by Peter James Hudson

July 2008

The premiere issue of Black Images: A Critical Quarterly of Black Arts and Culture announced Toronto as an unlikely centre of the Black World, proclaimed the arrival of a beast called Black Canadian culture, and served as the vehicle for its elusive, visionary editor, the Jamaican-born Rudolph “Rudy” Murray – and his literary alter ego, R. M. Lacovia. Murray, along with a group of West Indians and West Africans mostly associated with the journalism program at Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, founded Black Images in 1972. It wasn’t the only black publication in Toronto at the time. Periodicals like Harold Hoyte’s Contrast and E. Ashton Brathwaite’s Spear already served the growing black community in the city. But Black Images differed from these rags with its explicit Black internationalism and its self-conscious literariness, in many ways taking up the mantle of Jan Carew’s extraordinary Cotopaxi, which published a single issue in Toronto in 1968 and counted Murray as an associate editor.

The early issues of Black Images paired coverage of Toronto’s Black arts scene with more theoretical expositions on pan-African culture. Profiles of Black Canadian artists like playwright Lennox Brown and musician Richard Acquaah-Harris appeared next to essays on the African roots of New World Black music and critiques of Cheikh Anta Diop. They published a history of black Canadian publishing from its origins in the nineteenth-century newspapers like The Dawn of Tomorrow and an extended interview with Brazil’s Abdias do Nascimento. Poetry by Jamaica’s Cliff Lashley, the Puerto Rican nationalist Alberto O. Cappas, and Ramabai, a “Young Poetess from Trinidad,” (and one of the few female contributors to the journal) appeared alongside Robert A. Hill’s introduction to the “The Negro’s Fullest Part,” Marcus Garvey’s speech before the Eight International Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World, held in Toronto in August 1938 at the UNIA’s local headquarters at 355 College Street.

Black Images‘ first issues were rangy, energetic, and irreverent – if not always good. Lennox Brown’s important if somewhat self-regarding manifesto “A Black Castle: The Crisis of Black Culture in Canada” veered between inspired poetry and leaden sociology. In his review of Austin Clarke’s 1971 novel When He was Free and Young and Used to Wear Suits, Keith Jeffers complained that the book was “strained and contrived” and “corny in expression.” He goes on to accuse Clarke of depicting Barbados as if he were a tourist “striv[ing] painfully to create an exoticism,” before criticizing him for not being Black-Power enough. JoJoh Chintoh, apparently mystified that Toronto’s John Belfon was a painter and a Jew begins his profile by stating that “John Belfon is painter and a Jew” and over the next few paragraphs says little more than that.

With the publication of the second volume of Black Images in 1973 a noticeable shift occurs. Though still based in Toronto, the Canadian content is reduced. And while still under the stewardship of Rudy Murray, the cadre of Ryerson J-School hacks is jettisoned (as is the iffy writing, the poetry, and the puff pieces) and a group of newly-minted PhD’s, the first generation of post-Independence, professionally-trained West Indian and West African academic literary critics, takes their place. Consequently, Black Images loses its amateurish vim and becomes more coolly professional and its reactionary polemics are replaced by considered, occasionally staid, scholarly appraisals. The focus on the Black World remains, but the journal becomes noticeably less pan-African and more pan-Caribbean with a significant portion of its pages given over to the giants of Haitian and the French Antillean literature, to Jacques Stèphen Alexis, Renè Maran, Aimè Cesairè, Frantz Fanon, Édouard Glissant, Lèon Damas, and others. Meanwhile, a loosely articulated theoretical stance developed within the journal that saw a break with racial nationalism and an attempt to chart a more diverse, pluralistic, and complex set of aesthetic and formal lineages of black literature. This position is exemplified by J. Michael Dash’s “Marvelous Realism – the Way out of Negritude,” where he argues that Jacques Stephen Alèxis’ notion of writing Haitian history through le rèalisme merveilleux, introduced at Prèsence Africaine‘s Black Writers Congress held in Paris in 1956, offered an early, if tentative attempt, to come out from under the overbearing tenets of Marxism and break the consanguinary shackles of Negritude.

This professional transformation was reflected in Black Images‘ design. The first issues were eight-and-a-half by eleven inches in size. Its black and white covers had conceptual but bold designs while inside, its three-column format made use of photographs, line drawings, and provocative call outs that disrupted regularity of the page grid. Its layout made judicious use of white space, especially when formatting the poetry, though occasionally, the text was reduced to a barely-readable size to ensure that longer articles fit within their allotted page assignments. By contrast, later issues of Black Images shrank to a digest format. Its text was set in a wide, rigid single column. The cover designs were made up of simple announcements of the theme of a given issue while the line drawings and call outs of the early issues were largely excised and its pages held unbroken blocks of type.

Through these changes at Black Images, Rudy Murray remained a constant, though perhaps paradoxically, anomalous, figure. For reasons unknown, Murray adopted the pen name R.M. Lacovia and in the brief period of Black Images existence, from 1972 to 1975, writing as Lacovia, produced a body of writing that is astonishing in its breadth and original in its approach, yet remains practically unknown today. In the early issues, Murray/Lacovia writes on Trinidad’s Ismith Khan and Jamaica’s Roger Mais and traces the influence of Fanon’s thought through Hegel, Marx, Kojeve, and Sartre before reading the Martinician’s work from a “Neo-African” perspective. He revelled in making startling and unexpected juxtapositions in his writing: he compared Shaft to KluteGeorgia, Georgia, written by Maya Angelou and directed by Swedish director Stig Bjorkman (who he calls “another Gunnar Myrdal“) to Antonioni’s Blow Up; and V.S. Naipaul to Canadian media prophet Marshall McLuhan. But Murray reserved his finest work for that most difficult of Caribbean authors, the Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris. Over the course of two extended essays, Caribbean Aesthetics: A Prolegomenon, and Landscapes, Maps and Parangles, Lacovia attempts a systematic, if gnostic, exegesis of Harris’ writing. Caribbean Aesthetics traces the African, Asian, and Amerindian resonances on Harris’ poetics while Landscapes, made up of a collage of quotations from Kant, Averroes, and Ghazali, sutured together by short bursts of theoretical prose, grapples with Harris’ use of geography, space and metaphysics. Visually, Landscapes is a strikingly beautiful work. While both it and Caribbean Aesthetics appeared as separate monographs under the Black Images imprint, Landscape‘ text is reversed, white on black, offering a graphic illustration of the principles of reversibility and doubling in Harris’ writing.

Murray contributed to almost every issue of Black Images but besides an essay in the Journal of Black Studies and another in The Black Academy Review, he didn’t publish anywhere else. After 1975, with the appearance of the final issue of Black Images in 1975, he apparently stopped writing altogether. Still, though Black Images, like Murray’s writing, are practically unknown, despite its short life it remains the most audacious and smart Black journal to have emerged from the white north.

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