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Read an excerpt from Austin Clarke's WHEN HE WAS FREE AND YOUNG AND HE USED TO WEAR SILKS

The cover of When He Was Free and Young... Features the criss-crossed ankles of a man with a dark skin tone wearing shiny brown shoes.

 

Writer and academic Rinaldo Walcott in his introduction to When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks by Austin Clarke:

“What we witness in Clarke’s work is a multiculturalism from the bottom. It is not romanticized as encounter or as cultural sharing and celebration, but rather as the hard-scrabble life that these Black immigrants lived, and the racism they experienced from their white counterparts, while still retaining joy, conviviality, and community.”

 

Extract from “What Happened?”

Drinking together, they had not only become drunk often, which was a natural consequence of the amount of drinking they could do; but more importantly, they had opened the most personal secrets and actions of their lives to each other. This was the kind of friendship there was between Henry and Boysie. Living, as they were, as immigrants in Canada had knitted them close in their common fear of the country. Now, away from the influence of Agatha, as Boysie could see that influence over Henry in the way she had decorated his room; and free of her presence everywhere, every minute in the room even when she was in fact absent (and Boysie always visited Henry when Agatha was absent: as if by some instinctual pre-arrangement); with Agatha out of sight, they could sit down with a few glasses of draught beer before them and talk with candour as men sometimes found it necessary to do. Freely. There were many things bothering Henry. And it was some of these that he was telling Boysie about now. He too admitted still seeing Brigitte, the German maid who worked in Forest Hill; but their once close friendship had now withered into something like an occasional orgasm. Henry, who could no longer pretend that he did not know Brigitte, either literally or biblically, confessed too that since he had got married he had visited her three times, “for a little chat.” With all their pasts, certain aspects of which were identical, and which had often headed onto a head-on collision course, they still remained friends. It was to this friendship that Henry was now addressing himself, and his thoughts and his confessions of thoughts which were like monologues spoken as to himself within the privacy of his bathroom, as he sat on the closet seat: but even in the closet at home, Agatha’s presence was there in the clippings pinned to the wall, the clippings which Miss Diamond liked so much. (“Jesus, man! if I look up I see a black face; if I look right and hold my head in my hand as I am straining to fire a shit, I see another face; turning left, the same thing and be-Christ, one day I was having a really tough time, having eaten the wrong kind o’ food, and I had my eyes on the floor and down there, down there on the floor, on the carpet, was an opened magazine of a child from somewhere in the East, hungry as arse and in rags and with a bowl in his hand and at the top of the picture was this word, this one word, CARE! Care-my-fucking-arse, God blind them!”) He could not be as private with his own thoughts in his own bathroom as he was now, talking to Boysie in this public drinking place.

                “I been meaning to tell you all this a long time, man,” he was saying. “But I was catching my arse royally, as the Trinidadians say; and I couldn’t breathe, man. First thing was the police coming and breaking up the wedding reception at your place. Well, Agatha hasn’t get over that yet, and I don’t think she ever would. But I don’t blame her anymore. Because, look at it as it is, man, and you would have to agree with her, although I nearly killed her dead as hell that night for saying the same thing. But you have to agree with her. If it was in another district in Toronto, like Forest Hill or Rosedale or the Bridle Path or even in fucking Willowdale, or north on Avenue Road, up there by Upper Canada College, no fucking cop, rookie or no rookie, would be so stupid as to break up a wedding party because somebody complain bout the noise! That goddamn cop would think twice, three times even, before he knocked on them rich people’s door, saying he come to complain about the noise at a wedding party. But that is life, and we have to see it as life and then move on, boy. But when that was settled, then came the hunting for a napartment. Man, hunting for a napartment in this place, a black man and a white woman walking down the street looking for a napartment, a decent place to live . . . Jesus God! . . . well, I don’t have to tell you. Sometimes I was angry as arse. Sometimes I was embarrass. Sometimes, I just laughed. But all the time I was thinking about my wife, this goddamn rich woman and she can’t get a decent place to rent, merely be-fucking-cause she happened to be walking beside a man with the wrong fucking brand o’ colour. Just before you dropped in I had just come back from walking up along Lowther Avenue, and I see some real nice places up there, with good apartments. Man, I would enter a door, or knock on a door, and the first thing I see is this big change in the woman’s face, or the man’s face, and then there is this big explanation and excuses and I can’t get inside that fucking door or drawing room at all; and I can’t sit down with a drink or a cup of tea or coffee and discuss the terms o’ renting and rent that the apartment involved, I can’t behave like a human-civilized-fucking-being; I gotta see a napartment, and before that man could change his goddamn eyelids I gotta shout, “I take it! I take it!”, and hope, goddammit, that the man get frightened for me, and rent me the place, and then, because I haven’t had time to look over the place, I find out that I have rented a fucking pig-sty! and I see other people from a front window sitting down discussing things, a napartment maybe, rent and jobs, a lot o’ people in this city doing it, and I walk all over this fucking city of Toronto and I see people sitting down in living rooms, man and wife, man and common-law woman, discussing a problem like human beings, and I see these goddamn immigrants get off a blasted boat from some jungle in Europe, and in Australia or South Africa be-Jesus Christ, and I see them two-days later, godblindthem! and they’re walking bout this place as if they own the whole of fucking Canada, just because they’re white! I hear the same thing happens in England, in the States, all over this fucked-up white man’s world. I still can live through this, because I am a goddamn Wessindian. But I couldn’t live through it if this was the States and I was a born American black man. I mean, certain times, a certain time comes in your fucking life when you want a nice place to live, you want to relax and ease-up offa hustling. You want to put down the placards and ease-up offa picketing and demonstrating. Agatha wants to live in a house, a nice old house like some they have in this place, on Elgin or Collier or even the same Lowther. She doesn’t like these modern factories they building nowadays and calling them luxury apartments. The only thing luxurious bout them is the fucking rent, Boysie. You know that, because you live in one . . .”

 


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