2017 Lifetime Achievement Award

The Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes Dalhousie alumni for a lifetime of accomplishments in career and/or community service.

George Elliott Clarke, MA’89, LLD’99

By Mark Campbell

George Elliott Clarke has a way of turning conversations about himself and his accomplishments into grand narratives honouring the African Canadian writers who stimulate him.

“My work,” he explains, “has been informed, inspired and compelled by the examples of other writers who may be very obscure. I see what I do as trying to exhume, excavate or bring into public consciousness the contributions of some really amazing African Canadians and ask us all to appreciate what they were able to accomplish.”

Honouring heritage

For nearly five decades, Clarke has been working to reclaim a legacy of what he calls Africadian writing that reaches back to the arrival in Nova Scotia of Black refugees from the Civil War. By unearthing previously undocumented religious writing and slave narratives, and celebrating the works of writers who came before him, Clarke has, as he puts it, “set the record straight that there was never any period of effective silence, that there were always intellectuals in our community. There were always people who published work.”

That in and of itself is a significant achievement, but Clarke’s accomplishments stretch far beyond his efforts to raise awareness of African Canadian literature, or establish it as a field of academic study. Through his writing–most notably the epic narrative poem Whylah Falls and his novel George and Rue, where he explored the racism that led his mother’s cousins to commit robbery and murder–Clarke has advocated for equality and freedom in ways that honour and build upon the heritage he has helped recover.

George Elliott Clarke

2017 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient George Elliott Clarke (MA’89, LLD’99). Image: Nick Pearce.

Recognition and influence

In turn, Clarke has been recognized with the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Fellowship Prize, the William P. Hubbard Award for Race Relations, the Eric Hoffer Book Award for Poetry, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award, the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry and the National Magazine Gold Medal for Poetry. He has also been appointed to the Order of Nova Scotia (2006) and the Order of Canada (2008), and he is the current Parliamentary Poet Laureate. To quote Frank Harvey, Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, “He is a true Canadian icon who we should honour and celebrate as one of our own.”

The Dalhousie Alumni Association recently did so, presenting Clarke with its 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award. The news delighted El Jones, a professor, activist and writer whose own work has been influenced by Clarke.

“I don’t think there’s a Black writer in Nova Scotia that hasn’t been shaped by George,” Jones says. “It’s more than the time he takes to mentor and encourage young Black academics and writers. He almost singlehandedly gave a name to Africadian, or African Nova Scotian, literature, so he led the way in having people recognize that we have a distinct culture and a distinct literature to be proud of.”

Despite his desire to illuminate and to excavate, Clarke clarifies that his writing is motivated more by the desire to entertain than to be an agent of change. “There’s not much point writing if you’re not going to be able to entertain as well as inform,” Clarke says. “I consider myself to be an intellectual entertainer, or an artist intellectual, keeping in mind that art has, as its component, this notion of entertainment and trying to stir or provoke thought.”

An accomplished career… thus far

Currently, Clarke is working on a poem to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Dalhousie in 2018—one of many contributions he has made to the University over the years. “Dalhousie was instrumental in shaping my thought and influencing my approach to writing,” Clarke says. “In every major direction I’ve taken in my life, there is a Dalhousie connection at the root and that will never fade. I’ll always be very proud to have my Master of Arts degree, the honorary doctorate I received in 1999 and now a Lifetime Achievement Award, with hopes that there may be more achievement and life.”

To that end, Clarke is doing what he has always done: reclaiming history and exploring his roots through literature. He is in the midst of an epic poem about African heritage in the western world and he is planning a novel about Charles Spurgeon Fletcher, a Nova Scotian who became the first black professor at Harvard. More interesting is the fact that Clarke—a man who has dedicated himself to highlighting the lives and achievements of others—has recently completed his own memoir, an accomplishment that he looks upon with some degree of bemusement.

“I think I’m probably a bit young for it,” Clarke says. “Nevertheless, there it is. Memoirs and a lifetime achievement award, which I hope both might just be a little bit premature. I see myself as being, in midcareer and not a terminus, but it’s a very good feeling to know my peers believe I have a record of accomplishment. It encourages me to continue to try and do a bit more before my race is run.”

Award criteria:

  • The nominee’s accomplishments have inspired and motivated Dalhousie students and others, while setting an example of philanthropy.
  • Consideration is also given to those who contribute to the financial well-being of a chosen charity and/or encourage others to give for the betterment of society.