Singing Black Girlhood: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race

Reading in the New Year for the AWW2017 Challenge

Reading in the New Year for the AWW2017 Challenge

This review is part of the AWW2017 Challenge

Maxine Beneba Clarke’s 2016 memoir The Hate Race is structured as an Afro-Carribbean ballad: a song of her family and their story. She opens with the admission that ‘there are myriad ways of telling it’, before inviting us to listen to her version: ‘This is how I’d have it sing’. Running throughout the tale is the refrain:

There’s that folklore way West Indians have, of weaving a tale: facts just so, gasps and guffaws in all the right places – because, after all, what else is a story for?

And this indeed becomes the grounding theme and central contention of the novel: what is a story for?

For Clarke, the child of Black British parents, themselves the children of Caribbean migrants descended from the survivors of the Atlantic slave trade, her story is a reminder of strength – ‘I am the descendent of those unbroken’ – and of her place in the world. The confronting prologue, in which Clarke is verbally accosted by a man in a car, closes with Clarke singing the overture and summary of her own story: a protest song which ends in a claim to the country she grew up in and the city she now lives in:

I carry proudly the burnished mahogany of my ancestors, though my Africa is four continents, four hundred years of slavery, one forced migration, two voluntary migrations and many lifetimes ago. So long ago, in fact, that Africa herself might not now recognise me. So long ago that when I die, the fierce, fertile continent of my origin might refuse my spirit entry…and my soul will be spirited south, away from my first motherland, past the open corners of Yemen and Somalia and out into the Indian Ocean, sent packing back to Australia, the land of my birth: my country – my children’s country. The only home we know.

In The Hate Race, what a story is for seems to be (or at least become) a way to remember ourselves so that others can’t alter us. It also becomes a means to resist hate.

Running through The Hate Race is a contrapuntal rhythm that reminds us of the insidious, visceral violence that racism – and other forms of bigotry and hatred – does to those who bear the brunt of it.

This is how it alters us. This is how we change

Clarke demonstrates how this violence physically, emotionally, and psychologically breaks people – how that is its sole function and purpose. This rhythm – a disturbing undercurrent that directs the entire tale – becomes more and more urgent as the narrative unfolds. Towards the end of the tale there is a particularly harrowing exchange where Clarke, angered by so many small and large acts of degradation, lashes out at a fellow student – another girl of colour – and uses that girl’s ethnicity (Sikh) as her weapon. She writes:

This is how it entices us.

This is how we succumb.

This is how it grips us.

The way it draws us in.

Break the people with their own tongues. But this is what a story is for. A story reminds; a story does not forget the most important parts. The story sings Clarke’s lament and her shame: it does not atone, but it does build that claim to existence.

Clarke’s tale is as much about coming to terms with her identity as a girl who will become a woman as it is about finding an identity between places: the UK, Australia, and the realisation that your ancestors were subjected to violence, degradation, and appalling conditions, traded as commodities, and denied personhood.

The Hate Race is a meditation on a singular experience of black girlhood, and – most importantly for a nation and national imaginary that still conceives of itself as largely white – the experience of an Australian black girlhood. The location of Clarke’s text heightens its confronting nature. Here is Maxine Beneba Clarke: daughter of educated, well-read and well-traveled parents (one an academic, the other an actor); living in the comfortable suburbs of middle-class Australia; her favourite past-times are to read, to write, and to argue. And yet, here, also, is Maxine Beneba Clarke: subjected daily to lip-curls and disgusted looks; to children refusing to play with her because of her skin colour; to teachers telling her to not be so sensitive about what the other children say; to adults who know nothing of her or her family, but who assume that her parents could not be the successful, cultured types she claims them as; who is attacked verbally and physically because of the colour of her skin.

But the point is, this is in white middle-class Australia: the point is you know these people. The people you know do this. You do this.

This is what The Hate Race is for: it makes it personal, and it demonstrates complicity.

And yet the power of this memoir, its claim to existence – not the claim to the right to existence, mind you (that would imply a question), but the explicitly stated I am here, I have always been here, and this is where I belong – comes from the text’s melody: its absolute joy. In her acknowledgements, Clarke cites poet Nikki Giovanni who wrote at the end of a poem ‘something like’:

People will never understand that all the time, I was quite happy.

But this obfuscation is not a concern in Clarke’s memoir. Maxine is an irreverent and brilliant child with a quick and inquisitive mind, and while the text is relentless in its delineation of the exhaustive major and minor racisms faced by her and her family each and every day, we never lose sight of the fact that Maxine – and her family – are happy, joyful even. There are moments of anguish, and pain, and misery, but – the descendent of those unbroken – Maxine is always able to find a way to face what the world confronts her with. At one stage this takes the form of the ‘Great Tribal Dancing Hoax’ – one of the book’s most hilarious sequences – but it also occurs throughout the text in more subtle ways.

Taken together – its refrain, its rhythm of danger and anger, and its melody of joy – The Hate Race sings a fully-fleshed, incredibly moving tale of one Australian black girl’s experience of contemporary Australia. And what else is a story for?

2 thoughts on “Singing Black Girlhood: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race

  1. Pingback: History, Memoir and Biography: February Round-Up | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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