I was uncomfortable reading Under My Skin by Orville Lloyd Douglas. Published in May 2014 by Guernica Editions, this book of poetry is a brash and bold interpretation of Douglas’ thoughts, feelings, and emotions in regards to life. Life as Black man. Life as a Homosexual man. Life as a Canadian man. Life as a Thinking man. Life as an Educated man. His life, his ideals, and his creative constructions, through his words and poetic license.
I was uncomfortable, because I came into reading this project with a pre-conception of Mr. Douglas, based on a CNN appearance I remembered of him being interviewed in November of 2013 with journalist Don Lemon. At that time, he was defending his article “Why I Hate Being a Black Man” and the conversation was shocking to me, because I had yet to hear a black Canadian man speak so honestly about his insecurities on an international platform.
At the time, Douglas mentioned that racism was handled carefully in Canada. He was speaking about an experience, an environment, and from a lens that I was supposed to be familiar with. He came from Jamaican parentage … so did I. He was university-educated, and a critical thinker … as was I.
So coming into this collection of poetry knowing that on some level I had a shared cultural and community background as Douglas, I was still very uncomfortable reading his personal perspectives and phrases. Particularly because he was introducing a lifestyle and set of thoughts that were so foreign to me—or anyone I was in close communication with—that it took me a minute to adjust to his musings.
I was uncomfortable, because I realized … perhaps this is what others may think of “Urban” writing to some extent. They may be so unfamiliar with some of its elements and realities, that it might be offensive. Disturbing. Unrealistic. Unsettling.
Douglas has been known to explore issues of homosexuality in his writing, particularly in the black community. His sentiments in the “Why I Hate Being A Black Man” article are elaborated on in this book of poetry, as you can see that he truly feels that black men are subjected to a life of misery and shame, often faced with self-hatred, and unfairly stereotyped.
Douglas does not like rap music, nor sports. He expressed that his dark skin, broad nose, and thick lips were his “personal prison”…and while the article is not directly related to the book, I found that the ideals were definitely confirmed through his poetry.
In the section ILLUSIONS OF CANADA, Douglas reflects on the destruction of Africville in Halifax; the treatment of black hockey players in Alberta, and growing up in a home filled with immigrant dreams. He expresses his experiences having his black authenticity questioned, his “Jamaican-ness” questioned, and the acceptance of his fellow brothers. He states: “My nigga, why do you care? You going to lecture me?” in words that clearly show that his acceptance came more from his white counterparts in the city, than those he shared racial and cultural similarities with.
Continuing to discuss his country, he compares the CN Tower to the black penis, calling it an “exotic jungle” and relishing in its novelty to some … behind closed doors. Douglas has no modesty in his thoughts, when he declares that “Canada is Shit,” expressing his aggravation with the police, and venting on the perceived brainwashing, false praises of diversity and acceptance, and admits that he refuses to pledge allegiance to a White Queen, a White Mayor, and the Chief of Police/Hypocrisy. Again, Douglas is honest and upfront with his feelings not only about race, but about his patriotism as well.
Again, discomfort because although many may share these sentiments about the Queen and Police Chief, few will openly speak, print, or publish these thoughts.
In the segment called THE GOSPELS, Douglas goes into his past as a choir boy, expressing “terror behind the oak doors,” and a Christian upbringing. Issues of self-hatred, and physical cutting are mentioned … being educated with no access, and contemplations of suicide. There is a sense of hopelessness, and as each poem unfolds, the levels of frustration become more evident, and the root of the pain is clearly outlined.
A part of this pain is in the form of a love affair that didn’t have a favourable end result. While one can assume these are personal stories of Douglas’, they surely also account for situations and difficulties expressed by others. In descriptions of “Vikas” there is a pain and heartbreak of a difficult relationship, that never had the opportunity to flourish as expected.
With Vick, he describes an exotic mixing of cultures, between the East and West Indies, a combination of religious expectations, and an erotic encountering between secret lovers. You can feel the longing for the relationship with Vick, and there are series of sexual descriptions of rough African encounters, wet dreams, and physical conquering. A heartbreaking tale … while the narrator is comfortable expressing his homosexuality, Vick, unfortunately, is not, and moves
The themes of patriotic disappointment, unacceptance from the black community, romantic longing, and religious disappointment (I would not even feel appropriate repeating the sexual acts that were related to Jesus in poetry…I can’t do it!) were consistent in this book, as it painted a picture of a frustrated young man with extreme awareness of his surroundings, of irritated perceptions of his reality, and of a fierce bravery and boldness in the reporting of events, whether fictional or actual.
So yes, I was uncomfortable. Extremely. But I have to commend Douglas for speaking his truth with such conviction. There was no fear in these words. No holds barred. No apologies. No ambiguity. He stood firm in his truth, and communicated his realities as such. He used language and emotion, and put together a collection of poetry that spoke so specifically to his experience, and most likely will speak directly to a demographic of urban Canadians who are encountering, have encountered, or will encounter similar ideals, discriminations, or hopes.
I realize I cannot pass judgement on another writer for speaking their version of reality, and the uncomfortableness experienced with my Jamaican-Canadian brother, is probably for my own good and enlightenment.
Not everyone is going to share respect for the Queen, successful open heterosexual relationships, and love for the police. Not everyone is going to accept the structures of culture and society around them. This is apparent … yet sometimes forgotten. I shouldn’t be uncomfortable reading a man’s story (especially since he is not the only man with these thoughts), which means that I am not exposed to enough of these thoughts. This perspective has been hidden from common public discourse, and the realities of Douglas’ chosen lifestyle, has not yet been normalized enough.
I commend Douglas for standing in his truth, and for Guernica Editions for publishing this truth. It may be uncomfortable for me, but ground breaking and cathartic for another reader. It will be inspirational to many, and revolutionary to others. It will be eye-opening to most, offensive to some, but is a step in the right direction of celebrating various experiences, and including all voices and perspectives in the dominant cultural conversation. Even if it initially makes us uncomfortable to digest … it won’t forever. It shouldn’t for long.