Spear: Canada’s Truth and Soul Magazine

November 2010
Spear: Canada’s Truth and Soul Magazine launched in Toronto in 1971. Soon after, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s secret service wing opened a dossier on the magazine labeled “General Conditions and Subversive Activities Among Negroes (Canada).” But the RCMP never really considered Spear (aka publication 4060) much of a threat. Spear, they observed, “contains generally non-political articles and bright pictures featuring black models, marriage and other happenings in the black community in Toronto.” It was an assessment in line with the aims of publisher Dan Gooding, Jr. and editor J. Ashton Brathwaite.

In an early editorial Brathwaite declared Spear‘s middlebrow ambitions. He wanted to create a Canadian version of Ebony, Jet, Tan, and Essence, the pretty, vacant African-American rags appealing to Black upward mobility and the iridescent accessorizing of Black Power as Black consumerism. However, budget constraints restricted the design of Spear‘s first issues, generating a rather modest aesthetic. With their duotone covers, amateurish layout, and often lackadaisical copy-editing, Spear‘s initial numbers more resembled a self-published “little” magazine than a slick gazette announcing Toronto’s nascent Black middle class.

But few “little” magazines published centerfolds. Fewer still sponsored the Miss Spear competition. Its contestants were drawn from the pool of Black models gracing the magazine’s pages, their photographs accompanied by short, leering, Playboy-esque captions written by Brathwaite focusing on the dimensions of the models’ “fine brown frame[s].” An example: “Wow! Sister Lyn, you sure got a fine brown frame. Your hot pants look fine too, but with a figure like that who do you think will bother about whether your pants is hot or cold! Hmn!” Or “The Sister with the hotpants on is Vie Anderson, a receptionist aspiring to be a model. Quite a hot pair of pants! But that brown frame is definitely a much hotter item!”

Yet Spear, which, incidentally, Brathwaite described as a “family magazine” that avoided “carrying stories on violence, crime, obscenity, and other items which we think will offend the moral standards,” was more than just female pinups. For good measure, it published beefcake photographs of shirtless brothers flexing their muscles at the local gym. It also contained a mish-mash of profiles of local Black personalities, reviews of local Black cultural events, and opinion pieces on the nature of race and racism in Canada, the vexed relations between West Indians and Afro-Canadians, and the pressing issue of interracial marriage and dating. Brathwaite, whose self-published Niggers This is Canada is perhaps the greatest ever novel on the Black Canadian experience, contributed an International Rap Up, a wry digest of political dispatches from the Black World. He also wrote a series of long opinion pieces, including an unanswered “Open Letter to Horace Campbell,” that decried the purported intellectual snobbery of the Jamaican pan-Africanist, and an essay that posed the question, “How Black is Angela Davis?” Not very, according to Brathwaite: she’s a Communist. Meanwhile, the awful Black nationalist poems by one “Negrophil Osopher” made way for those by Sister Dionne, a teen-age Dionne Brand making her poetic debut. Sister Dionne’s “Behold! The Revolutionary Dreamer” contains the fire, if not quite the elegance, of her later, award-winning verse:

How can you be a stoned revolutionary
Look at every nigger on the street
Maybe in your dream periphery
In your existence contradictory
You can see, can imagine
Yourself to be
Holding in one fist power and speed
But it’s only horse power you see
Instead of the great human power it could be
Soon the man is gonna see
If he hasn’t already
That, nigger, you’re a weak freak
Cool, nigger, can you see your dreams creak?

After Brathwaite changed his name to Odimumba Kwamdela and went into self-imposed exile in Brooklyn, Brand was one of a number of editors, including Ghana-born journalist Sam Donkoh, future Share publisher Arnold Auguste, and the Guyanese-Canadian polymath Arnold Itwaru, who manned the helm of Spear through to the 1980s. With the changes, the journal’s quality improved and Spear‘s pages came to embody something of the cultural paradoxes of Black Canadian middle-class being. Thus, celebratory wedding notices were paired with Femi Ojo-Ade’s dense, theory-driven treatise “The Throes of Black Alienation.” Advertisements for living room sets combined with a three-part interview on white supremacy and capitalism with Roosevelt (Rosie) Douglas. Douglas, the late Prime Minister of Dominica, was at the time sitting in a Canadian jail waiting trial for an arson charge associated with student protests at Sir George Williams college in Montreal. Sometimes the juxtapositions were sublime. Spear occasionally found a sort of harmonic convergence of the parallel galaxies of Black political and aesthetic radicalism. In one issue, a profile of Jamaican diva Grace Jones ran next to an interview with Trini Trotskyite CLR James.

The moment wasn’t sustained. By the early 1980s, whatever radical edge Spear maintained was dulled. The advertising from local business was dwarfed first, by announcements from the Canadian government’s multicultural programs, and then by full-page spreads (replete with Black consumers) from Air Canada and Molson’s, the Canadian brewing conglomerate. The Black World dispatches disappeared (as did the Miss Spear centerfolds), replaced by recipes for Christmas cocktails and pensèes on proper table-settings. For the final few issues before it suspended publication in 1987, what was once Spear: Canada’s Truth And Soul was re-tagged as Spear: Canada’s Black Family Magazine. Brathwaite’s initial vision, and the RCMP’s early impression, appeared fulfilled.

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