Book Review: The Response of Weeds: A Misplacement of Black Poetry on the Prairies

The Response of Weeds is both striking and evocative. While a brief read, Bertrand Bickersteth paints a concise and poetic picture of the experience of being Black on the Prairies. Raised in Alberta, Bickersteth effortlessly relays the experience of feeling like a foreigner even in a place that one is intimately acquainted with; the sideways glances, the assumption that one is an outsider, the questions of “where are you really from,” will all resonate with readers of colour.

With themes of invisibility and erasure, the book explores how Black Albertans, and by extension, many non-white settlers in Canada, can feel othered—at once overlooked and simultaneously conspicuous in places and settings that are not always as welcome as they claim to be.

Bickersteth remarks on Canada’s discomfort with confronting historical issues of race, with not-so-subtle mentions of settlers looting Indigenous lands and jabs at those who insist upon “colourblindness.” Indeed, a sense of Indigenous solidarity is woven throughout the book, which names the failed treaty promises and overall mistreatment of several Indigenous Nations on the prairies, including the Cree, Piikani, and Sarcee.

Notions of belonging and questions of how to define “home” when one has been displaced are present throughout the book. Ideas of a fragile sense of social cohesion are also unearthed, with the author remarking on how Canadians may espouse peace and harmony while failing to respond to cries for racial and social justice.

Some historical context is needed for readers, as Bickersteth weaves in the experiences of prominent and lesser-known Black Albertans, including John Ware and Henry Mills. Overall, this is an excellent book for those curious about the perspectives of the “outsider within” or simply anyone wondering what it’s like to be Black in Canada.

The Response of Weeds: A Misplacement of Black Poetry on the Prairies

By Bertrand Bickersteth
NeWest Press, 2020

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