Maxine Tynes, celebrated poet, teacher and Dalhousie alumnus, passed away Monday in Halifax. She was 62.
Ms. Tynes was the first African-Canadian woman to sit on Dalhousie’s Board of Governors, serving from 1986 to 1994. She graduated from Dalhousie with a BA and a BEd, both in 1975.
Born in Dartmouth, she was one of 12 children raised by her parents, Joe and Ada. Together, they instilled in Maxine the values of respect, critical thought and pride in her identity. She began writing poetry in her teenage years, with work that expressed the rebelliousness of the 1960s. (She told Dalhousie alumni magazine in 1988 that she was “Dartmouth’s resident flower child” growing up.)
Her work addressed issues that angered her—racism, social inequality, war—but always did so with thoughtfulness, consideration and honesty. Her first book of poetry, 1987’s Borrowed Beauty, was an anthology of her ‘voices,’ expressing the passion she felt about her life, her black heritage, her womanhood, her inspirations and emotions. It received the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award, which recognized her as a People’s Poet of Canada.
Other collections of her poetry include 1990’s Woman Talking Woman and 1993’s The Door of My Heart. To many, she was known as a beloved English teacher at Cole Harbour High and Auburn Drive High schools, where combined she worked for 31 years. She also received a Canada Medal from the Governor General in 1993.
"Maxine's poems are honest and powerful, intensely personal but also universal," says Lesley Choyce, Dalhousie English instructor whose Potterfield Press published Ms. Tynes' poetry. "She was a dynamic performer with a large number of fans. During an era when it was quite difficult to sell poetry, her books sold steadily and had a wide appeal."
Below, reprinted with permission, is the opening piece of Borrowed Beauty, which wonderfully sums up the role that poetry, race and womanhood played in Ms. Tynes’ life and work.
Women are always looking into mirrors, looking for a mirror to look into, or thinking about, regretting, sighing over or not quite believing what they’ve seen in the mirror.
We’re looking at ourselves; looking for ourselves. The girls we were, the women we are, and what we will become. Searching, always searching in mirrors.
For people of colour, for Black people, for this Black woman in particular, the search is the same, but different. We are constantly looking for who we are. So many of the signals have been lost, historically and culturally, along the way.
I’m (at least) a fourth generation Black Canadian woman, writer, poet, broadcast journalist, teacher, performance artist. But as soon as I say something in print or otherwise about my Black past I have to qualify it; because we as a people have lost many tangible, documented traces of who we are.
I cannot possibly say to you that I am a woman descendent from the people of the plains – the Serengeti, of Kenya, of Ghana, the Gambia or of Zaire – the heartland. I can only look to the vast expanse of Africa, that black mother continent, and say, that is who and what and where I am.
For me, a Black woman four generations hence on these shores, that is a lament into the mirror of the map of that place. Africa.
Or, I can, as I sometimes do, look into my mother’s face. And seeing she has the high, proud nose of North Africa, I wonder about the where – the valley, the tribal name, the kinship and origins I will never know. That, too, is a lament.
Then, as I often do, I look into my poet’s soul to find there the route to self and personhood, both Black and female. That looking is not a lament but the greatest of joys.
My poems, my poetry are like mirrors reflecting back in great or subtle beams and shafts of light and words and images that are womanly and Black and brown and tan and full of the joy and pride in femaleness and in Black womanhood that I am.
My poems are great shouts of the joy that I feel and share; the deep passion that rocks and caresses and embraces me and all that is part of my world and my life. The laments for lost heritage are there; but, then, so are the feelings of having found a centre and a self-acceptance and an identity in this Black and woman’s skin that I so joyfully wear.
I wear it joyfully. I wear it big. I wear it womanly. And I wear it Black. Black. Black. As night, deep and soft and endless with no moon. Just black and perfect splendour in life and in being a woman in this world.
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