February marks the release of In the Black by B. Denham Jolly. This is his remarkable memoir about achieving prosperity in the face of relentless prejudice. This title is available for pre-order now, so you can make sure it arrives as soon as possible.
Be among the first to read the opening chapter of this captivating memoir and let us know what you think in the comments below, or engage with us @ecwpress
When you are Black in Canada, the arrival of the police on the scene is not always, or even often, reassuring.
Three years ago, on Parliament Street in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood, not far from where I live, I had a fender bender. I was exchanging insurance information with the other driver when a police officer came to take charge of the situation. There was nothing really for him to do, but he told me that I should call a tow truck to get my car towed away.
I told him, very politely, that it wasn’t a problem. The car was only dented, and I could easily drive it to a garage. But he insisted.
When I balked, he immediately escalated. “You have to get a tow truck,” he said.
I found this incomprehensible — towing a car away when it only had a dent. But the officer looked at me contemptuously.
“What do I have to do to make sure you do, put a gun in your face?”
For a moment, I could not believe my ears. A threat like that, made almost casually on a busy Toronto street. I was in my late seventies and my first thought was, what if I had been a Black kid in his twenties? Would he have threatened to draw his gun or have simply done so? Far too often in Toronto’s recent history that had been the case, and dozens of Black kids had been killed that way.
That thought angered me, but I was not seeking a confrontation. I said nothing. I called the tow truck.
But I did not want to let the matter pass. I filed a complaint with the department. I made it clear that I wasn’t asking that the officer be fired but that he receive some kind of counselling to address his threatening behaviour before someone was hurt.
At first, the department brushed aside my complaint with the excuse that the officer was already in trouble for other indiscretions and he was about to be charged. This turned out to be untrue. I pursued my case as far as I could, but it was clear the Toronto police department wasn’t interested in dealing with it. I complained and appealed all the way to the chief of police, Bill Blair.
The department’s investigation showed that the officer had his body speaker turned off during the confrontation. They believed him when he denied saying those words. The verdict was clear. “We can’t substantiate your claim.” End of story.
I did get to see the police report, however, and the opening phrase told me everything I needed to know about what was behind the incident. The report began with, “The complainant, a seventy-seven-year-old Jamaican immigrant . . .”
At the time, I had lived in Canada more than fifty-five years, longer than the officer had been alive, and I had been a citizen for almost fifty years. If I had been a white man, my origins would have been irrelevant. But a Black man, by definition, had to be identified as the “other,” not as someone who has been a Canadian for half a century. I was forever a “Jamaican immigrant.” That is why he could threaten to put a gun in my face and then lie about it.
Who would believe a Jamaican immigrant?
Part of my story is about Canada’s uncomfortable struggle with Blackness, which I experienced that day on Parliament Street and on thousands of other occasions. This is a reality in Canada. Even though the first Black in Canada, Mathieu da Costa, arrived with Samuel de Champlain in 1603, Blacks were prevented from settling in Canada in any great numbers until well into the 1970s and that legacy of exclusion continues today.
I arrived on a student visa two decades before the immigration gates were opened to any degree. I am today, even though I visit Jamaica often, thoroughly Canadian. But I hope I will not disappoint my white Canadian friends, of which I am happy to have many, when I say I am not one of those who unrelentingly sing the praises of my adopted country. Despite meeting many nice people, I discovered when I arrived in Canada that it was an unapologetically and insistently white country with a tiny Black minority kept at a fairly steady .02% of the population and largely assigned to jobs as domestics (for women) and railway porters (for men). Things have improved, of course, and the fight to make a better Canada is part of the story I am telling here, but Canada still has a distance to go before it lives up to its ideals.
This is a story of progress made, as well as the challenges remaining. My journey is the journey of a Jamaican who left his country at the age of twenty and who has been part of the evolution in Canada since 1955. Now, as I have entered my eightieth year, I would like to lay down a record of my personal experiences and recount something of the Black struggle in Canada in the last half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. Along the way, I would like to introduce readers, Black and white, to some remarkable women and men that I have had the privilege of knowing and often fighting alongside over the past many decades. These Black Canadians are important for our people to know because they are part of our inspiring legacy in this country. They are important for white people to know because they worked, often in opposition to governments and enforcement bodies, to make Canada a better, more just country. This is an opportunity for you to get to know them, and for the white reader to better get to know Black Canada.
This, I believe, is essential if we are truly to build a harmonious society together. You’ll notice, though, that I do not say “get to know each other.” Because the fact is, we Black Canadians already know white Canada very well. We have to. We know you the same way that the hare knows the lion, from following its every move. And for the same reason. Because in certain circumstances, you can be dangerous to us. My hope is that when you, the white reader, let yourself know us in a more profound way, you will become a little more human and a little less the lion in your dealings with us.
So I welcome all of you, Black and white and all my brothers and sisters of other races, to accompany me on my journey into our collective past. My story is largely a Canadian one because it is in Canada where I built a life, first as a student, then as a high school teacher, and finally as a businessman and media owner and activist. But it begins in a little village in Hanover Parish in Jamaica at a time when Britannia still ruled the waves and most of our small blue planet.