The best book I’ve read so far this year is winner of the 2017 Toronto Book Award.
In the Black: My Life is by B Denham Jolly. At nearly 80 years of age, it is his first book and what a fantastic book it is. Jolly came to Canada from a rural town in Jamaica in the mid-1950s. He came to study agriculture and science, first in Toronto, then in Guelph, then in Truro, NS, and finally at McGill. Still, he considered Toronto, where he now lives, his home.
Racist reaction toward him grew with the growth of the Black population in the country, and frankly with his increased success and wealth in his life.
The book begins with this paragraph: “When you are Black in Canada, the arrival of the police on the scene is not always, or even often, reassuring.” After 5 decades in Canada, this was how he prefaced a cop’s response to him having had a minor car accident in Toronto’s Cabbagetown in 2013. It had been a mere fender-bender; but a cop came to the scene and ordered Jolly to call a tow truck and get his car towed. Jolly “very politely” assured the policeman it was a minor dent and he could drive it to a garage. The cop then “escalated” in his response. “What do I have to do to make sure you do, put a gun in your face?”
Terrified and angered by the cop’s viciousness — Jolly called a tow truck, and then launched a complaint with Toronto Police. At first the department excused the officer, saying he was already in trouble for losing his cool. Jolly found out this was untrue, just said to deter him. Jolly complained all the way up to the chief of police, (now Liberal Cabinet minister) Bill Blair. The police said they could not ‘substantiate’ the facts of Jolly’s complaint– meaning he lied. Then Jolly saw the police report which began with “The complainant, a seventy-seven-year-old Jamaican immigrant…”. Jolly had lived in Canada for 55 years, but he understood, in his words, “Who would believe a Jamaican immigrant?”
The book soars. He writes about the Black Action Defence Committee, The Coalition of Visible Minority Women, Dudley Laws, Charlie Roach and the murders of dozens of young blacks by the police — and how the police managed to be exonerated every time. He writes about the nearly 8 year battle Dudley Laws had to fight as he was entrapped by the Toronto Police, the RCMP and the US border police who laid charges that he was smuggling immigrants. The fight to have the charges dropped and clear his name, cost Laws between half a million and one million dollars (in 1998). In one whole chapter he names the names of the young black men killed, what happened to them and the policemen who had the charges against them dropped. That was the most staggering chapter.
I think I passed by Mr Jolly a few times. He used to teach at the posh Forest Hill Collegiate in Toronto, where I went to high school (I was expelled in Gr XIII but that’s another story). I was not in the science stream, everyone was ‘streamed’ in those days, but some of my friends who wanted to go into medicine or dentistry had him for biology, I remember. I wish I could have known him — maybe I still can. Weary of the racism of education bureaucrats, he became an entrepreneur and, for more than a decade in the 1990s, owned the first Black music station in Toronto, the Flow 93.5. It featured hip-hop, R&B and even helped give Drake a start. When he and some investors went for help to his local MP, the MP put his feet up on his desk and the Black businessmen were forced to talk to the soles of his white man’s shoes.
Read this spell-binding, racially-infused account of the last 55 years of Canada forms an autobiography that resists and does not mince words. It’s in the Halifax Public Library, or you can buy it.
More about Jolly: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denham_Jolly