Canada specializes in a kind of “underhanded racism”, which is “as Canadian as maple syrup”. This is displayed in B. Denham Jolly’s memoir, alongside the story of his life, from early days in Jamaica to his seventieth decade.
Life in Jamaica was racialized, too, but more openly and, for a child, intuited rather than considered. Jolly lived in Jamaica long enough to begin working there after finishing school, so he was of an age to clearly understand the divisions before he left the country.
He observed, for instance, the national beauty contest: Ten Types – One People.
The pageant awarded in ten categories:
Miss Ebony, black women
Miss Mahogany, women of cocoa-brown complexion
Miss Satinwood, women of coffee-and-milk complexion
Miss Allspice, part-Indian women
Miss Sandalwood, pure Indian women
Miss Golden Apple, women of peaches-and-cream complexion
Miss Jasmine, women of part-Chinese parentage
Miss Pomegranate, white-Mediterranean women
Miss Lotus, pure Chinese women
Miss Apple Blossom, women of European parentage
This kind of “papered-over unity” was evident in Canada, too. For instance, the public policies did not officially discriminate against specific groups but quietly, behind the scenes and off the books, manipulated situations to maintain a monochromatic hue.
“Of the 1.3 million people admitted to Canada in the first decade of the last century, only 900, or less than one tenth of one percent, were Black. Canada explained this discrepancy by suggesting that Blacks were not suited to the Canadian climate.”
More polite to suggest that people don’t wish to live here to begin with, rather than admit that anyone systemically declined their applications to do so.
Before leaving Jamaica, Jolly felt that Canada was an “unknown world of a country that was a complete mystery” and it took him some time to unravel the threads of racism which run through Canadian society.
He spent time in Toronto, Guelph, Truro and also Sault Ste. Marie, “at a time when diversity meant Italian or Swede or Finlander instead of pure British, and the Jim Crow that was in force in many places in the region was not for Blacks, of whom there were almost none, but for the Indigenous people, who made up a significant part of the population” (population-wise that observation pertained to his experiences in the Soo).
The divide between the indigenous people and the rest of Canadian society “seemed complete. On the streets of the town they seemed to be invisible, and if they tried to intrude into the white world, they would be roughly ejected. For me, it was another indication that the famous superficial “niceness” of Canadians hid a darker reality.”
He also refers to key historical events like the Birchtown Riots (the first race riots in North America) in 1782 but also to lesser-known events like the lunchcounter protest in Dresden, Ontario, where blacks were refused service. And he describes both community builders and activists like Violet (Williams) Blackman and Harry Gairety and Burnley Allan “Rocky” Jones.
Not only does he consider local and regional history but he situates the events globally as well, in sweeping statements.
“All during that summer, the desegregation battle was heating up in the American South, and a great wave of decolonization was sweeping across Africa with a stunning array of countries — Cameroon, Senegal, Togo, Mali, Madagascar, Somalia, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Central African Republic, Gabon, Nigeria, Mauritania, and both Congolese republics — all winning their independence in 1960.”
He outlines the shift from being part of a community which was perceived as threatening to one which was targeted outright, from white supremicist groups to police violence, from systematic discrimination to casual prejudices. The bulk of one chapter is devoted to a series of high-profile shootings and abuses of Black citizens and his personal experience of racialized intimidation and threats is also very revealing.
Alongside these challenges, Jolly discusses his shift from education to employment, his years of teaching at Forest Hill in Toronto to his growing involvement in the business community and eventual purchase of the newspaper Contrast.
“When I took over Contrast in April, 1983, I gave it a major overhaul that began with a bold black, yellow, and red sign outside its new storefront office on Bathurst Street just north of Bloor. By this time, Toronto’s Black population had increased to 300,000, and the paper had a readership of 30,000 and a subscriptions base of 12,000. I increased the size of the paper from sixteen to twenty-four pages to try to make its content relevant to more people and then invested $50,000 in computerized typesetting equipment.”
In 2001, he launched the radio station FLOW 93.5, which was significant from an entreprenurial but also a cultural perspective.
“Finally, there was a Black voice that reached the length and breadth of Toronto. Contrast had reached thousands in our community; FLOW 93.5 would reach hundreds of thousands, including many in the larger community who would finally get to know us not through their outmoded stereotypes but through our own voices.”
The discussion of his business ventures and developments in more recent years seems more detailed and specific than some of the earlier segments of the narrative. Even though Jolly clearly considers Canada his home, his memories of coming-of-age in Jamaica are vibrant. Memories of his early working years in Jamaica and his first years in Toronto, living at the boarding house on Manning while engaged in his studies, also resonate strongly. The latter parts of the book seem to have more acronyms than the kind of sensory details which bring his experiences off-the-page.
Nonetheless, overall In the Black is both inviting and informative. Jolly openly welcomes white readers who have not been required to learn about Black history in this country to learn from his experiences. In the process, there are no footnotes to slow the reader’s pace (also, no index, no bibliography – only a resume) and the narrative is spare and deliberate. It is an eminently readable account of one man’s life.