In the Black: My Life

In the Black: My Life

by B. Denham Jolly

ISBN: 9781770413788

Publisher ECW Press

Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Regional Canada, Biographies & Memoirs/Ethnic & National, Biographies & Memoirs/Memoirs, Business & Investing/Personal Finance

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Sample Chapter



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 an official 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 had 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.



As it turned out, the Empire would even be involved in my naming.

It was August 26, 1935, and my mother was lying in labour with her second child in an upstairs room in our house. Someone had already sent for the doctor, but he had not yet arrived, and my father was waiting nervously on the side of the road when a passing labourer told him that the newly appointed British governor was touring the Island; that afternoon, he was scheduled to drive through Industry Cove, our hamlet in Hanover Parish just north of the town of Green Island. My father, Benjamin Augustus Jolly, was already in his mid-fifties. He was far from a British loyalist. In fact, he was not really interested in politics at all, but for some reason, perhaps to kill time while he waited for news of my birth, he decided to look around for a Union Jack to fly from the flagpole near the road where the new governor would be passing. If nothing else, this simple act would kill another half an hour while he waited for the results of my mother's labour.

But this unpremeditated act had unintended consequences. When Sir Edward Brandis Denham drove by in his open car and spotted the flag, he ordered the driver to stop so he could get out and greet the person who'd raised it. Our region had a reputation for unrest among the interior sugar estate workers, and Sir Edward must have felt that this symbol of loyalty should not go unrewarded. My father was probably caught off guard by the governor's gesture, but they exchanged pleasantries.

Sir Edward was a moderately impressive man. A career imperial bureaucrat, he had served as governor of the Gambia and British Guiana before his Jamaican posting. He was known well enough in the Empire to have his own cigarette card in the Ardath Tobacco Company Empire Personalities series (he was card forty-nine of fifty; George VI was number one). I can't imagine that my father would have much to say to him, and I don't know if he mentioned that he was awaiting the birth of his second child, but after a few minutes, the governor headed on his way to Lucea, where he would meet with the officials of our parish. News of his visit was carried up to my mother, Ina Euphemia Jolly (née Arthurs), who was enduring a long labour. It obviously made an impression on her because when I was finally born later that day, she decided to name me after this chance meeting between her husband and the governor.

* * *

So I became Brandeis Denham Jolly. Three years later I became the only Brandeis Denham on the Island when the governor, whose administration continued to be plagued by strikes and uprisings by the sugar workers, died suddenly of a heart attack in the splendour of King's House in Kingston.

His last name, Denham, is remembered in Jamaica today mainly for Denham Town, a neighbourhood in west-central Kingston known as one of the city's most violent. But the Brandeis Denham Jolly name has served me well. It is unusual enough that people tend to remember me for it but it still also allows for more familiar variations, like Denny, which is what I was called when I was growing up in Jamaica in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and what many of my friends call me today.

* * *

There is no question that I had a happy childhood. Part of this might have been due to the position of my family at the time. My father's side of the family owned 300 acres of land in and around Green Island, which, despite its name, was not an island but a coastal town. And my father, who was twenty years older than my mother, was a local entrepreneur involved in all sorts of money-making ventures. At various times, he owned a grocery store, a bar, and a bakery with a hand-operated mill that made a locally famous hard dough bread, as well as buns and peg bread. He even owned a small fleet of bread vans, both mule drawn and motorized, that delivered to neighbouring districts. At various times, my father also ran a trucking enterprise, as well as growing coconuts, bananas, sugar cane, and other cash crops on our lands. We were never hungry and never had to stay home from school for lack of tuition money. We lived in a part of the country that didn't have electricity until the 1950s, so my father gained a bit of local notoriety when he purchased the first automobile in the area in the '40s.

He was proud of his business talent. He had made his own way in the world. He had begun his working life as a cooper at the Prospect Sugar Factory three miles away, making barrels for rum. He worked hard, saved, and invested. When I was young, people called him "Cappy" Jolly, short for "Capital," and I heard him several times reminding his employees, "But on payday I hold my hand like this," showing the giving gesture, "while you hold your hand like this," turning his palm up in the taking gesture. In his career advice to me, he said: "Don't work for anyone but yourself. And always own property."

For my father, these two principles suited both his talents and his nature, and they gave us a comfortable existence. Still, even as children, we were expected to work through the day. My brother and sisters and I were wakened at dawn every morning by my father, and we were expected to take care of the livestock and fetch water before going to school.

Those were, of course, much simpler times for everyone. Without electricity, light in the evening came from flickering coal-oil lamps. My father did have a battery-powered radio, but batteries were so scarce that it was rarely played. He turned it on only for the news and for international cricket matches. Music was played on our own instruments, especially the piano in the living room, which my mother played very well.

My mother made sure we were always well dressed, and my father had a kind of elegance in his person. His hobby was the gentleman's pursuit of racing horses. He had a stable with riding and racing horses, and he would go riding on our lands dressed like a country squire in jodhpurs, riding boots, and spurs. To feed them, he bought corn that he ground on the bakery hand mill. My older sister, Barbara, remembers that "Dada," as we called him, was always on his horse when he wasn't driving his car. On weekends, he would race his horses at the Fairfield race track in Montego Bay.

Although my father did not have a strong interest in politics, he did have a strong sense of community responsibility. The only well in the district was on his property, and he welcomed villagers onto our land for free access to our water. On major holidays, he would butcher a goat or a cow and put on a barbecue and invite the whole village. He was guided by the unspoken noblesse oblige, requiring those who had more to give more. That was the way things worked in Jamaica, and it helped even things out.

My mother was equally industrious and had a creative touch. She designed and produced women's hats and sold them locally. In the kitchen, she made excellent pastries. Along with playing piano in the parlour, she played the organ at the local Anglican church. (For a time I was an altar boy there, but it didn't last. I did not like being stuck inside on those sunny Sunday mornings.) My mother was a woman who believed strongly in education, and she pushed us to study. This was made easier because she rented rooms to two teachers at the school. Ms. Chambers and Mme. Lewellyn were wonderful women. They were like members of the family, and they often tutored us in their free time.

My mother, known as Miss Ina to most people, insisted we behave with proper decorum — no elbows on the table — and observe the basic rules of etiquette. She wanted to make sure that no doors would be closed to us. Meals were always a special time. Food was cooked in an outdoor kitchen, then brought to the pantry and placed into serving dishes. The table was always set with a white damask tablecloth, and we all sat down to eat as a family along with boarders and visitors, who were treated as family.

Perhaps most importantly, I learned from my mother that people are not, finally, judged by what they earn or by what position they attain, but by what they give to others. She was always ready to feed the hungry and ensure that the homeless had shelter, and she took in many people, especially children. She was enormously respected in our region, and in later years she was made a local justice of the peace.

We were also a close extended family. We visited my maternal grandmother, Dinah Richards, in Montego Bay several times a year; later, when I went to school there, I would live with her. My paternal grandmother, Angela McKenzie, lived just across the bay in a stoneand-wood two-story house, and when my mother was giving birth to the younger children, we older ones would stay with my grandmother for weeks on end.

* * *

Growing up in Industry Cove was a relatively carefree existence. We swam in the sea and fished from the jutting rocks along the shore and often cooked our catch on the beach on driftwood fires. We made slingshots with rubber cut from old tires and hunted birds with them. The local cricket field was on my father's extended lands, and we played endless hours of cricket using young sour oranges as balls and coconut boughs shaped into cricket bats. There were five children in our family, and most other families were of a similar size, so there were always plenty of kids around to play with, and many local and visiting teams came to play on our grounds, something my father welcomed.

In Hanover Parish, we were almost all Blacks, with a few Chinese families, a number of mixed race, and a few white kids. Growing up, we did not make a big deal of the differences between us (although Jamaica did have a complex racial system that I will describe later).

Along with her own children, my mother played a role in raising many other children of the parish. When families were in crisis, their children would mysteriously appear at our dinner table and some would stay with us for considerable lengths of time. She would mother them equally as her own, making sure that they ate properly, minded their manners, and did their homework. Over time, more than a dozen local children shared our family life with us. No fuss was ever made of this generosity on her part. In fact, it was never mentioned. It was simply what you did when you had enough — you shared with others.

Excerpted from "In the Black: My Life" by B. Denham Jolly. Copyright © 2013 by B. Denham Jolly. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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