Thursday, 19 January 2017

Memoir provides an insightful look at entrepreneur's struggle against systemic discrimination

By Neil Armstrong

B. Denham Jolly              Photo credit: Fitzroy Facey

B. Denham Jolly, award-wining businessman, publisher, broadcaster and civil rights activist, has sold his radio station and nursing home business, admitting that, “It was time for stepping back but not at all for stepping out.”

After almost sixty years as a clerk, technician, teacher, businessman, publisher and broadcaster, he has other interests, plans to travel with his life companion, Janice Williams, and has even written a memoir.

His memoir, “In the Black: My Life,” is published by ECW Press and will be launched in Miss Lou’s Room at the Harbourfront Centre on February 11 as part of the 2017 Kuumba Black History Month celebration.

During the last week of December, I interviewed Jolly at his home in Toronto and started by asking him about the opening chapter which relates an encounter he had with the police a few years ago.

He is 81 and the incident happened when he was 77 years old resulting in him formally complaining to the Toronto Police Service.

“I’ve always said this from the 70s when Buddy Evans was shot. It’s not even fair to ask the police to investigate his colleague and it’s a farce. They could be best of buddies. How do you expect…? Not even that division, not even that force should investigate their own, given the thin blue line.”

Jolly’s first job out of Cornwall College in Jamaica was working at the West Indian Sugar Company plantation, Frome, in Westmoreland – “the microcosm of colonialism,” he calls it.

He says the whole colonial system from day one was abhorrent to him because “there was definitely something wrong with it.”

His job at Frome was to weigh the farmers’ sugarcane that came in to sell to the company.

“Not long after I got there, there was an edict which said instead of 12 hours a day, now you got to work 16 hours a day. And my colleague got an increase in salary and I didn’t get any. So I asked the boss and he took umbrage with it.”

I asked him about how he became so conscious about the colonial system and whether it had anything to do with his parents or Garveyites he met in Toronto.

“I wasn’t brought up that way. My father [Benjamin Augustus Jolly] was a very proud man too. He used to challenge authority so I had all that in me when I came here and saw the overt racism that was handed out here.”

Jolly soon left Jamaica in the mid-1950s to pursue postsecondary education at the Ontario Agricultural College (now University of Guelph), Truro, Nova Scotia (what is now Dalhousie University) and in Montreal, Quebec.

It was while living in Toronto that he learned about Marcus Garvey from a Jamaican woman, Violet Williams (later Violet Blackman) who ran a rooming house where he lived. He also learned more about Garvey from the Black community leader, Harry Gairey, who was an ardent Garveyite.

To counter the rampant racism of the time, in an effort to purchase of a house for his family (his wife, Carol; daughter, Nicole; and twins on their way: Kevin and Michael) in the early 1970s he had to enlist the support of allies from the Jewish community.

I asked him if he would advise Black Canadians to use this strategy now.

 “I know what appeals to them and yes, use that strategy because as I’ve also told them I know you more than you know yourself, to the white people. Strategic-wise, I’m always ahead of you because you’ve always never had to think about it for your survival…you always have to think ahead and use precedence to succeed.”

As someone who studied in Ontario, Nova Scotia and Quebec and lived in Sault Ste. Marie and Toronto, he learned a lot about Canada and how to deal with systemic discrimination.

“With all these geographical movements and what not I always paid attention to people’s reactions. It is a strange country, you have to learn it so I picked up on and observed and digested. And I saw what went on and it was clear to me what was going on. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out there are different treatments for different people. Even I myself noticed that in certain circumstances I was treated differently so I paid attention to that and learn from it,” he says.

Even when he was teaching in Toronto he had to take umbrage with his department head and let him know that he is not going to put up with that.

“I don’t care if I’m the highest guy in this department or the lowest guy in this department, if you have something to say to me don’t say it in front of anybody else. Speak to me privately. I just let him know where I stand.

“And as they’re wont to do which is make comments about black people in front of white people, they make comments about Indians in front of me.”


This came from a sense of fairness, a sense of fearlessness and a sense of pride that “it might not be me but you, you wouldn’t hesitate to do it to me so, in essence, it’s holding down my own base speaking to injustice wherever it occurs. It doesn’t have to be done to me. I have to speak for the voiceless if I have the power to do it. They can’t fire me; they have to listen to me,” he says.

For example, when the policeman who killed Buddy Evans was exonerated in an inquest, he was asked for a comment and said it was “a judicial abortion.”

His bank manager called him the next day to ask him about his remarks.

“And I say yeah it is, so I wasn’t afraid even of him. But to think that my bank manager would be commenting on my comments about a trial I think is telling. They expect you to shut up and if you’re not in your place they want to put you in your place. Who are you to be commenting about our judicial system? Well guess what, I pay taxes and it applies to me. I have a right to make it and I’m a citizen. This is why the first chance I got I took out my citizenship papers so then I’m speaking on equal ground with everybody else. In my mind and legally, I was no longer an immigrant. I was a citizen now so that gives me the right to speak up against civic matters. They don’t like to hear the truth; nothing hurt likes the truth. And they don’t like when someone points out the truth to them. They can’t attack you on the validity of your objection so they want to attack you on anything else, like your race or whatever.”

Back to that encounter he had with the police a few years ago, at the time he was living here for over 60 years, at least 55 of which was as a citizen.

After formally complaining, he saw the police officer’s notes where he was referred to as “this 77-year-old Jamaican immigrant” which Jolly says is “code word to say we just talking about a black man here; don’t worry about him. That’s code, I know them.”

He says the police have a way of discrediting a person by their status and are quick to dismiss poor people and those who protest.

“I felt it behooves me, no matter how many businesses I own, to object because when the police takes liberty with you they don’t ask you where you work, or if you’re a doctor or lawyer or whatever -- they do it by the colour of your skin. And as long as I am black I have to let them know that I don’t like that. They’re not going to ask you where you’re from when they card you, they’re not going to ask you how much a year you make when they card you, they just do it because you’re black. That’s the reason they’re stopping you in the first place so I don’t see myself any differently because I live in a certain part of town or because I hire so many people. I don’t see myself any differently from the black guy that’s pumping gas when it comes to that matter, when it comes to treatment by the police.”

Regarding his applications for a license to operate a radio station, Jolly does not think that his background as a publisher of the groundbreaking Black community newspaper, “Contrast,” helped or hindered his effort.

He says the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) “was full of politics” in regard to its decisions.

“They would never give me a license if I hadn’t cut in some of the established broadcasters in on the action. They wouldn’t have given it to me so part of it is working with them to a certain extent, give them some of what they want to get what you want…politics.

“They didn’t want to provide a voice for black people; they didn’t want that. That wasn’t one of their priorities although it says so in the Act but to them they didn’t see it that way.”

He says the Chair of the Commission the very first time it ever happened wrote a dissenting opinion that, “’hey, you guys should have given it to him because it was the most deserving application and it should have been granted 10 years ago and even today.’ It’s something that’s needed but they just see it as suppression, they didn’t buy into inclusion.”

After 12 years, three applications, and busloads of money, the CRTC finally granted Jolly and his team of Milestone Communications a license in 2000.

He was surprised and very pleased that his daughter, Nicole, who has a degree from the London School of Economics, applied for a position at Flow 93.5.

At the time, she had a good job for a consulting company that had an account with Ford Motor Company and travelled around the world to research consumer satisfaction in countries such as India, Macau, Ireland, Germany, England, United States.


Reflecting on Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO), Jolly says he is very pleased with their actions.

“I’m very happy but at the same time I’m disappointed that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I’m disappointed that they still have to and so I give them my unconditional support.”

A few months ago, he invited Sandy Hudson, a co-founder of the group, to his home to talk and offer encouragement.

“And again, as somebody who has gone through the ropes here, I wanted her to know that she had my support. Because you think back on the Dudley Lawses of the world, there were people in our community who objected to him. And they’re people in our community that object to Black Lives Matter and I wanted to let her know that, as what I think a substantial member of our community, that you have my 100% support, and in fact, here is a contribution.”

He told her: “Don’t let those among us who object influence you because you’re doing the right thing. They know why they’re objecting but it’s not a valid reason for you not to be forthright and do your work with vigour. I thought it was important for them to…when they were camping out at the police station I went over there to show them my support, to let them know that senior members of the community or well-intentioned support them. Because I’m sure they get a lot of flack from their own people for various reasons. And it’s important, especially in this case, where young people are coming out and young people of substance.

“I’m pleased that it’s this ilk that has come forward to say we’re well informed, we know what’s going on and we object to it. You can’t discredit us on being rabble-rousers or being rebels, we’re in your universities, and some of us have been through your universities so we’re authentic. And I agree with them 110%.”

These days, he’s preoccupied with trying to get his memoir published and is developing 200 acres of land in Jamaica for a hotel and resorts in the Negril area.

Jolly says he had help from Montreal writer, Peter McFarlane, Chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada, in putting the book together.

The writing process started with the help of his friend, veteran journalist and broadcaster, Fil Fraser, who eventually moved away from Ontario.

It then continued with historian Dr. Sheldon Taylor and was placed on ice for while before the writing continued with McFarlane.

Once a month, McFarlane would come to Toronto and they would sit down for hours and talk over a period of 18 months. He would clarify sections from the last session and they would go over things in the manuscript.

“I’m kinda pleased with it. I’m not sure if people have any interest in my life but..,” he laughs.

“In the Black: My Life” will be launched at Miss Lou’s Room, Harbourfront Centre on February 11, 7:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m. The cost of the book is $29.95 U.S./CDN.

I asked him about the significance of February 11 because his mother, Ina Euphemia Jolly, passed away on that date in 1990 – 27 years after her husband died in 1963 – and Nelson Mandela was released on that date, 27 years after imprisonment. The book launch will take place 27 years after his mother’s passing.

There is no particular significance to him in the choice of the date for the launch. In fact, it was storyteller and bookstore owner, Itah Sadu, who suggested the date.

“My mother passed away on the night that Mandela was released because we were in the village and at that time I guess there weren’t a lot of TVs so a lot of people came over to watch it. They said that -- I wasn’t there -- they said that she got up and touched the screen when he appeared and then the next morning she had passed. But she was for justice too, in fact she was a justice of peace in that area and tried cases in family court and believed in true justice.

“I was told that at the local courthouse a judge sentenced a young woman to jail and she got dressed and went down there and made an immediate appeal to the judge. And said, this woman has young children, you can’t send her away from her children at this stage. And I think he considered it. She was just that kind of person. She was the only one that would grant bail to people after midnight. The police knew that that was the only place they could go to get someone that was jailed to be released after midnight. She would get up and grant them bail so she was a just person. She believed in justice for all.”

The founding president of the Black Business and Professional Association looked after his mother, Ms. Ina, until her death.  She stayed in her house until she passed away and had housekeepers, nurses, and he brought her to Canada for surgeries.

“She was well looked after. I’m happy that I could do it,” he says.

“In the Black: My Life” is a well-written memoir with accessible language that sheds much light on Jolly’s journey but also documents the fight of many Black Canadians against anti-Black racism and systemic discrimination in this country.

It is well worth reading and should be shared with many others.

(Tiki Mercury-Clarke, who is mentioned in the book in a section about Contrast newspaper, as “the singer-songwriter-composer and cultural historian” will present “Toronto Black Then” – a ‘musical storytelling about growing up in Toronto Black-in-the-day’ on Feb. 4, 7:00 p.m.-8:30 p.m. at Kuumba in Miss Lou’s Room at the Harbourfront Centre.)

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