Thursday, 19 October 2017

Jamaican-Canadian's Memoir Wins Toronto Book Award

By Neil Armstrong

B. Denham Jolly, author of "In the Black: My Life."                       Photo credit: Fitzroy Facey

Jamaican-Canadian businessman, philanthropist and author, B. Denham Jolly is the winner of the 2017 Toronto Book Awards for his memoir, “In the Black: My Life,” published by ECW Press.

Presented at the Toronto Reference Library on October 12, the Toronto Book Awards, established by the Toronto City Council in 1974, honour authors of books of literary or artistic merit that are evocative of Toronto.

The annual awards offer $15,000 in prize money: finalists receive $1,000 and the winning author is awarded $10,000.

“It is absolutely incredulous and unexpected. I feel this is a community win not only because my story is a Black /Jamaican story but because it shines a bright light on it,” said Jolly.

The other finalists were: "I Hear She's a Real Bitch," a memoir by Jen Agg published by Doubleday Canada; Catherine Hernandez's novel, "Scarborough," published by Arsenal Pulp Press; "Life on the Ground Floor," a memoir by James Maskalyk published by Doubleday Canada; and "Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer" edited by Jane Farrow, John Lorinc, et al., published by Coach House Books. They were shortlisted from a long list of sixty-one books.

“Black rights activist and entrepreneur Denham Jolly should be a household name. With humour and colourful anecdotes, In the Black shines a light on many of the hurdles faced by immigrants trying to make a better life for themselves and their children. From politicians to community leaders, no punches are pulled as Jolly recounts the hurdles that littered his path to business, personal, and community success. In the Black recounts Jolly’s journey from a happy boyhood in Jamaica to business success in Toronto publishing Contrast and founding FLOW 93.5, Canada’s first Black-owned radio station,” said the judges.

This year's Toronto Book Awards Committee was comprised of volunteer members Steven Andrews, Cherie Dimaline, Dwayne Morgan, Martha Sharpe and Dianah Smith.

"This year, the Toronto Book Awards captivate us with intensely personal stories that reveal how Toronto's diversity is embodied through its residents," said Mayor John Tory at the announcement of the finalists in August. "It is also notable that three of the authors were recognized as finalists with their debut book."

“Once again we are amazed at the quality of work being done by local writers and the variety of points of view that the finalists represent," said Vickery Bowles, city librarian. "How lucky we are to live in such a vibrant city full of so much talent.”

Jolly, an award-wining businessman, civil rights activist, and former publisher and broadcaster, has sold his popular radio station, Flow 93.5, and nursing home business.

These days his major interest is in developing 200 acres of beach land that he owns in Negril, Westmoreland into a hotel and resorts.

After almost sixty years as a clerk, technician, teacher, businessman, publisher and broadcaster, he also plans to travel with his life companion, Janice Williams.

The memoir traces the struggle of this 81-year-old Jamaican Canadian to succeed in the face of anti-black racism in Canada.

Jolly, who was born in Industry Cove, Hanover and named after a British governor of Jamaica, came to Canada in the mid-1950s to study at the Ontario Agricultural College (now University of Guelph) and continued his education in Truro, Nova Scotia and Montreal, Quebec.

His first job out of Cornwall College was working at the West Indian Sugar Company plantation, Frome, in Westmoreland, which he considered the microcosm of colonialism.

The whole colonial system was abhorrent to him and as a result he spoke out whenever he perceived any form of inequity, even at his first job in Jamaica and subsequent ones in Canada.

“My father 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.”

Early in life, his father, Benjamin Augustus Jolly, who operated various businesses, told him – “Don’t work for anyone but yourself. And always own property.”

His mother, Ina Euphemia Jolly, a justice of peace, made sure that he and his siblings knew the value of helping others.

In Canada, he countered discrimination by enlisting the support of white allies when he wanted to buy a house for his growing family – wife, Carol; toddler daughter, Nicole; and the arrival of twins, Michael and Kevin.

“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.”

Alongside community activists like Bromley Armstrong, Al Hamilton, Charles Roach, Jean Augustine and Dudley Laws, he would protest publicly the police killings of black people such as Buddy Evans, Albert Johnson, Lester Donaldson, Sophia Cook and others, starting in the 1970s to now.

His speaking out came from a sense of fairness, fearlessness, and pride.

“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.”

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

 “In the Black: My Life” opens with an encounter that he had with a police officer over a fender bender involving his car a few years ago.

At the time, he was living here for over 60 years, at least 55 of which was as a citizen, but the police report referred to him as “a seventy-seven-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.”

Jolly is the founding president of the Black Business and Professional Association and a former publisher of the groundbreaking Black newspaper, Contrast.

[This story was published in the NA Weekly Gleaner, Oct. 19-25, 2017.]

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