Borders, battles, and blood: New memoir explores what it means to be Black in Canada
Posted February 11, 2024 1:34 pm.
Morgan Campbell is a journalist and broadcaster who often explores the intersection of sports, race, business, politics, and culture. His work has appeared in the Toronto Star, the New York Times, and the Literary Review of Canada. Now, he is turning the lens on himself in his debut memoir My Fighting Family: Borders and Bloodlines and the Battles that Made Us. It’s a book about family, race, and growing up in a country with as many definitions of being Black as there are Black people in it.
“There is no one Black experience,” Campbell said. “What we call the Black community, especially here in Toronto, is so multicultural that the [term] Black community doesn’t quite do it justice.”
“It’s a group of people who we have decided all fit on this range of phenotypes that goes from, say, Dwayne Johnson to Pascal Siakam and all the colours in between. We’ve said, ‘You guys are all one group.'”
In reality, Campbell argues what we call the Black community is made up of many smaller communities.
He sees himself as Canadian and American, as both sides of his family have strong roots on the South Side of Chicago.
“I’m Canadian enough to have drunk milk from clear plastic bags and to cheer for Ben Johnson to beat Carl Lewis [in the 1988 Olympics]. But I also felt very secure and rooted in my Black American background and history and culture and so I was sort of a border straddler. I was more in the middle of that spectrum, but with a foot firmly on each side, or both feet on each side whenever I felt like it,” he said.
“When people ask me, ‘Are you more Canadian or more American?’ I just say I’m both. That’s it.”
His grandfather, Claude Jones, was the first to make the trip north. He was a jazz musician recruited by promoters to play in Toronto where he eventually settled in 1966. Campbell was born a decade later.
“At first, he’s very reluctant to come to Canada because he thinks it’s far away. He thinks it’s too cold, even though he’s from Chicago,” Campbell said. “And I can tell you, between the two cities, Chicago is significantly colder than Toronto is, but he didn’t know that!”
“If my grandfather was not a musician, I don’t know that anyone else in my family would have thought to come to Canada,” he said.
His grandfather also taught him, if he wanted something, it wouldn’t be handed to him. Campbell tells the story of how Jones singlehandedly integrated his high school’s Reserve Officer Training Corps program, becoming the first Black student allowed to join. Of his grandfather, Campbell wrote:
“If you were Black and American and wanted something – anything – you would have to fight. Voting rights, a spot in the ROTC, a place to raise your kids. Freedom, sanity, breathing room. White people weren’t going to give you any of it. You’d have to fight to create it for yourself.”
By his own admission, Campbell was the worst-behaved student at his school. His mother warned him, things might have turned out much differently had his family not come to Canada.
“If we had stayed in Chicago and you had grown up there, or any big American city that’s segregated with underfunded public schools, because we didn’t have private school money, you might have wound up in real trouble because the teachers might not have had the patience, or even if they had the patience and the will, [they may not have had] the resources to go dig into the source of your problem.”
He would find his way through athletics, including a distinguished high school football career that would attract the attention of US colleges. He would later combine his love of sports and writing by pursuing a career in journalism.
Campbell, now in his mid-40s, is a parent himself. He says, like him, his daughter will have her own Black experience, unique to her.
“She’s a second-generation Canadian,” he said. “Both of her parents were born here, so that makes a huge difference, because the connection to the old country, whether it’s St. Lucia, where my wife’s family is from, or the United States, it’s not going to be as strong as our connection, as my wife’s connection to St. Lucia because she spent her childhood there or my connection to the U.S., but we still want to nurture those connections. And let her understand that she’s just not some free-floating being but she comes from specific people.”
My Fighting Family is a gripping family history that is at times humourous, touching, and provocative. And it has a lot to say about what we consider the Black experience in Canada.
My Fighting Family: Borders and Bloodlines and the Battles That Made Us is published by McClelland & Stewart. A book signing and Q-and-A event is set for February 12th at the Central branch of the Vancouver Public Library.