Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady
I don’t think anyone who has never experienced prejudice, because of colour, race or religion, can understand its impact on those who have.
Wayne Grady’s book Emancipation Day is the story of a young man and his struggle to accept his mixed race heritage. It seems doubtful that he ever will, but we hope that as he matures he will understand that honesty is the best gift he can give his own children.
The story is told by William Henry, his son Jackson “Jack”, and Vivian the young woman who becomes Jack’s wife. Jack is born in 1925 and the novel spans the years from his birth until the early 1950’s, when Jack’s own son is s young boy.
Life in Canada in the 1950’s was pretty “lily white”, the nickname Jack gives Vivian when they first meet. Perhaps not in Windsor, where Jack grew up, but in most of the rest of Canada there were very few “people of colour”. That of course has completely changed, in the cities certainly, although as we know not so much in small towns. Windsor, and Detroit just across the river, were cities divided by race. Race determined what jobs you held, where you shopped and ate, where you sat in the cinema, what neigbourhood you lived in, what hospital you were admitted to.
Jack Lewis, a coloured man who could easily pass as white, wanted to be part of the white world, and so denied his heritage, his parents – and ultimately his own happiness.
The people in Jack’s life, his parents and siblings, and later Vivian and her family were never really allowed to pierce the armour that Jack constructed around himself – his fierce protective shell, his refusal to admit even to himself that he was a light skinned black man.
The Second World War came along and gave Jack a way to leave Windsor, enlisting – his white skin leading all to simply assume that he is a “white” man. Jack becomes a member of the Navy band, and when stationed in St. John’s, Newfoundland he also plays in the military club where the local girls come to serve tea and dance. Vivian, a “girl from Ferryland down the South Shore” is seduced by Jack’s good looks, his music and his charm. Vivian is from an affluent family, her father a trader of goods around the world, her married sister living in a lovely home in the city. There’s a military base down at Quidi Vidi Lake and St. John’s is awash with sailors.
Jack and Vivian become a couple, despite the reservations of her family, and when the war comes to an end, they marry, and head west. Jack is to be de-mobbed in Toronto, and they will visit Jack’s family in Windsor. How Jack can imagine that his heritage will not be obvious is an example of his own denial.
Emancipation Day, the first Sunday in August, the anniversary of the end of slavery in the British Empire, is celebrated in Windsor with a day of picnics and fireworks in the park. We experience the Emancipation Day celebrations a number of times in the novel as the days of Jack’s youth are revealed.
When I did a little research I discovered that Wayne Grady grew up much as we imagine Jack’s son does – and that the character of Jack is very much modeled on Wayne Grady’s own father – who was in the Air Force and did meet his wife in Newfoundland. In 1995, while browsing through the microfiche in the library in Windsor, looking for information about his ancestors, Wayne Grady was stunned to read that the heritage of his family members was listed as “African.” He had grown up believing the family had come from Ireland generations earlier, dropping the O from O’Grady.
Wayne Grady says his first thought was, “My father’s family – my family – was not from Ireland; we were from Africa. We were – we are – African Canadians. My second thought was: I have a book.”
I enjoyed reading Emancipation Day and wonder where Wayne Grady might go next with this story – will he be tempted to fictionalize the story of his own life, or even better tell the whole story of his life and that of his ancestors in a work of non-fiction? Somehow I very much doubt that he has finished with this story.