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Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady

Wayne Grady will be reading at the Charles W. Stockey Centre on Wednesday 17 June at 7:30 pm as part of Parry Sound Books 2015 Reading Series.

 Wayne Grady is a well-known translator and a writer of non-fiction, but it was his first novel Emancipation Day that caught my attention, and I was delighted when he accepted my invitation to present a reading in Parry Sound.

Emancipation Day tells the story of a young man and his struggle to accept his mixed race heritage. 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. That of course has completely changed, in the cities certainly, although as we know not so much in small towns. Windsor, where some of the story takes place, 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.

I don’t think anyone who has never experienced prejudice, because of colour, race or religion, can fully understand its impact on those who have. 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 Second World War gave Jack a way to leave Windsor, everyone simply assuming 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 is seduced by Jack’s good looks, his music and his charm. Vivian is from an affluent family, and despite the reservations of her family, Jack and Vivian become a couple. 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 the depth 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 to us.

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.”

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