NOT ALWAYS HAPPY IN CANADA BUT FOREVER JOLLY
In The Black: My Life
By B. Denham Jolly
An edited version of this review appeared in Huffington Post today
In the Black, a new autobiography by activist businessman and radio pioneer Denham Jolly, is going to have members of Toronto's white community seeing red. It might have Black Lives Matter soldiers taking names and making notes.
"To the white readers of this book, I have to stress that for Black people the basic and continuing infringements of our rights are not mere distractions. Canadians like to congratulate themselves over our diversity, but … " Denham Jolly told me when we talked about his early days in Toronto. Quoting from his just published book, he explains that discriminatory policing (from carding to driving while Black) "remain part of our day-to-day life and cast a long shadow over it."
From time-to-time over the past four decades, Jolly and I have crossed paths. He doesn't remember me, but I will never forget him. Handsome. Imposing. Strongly Opinionated (he writes that Toronto Mayor John Tory should be impeached for going back on his campaign promise to the Black community to end carding in the city). When we first met I was on a Joe job that took me to FLOW FM, (his radio station – Canada’s first Black owned radio station)to pick up a donation for the Caribana festival. Before my coat was off, or had taken a seat, he told me what was wrong with the annual street parade and what should be done to fix it.
I can't recall his exact words but I am sure it had something to do with how Canada's establishment was "fucking over" the volunteer driven Canadian Caribbean street extravaganza. "Tons of cash is handed over to the Art Gallery of Ontario and to the National Ballet, which generates 1/84th the amount of economic activity that Caribana brings to the city (of Toronto). But government support to Caribana continues to be minuscule compared to what is given to the National Ballet. It (Caribana) is the greatest cultural event in the city."
I have supplied PR support to North America's premiere Carnival festival on and off for almost 20 years and his Toronto radio station FLOW - Canada's first urban (industry term for Black) station - had pledged to the Canadian Radio and Television Commission when he got his first broadcast license, that he would support Caribana and other worthy community events. He was true to his words for as long as he owned FLOW.
Other encounters? Now and then I’d pick up celebs staying around the city, including his Days Inn Hotel, and escort them to FLOW. Carnival performers, Caribbean chefs and Black authors – there was an endless line of famous people wanting to be interviewed by on-air staff including talent show host Farley Flex and CP24 anchor Nathan Downer.
I lived a couple blocks from him in Cabbagetown and often saw him on the street. I guess if he hadn't sold them off, I might one day soon end up staying in one of his nursing homes.
" I am not a literary man, I couldn't have written this book without the help of journalist Peter MacFarlane," he told me. " I think of myself as a serial entrepreneur and this book is very much about business ... my business."
Jolly is a highly successful man. Born in Jamaica he came to Canada 60 years ago to study at Guelph's College of Agriculture. He went on to study at the Truro Agriculture School and finally Montreal's McGill University. He felt, and with justification, that there were more opportunities and less cultural striation in Canada in the Fifties than in colonial Jamaica.
When he graduated from McGill the government told him he had to leave when his student visa expired. He returned to Jamaica to do research on the ackee plant and to save enough money to apply to immigrate back to Canada! His triumphant return to the Great White North only happened after a chance encounter with a Canadian High Commission employee at a Jamaican rum party!
One of his first jobs in Toronto was teaching high school by day in the poshest part of town (Forest Hill), and managing his just acquired boarding house at night in a not so posh ‘hood’. He acquired property, lived frugally and his fortunes grew!
He moved briefly to Sault St Marie to teach science. In the Soo he met a young white nurse, moved back to Toronto with her and married. Jolly continued to acquire rooming houses. He also branched out into nursing homes and medical testing facilities.
He modernized the business of nursing homes not just in Toronto and Mississauga, but in Texas as well. Jolly soon also became the publisher of the iconic, but now closed, Black Contrast Newspaper.
Almost everything he touched did well, except for his brief career as a Fuller Brush salesman ("I ended up with a closet full of brushes"). He even owned an ill-fated Caribbean sailing ship - the not so Jolly Dolphin.
His burning desire to own a radio station that would play Black music and be the voice of the Caribbean Canadian people was a 12-year chunk of his life. He blames political interference and white privilege for the setbacks he had to overcome before FLOW went on the air back in 2001.
According to In The Black, Liberal politicians were publically supportive of Jolly’s radio station dream, but behind closed doors worked against him to help the CBC and other stations get the licenses he sought. "Liberal politicians are dishonest, they told me I was going to get a license but gave it away to a country and western radio station," explained to me. "Campaign left and rule to the right – they made Mulroney look good"
His business smarts came from his Father Cappy (short for Capital) Jolly. Cappy gave his son Duddy-Kravitz-like advice which he follows to this day - "Don't work for anyone but yourself. And buy property."
The book is frustrating in that Cappy plays only a minor role in this story. We don't know much more about Cappy, nor his four sisters and brothers, nor his wife Carol, their daughter Nicole and twin sons Michael and Kevin. His divorce is a single paragraph and there is scant reference to Janice Williams, the new love of his life.
B. Denham Jolly
Odd for a very private man involved in the communication business to say so little about himself in this - his self titled life's story. It is an autobiography where I suspect the author has kept out all the juicy parts of his 80+ years on the planet. We never learn what is beyond his passion for the world of business. The curtain is only lifted when Jolly talks about issues of race and equality in Toronto and the people he fought the good fight with - former Minister of State Jean Augustine, Violet Blackman, Caribana’s Charles Roach and Dudley Laws.
It makes for interesting reading to see just how many activist causes Jolly dipped his toes in. He started the Black Business and Professional Association and was a vocal member of a seemingly endless string of action groups and committees.
He talks about demonstrating against the police when a mentally disturbed Black man, Lester Donaldson is shot by an officer in a Toronto rooming house. “After the demonstration, a number of us, including Charlie Roach and Jean Augustine, went to a meeting called by Dudley Laws to launch a new organization, the Black Action Defense Committee.”
“BADC,” he writes, “was formed to fight against this sort of police killing. I was named with fifteen others as part of the founding group, but in this case the moving force really was Dudley Laws.”
“ Sure, there probably is a file with my name on it,” said Jolly when I asked if the police investigated him as much as they did Dudley Laws. “In 1991 the police were clearly obsessed with nailing the hides of uppity Blacks to the wall.”
“BADC marched to the US Consulate on University Avenue (in Toronto) to underline that you could find the same brutality against Blacks in Canada that we had seen in the U.S.”
As time passed Jolly’s time was spent more in keeping his radio station socially responsible than in marching in the street. He was named to the YMCA and the Toronto International Film Festival and he was cited for his cultural contributions when he won the Black Media Pioneer Award and the African Canadian Lifetime Achievement Award.