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Toronto Book Awards 2017: In the Black

September 11, 2017

The Word On The Street Toronto will be hosting the authors and editors of all five finalists for the 2017 Toronto Book Awards at this year’s festival on Sunday, September 24, at Harbourfront Centre. As a special treat, we’ll be posting reviews of the nominated books in the weeks leading up to the festival from a panel of writers, reviewers, and editors working in Toronto today.

Our next review is of In the Black: My Life by B. Denham Jolly, reviewed by Alvin Wong. Alvin, the second of five 2017 Toronto Book Awards reviewers, is a member of Inspiritus Press. B. Denham Jolly will be reading at The Word On the Street at Harbourfront Centre on September 24, from 1:30pm – 2:00pm and again from 4:00pm – 4:30pm at the Toronto Book Awards Tent. This year’s Toronto Book Awards will be awarded on October 12, 2017.

Even in the swing of Canada’s 150th anniversary, the country still has a long way to go in order to be a true nation of co-existing identities. This is no more apparent than in the beginning of Denham Jolly’s In the Black: My Life, a memoir that follows his life as a Jamaican immigrant, businessman, activist, and eventually founder of the urban music station Flow 93.5FM.

He opens with an incident involving a police officer regarding a minor accident in 2014. The officer tells Jolly to call a tow truck despite the car receiving a mere dent. When he brings up the damage being small, the officer threatens Jolly to obey his order for a tow truck. Jolly does and then files a complaint about the officer, prompting a small investigation. But due to lack of evidence, the case was swayed in favour of the officer who denied any threats toward Jolly.

These incidents about the realities of race in Canada pervade the book. Despite the façade of progress in race relations, there are many internal struggles that plague minority groups even today. In the Black is a strong depiction of that minority experience, and reminds us that in the fight against racial injustice, discrimination is more subtle than the frequent use of a slur.

On the whole, In the Black follows a typical memoir format. As it starts with Jolly’s birth in Jamaica, there are a handful of paragraphs about the country’s relations with Britain and how the former generated the prosperity of the latter by the sugar trade. It is a little slow to read this section but the historical connections are shed once the story focuses more on Jolly’s personal journey. With a focus on the attacks on Black youth by authorities, Jolly’s role as an activist becomes much more charged.

Throughout the book, Jolly’s narrative voice  is quite modest. While people important to Jolly’s life are spoken well of, the narration never acts too harsh either. This not only makes the narration readable but it also speaks to the mindset one must be in to face backdoor discrimination. It is with grace and composure that gets one around these situations.  Jolly’s voice was a joy to read through with the professional yet wry tone he uses in the book.

The language won’t offer much to explore other than what events actually happen but the voice is still charged with power. However, the story is told in a heavily linear format which can sometimes oversimplify the story, thus reducing the complex emotional impact of certain moments. That is not to say the language is completely bland. A memorable line comes as a metaphor of a Petri dish to the intensifying police attacks on Black youth:

“Toronto was turning into a petri dish of toxic relations, and relations between minority communities and the police were about to be seriously infected.”

There are a few of these scientific lines throughout the book and they make the prose stand out a little more from being just the flat memoir voice.

This tight narrative makes the events easy to follow in In the Black: My Life so the reader can easily identify with Jolly’s situation he’s faced with a country that is mostly against him. The modest voice invites the reader in and never loses its composure. What you get in this memoir is a well realized telling of the minority experience. Whether the reader is of the same ethnicity or not, the experience is realized in a way that any reader can relate to the struggle or easily understand what struggles a person of colour may face. It is this that we may hope to strive toward that multicultural identity Canada strives for each passing year.

For what newspaper was B. Denham Jolly the publisher?

Check out our website for the answer, and send the answer to to be entered into a draw to win a signed copy of In the Black: My Life by B. Denham Jolly!

Contest Rules

  • One entry per person.
  • An entrant’s name will be randomly drawn by The Word On The Street Staff.
  • Deadline to enter contest: September 17, 2017, 5:00pm.
  • Send in your answer to to enter.
  • Prize pack must either be picked up at the festival on September 24 OR at The Word On The Street office in Liberty Village (details on date and time TBD).

Keep an eye out for the rest of the Toronto Book Awards reviews, and more chances to enter.