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Jael Ealey Richardson’s lessons in history

In the December issue of Q&Q, first-time author Jael Ealey Richardson speaks about discovering her own identity while in search of her legendary father’s past

(photos: Thomas Allen Publishers)

For years, there were two people author Jael Ealey Richardson wanted to know a lot better. One was her father, Chuck Ealey, the Canadian football star who led the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to Grey Cup victory in 1972. The other was herself.

In Toronto – and especially in Toledo, Ohio, where her father’s football exploits as a college quarterback are legendary – people regularly stopped him in the street to shake his hand. But for Richardson, her father’s sporting days were a mystery, just like his life in America, where he grew up black during the tumultuous civil rights era.

Equally acute was the conundrum of her own identity. “I wanted to understand why I never felt black enough,” she writes in her memoir, The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lessons, a Father’s Life (Thomas Allen Publishers).

At her Mississauga high school, Richardson was always ill at ease. She did not fit in with the bold Caribbean students; instead, she mostly hung out with the white kids, who gamely ignored her brown skin.

“In high school I was constantly watching things from a black/white perspective,” Richardson tells me over coffee. She is dressed fashionably in a black and white tied blouse, a mustard-coloured skirt, and a turquoise blazer. She has a pale tan complexion. Her black hair falls in soft rings.

“At school, I was always watching my black friends and watching my white friends, and evaluating when I felt black enough and when I didn’t,” she says.

The situation came to a head in the early 2000s, when Richardson was enrolled in the University of Guelph’s theatre program. One day in a class on playwriting – it was the start of her third year – the professor, ­Judith Thompson, told each student a word and asked them to say whatever came to mind.

“She put her hand on my back and said, ‘A well,’” Richardson recalls. “And just like that, the hurt and anger came pouring out. She said, ‘A well,’ and I said, ‘Dark, black, nothing, I’m nothing. I’m black. I’m evil. People say I’m black and I’m evil.’”

Richardson adds: “For the exercise, I remember, we were supposed to keep our eyes closed. But I opened mine and saw the other students were crying. Judith was crying, too. ‘You need to write about that,’ she said.”

In The Stone Thrower, Richardson heeds Thompson’s advice. The eloquent memoir traces the story of her father’s African-American past, which she uses to illuminate her own Canadian dilemma. What she hopes to gain, she writes, is “a clear understanding of my own family history, the facts that influenced the life I knew in Canada, starting with my father’s arrival … in the 1970s.”

In the book, Richardson, pregnant with her first child, accompanies her father to his high school reunion in Portsmouth, Ohio, where he grew up in the segregated projects with his divorced mother, Earline.

Richardson begins to piece together a chronicle of her father’s quiet determination. It’s tough going. She pushes him to divulge the racist trials of his past, to share the pain of growing up black and poor without a father. Some events, she realizes, he has forgotten, but others he shrouds in silence.

Richardson was astonished to learn from friends, for instance, that Chuck was one of three black students who integrated the local high school; that his oldest friends were almost exclusively white; that he staged a sit-in to protest the local all-white swimming pool. That once, when he danced with a white girl, his disapproving schoolmates cleared the floor.

The book itself is somewhat of a hodgepodge, resembling a journal or even a scrapbook containing a jumble of photographs, casual interviews, family stories, and beautifully imagined historical sequences. Throughout, Richards inserts journalistic reports of landmark civil rights cases that elaborate her father’s life and times.

“With The Stone Thrower I was using history in two ways,” she explains. “History as in books and research – as in what has happened in the past. And history, as in hyphenated: his-story.”

She continues: “I also didn’t know how my father’s story weaved through the story of the civil rights movement. So I had to research both, because to me timing is critical: not just what my dad did, but when he did it.”

Growing up in suburban Toronto, Richardson – who now lives in Brampton with her son and realtor husband – recalls a superficial curriculum of black history, featuring Martin Luther King and “I Have a Dream,” Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. That was about it.

“It was as though there was a book about history with a whole chapter that was missing, or with the pages scattered in a different place,” she says.

The Stone Thrower is Richardson’s attempt to fill in her spotty knowledge of the black past and, at the same time, erase her ignorance of her own family’s history. She admits she never intended to become a writer, never imagined she would produce a book on black experience. But after her beloved grandmother died in 1995 and her estranged grandfather passed away two years later, she became afraid of losing her connection to whatever limited blackness she felt.

It was not until her meltdown at university that she understood what she needed to do; how she might restore her history and address “the painful residue of slavery.”

“You should write about that,” her teacher had said. And that’s exactly what she did.

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